“Russian Lullaby” (1937)

Composed by Irving Berlin; arranged by Dave Rose.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra on December 23, 1937 for Victor in New York.

Bunny Berigan, first and solo trumpet; Steve Lipkins and Irving Goodman, trumpets; Sonny Lee (first) and Al George, trombones; Mike Doty, first alto saxophone; Joe Dixon, alto saxophone and solo clarinet; Georgie Auld, tenor saxophone; Clyde Rounds, tenor and baritone saxophones; Joe Lippman, piano; Tommy Morganelli, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; George Wettling, drums.

The Story:

The Berigan band closed at the Metropolitan Theater in Boston on December 15, 1937 having grossed $24,000 while they played there.(1) They then played a couple of dance dates in New England before moving on to the Valencia Ballroom in York, Pennsylvania, for a one-night dance engagement on Saturday December 18. The next night they were back at the Ritz Ballroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and then played one-nighters in New England on December 20–22. They returned home to New York on December 23, 1937, an exhausted but elated bunch. Their first big-time tour of theaters and ballrooms, lasting over two months, had been a resounding success.

On December 23, Bunny led his bandsmen into Victor’s Twenty-fourth Street studios in Manhattan. The last time they had been there was on October 7, before they went on tour, when they had recorded four forgettable pop tunes with vocals. This session began at 1:00 p.m., ran until 5:30, and produced five instrumentals, something that was virtually unheard of in the swing era. All of the performances are good, and a couple of them are more than that.

Bunny Berigan rehearses his band – early 1938. L-R back: drummer Dave Tough, bassist Hank Wayland, guitarist Tommy Morganelli; middle: trombonists Sonny Lee and Al George; trumpeters Irving Goodman and Steve Lipkins; front: saxophonists Georgie Auld (hidden behind Berigan), Joe Dixon, Mike Doty and Clyde Rounds. This photo and many others like it were taken in what I think was the rehearsal area of the Manhattan offices of Music Corporation of America (MCA), Berigan’s booking agent.(*)

Bunny Berigan’s first year as the leader of a big band had been very successful. He had worked hard, and followed the advice of his manager Arthur Michaud and his booking agent MCA, to the letter. His had built his band carefully, chair by chair. After July, there had been no personnel turnover. He had let the identity of the band evolve around his virtuoso trumpet playing and the arrangements of Joe Lippman, but he was also utilizing the arrangements of Dick Rose and Abe Osser, among others. The Berigan band was principally a hard-swinging unit, and although Bunny was most comfortable when the band was swinging away, he was also a nonpareil ballad player, as his renditions of “I Can’t Get Started”and “Trees” proved. His relationship with Victor Records through 1937 had been good. His Victor recordings were selling—not in huge numbers, but steadily, even though many of the sides he recorded for them were of substandard pop tunes foisted upon him by one of Victor’s A and R men (now called producers), Eli Oberstein. His band had proved itself to be quite capable of holding its own on a sponsored radio program over a period of more than six months, and on the stages of the largest theaters in the United States, being presented there as a part of a package of vaudeville entertainers. In ballrooms, the band was probably at its best, not being constrained by the needs of vaudeville theater or commercial radio. Also, the Berigan band had broadcast regularly on innumerable sustaining (unsponsored) broadcasts from many different venues in the eastern United States, building its reputation as one of the more exciting new bands then on the scene.

Photo of Metronome December 1937 front page, courtesy of Vince Giordano.

Last, but certainly not least, the Berigan band ended the year 1937 in the black. All of the weeks when Bunny was required to keep the band in the greater New York area to finish his commitment to the sponsored Fun in Swingtime Mutual network radio program had cost Berigan and his financial backers a lot of money. It was reported that Berigan’s debt at the beginning of his band’s first tour had reached $10,000 (multiply by fifteen to get the value in today’s dollars).(1)  The tour of theaters and ballrooms from mid-October to the Christmas holidays had been so financially successful that everybody had been paid back, with some money left over to carry the band into the new year. A handsome picture of Bunny Berigan playing his trumpet graced the cover of the December 1937 issue of Metronome magazine. Bunny had worked without letup through all of 1937, and many good things happened for him as a result. It had been a very good year.

In spite of all of this success, Berigan’s associates couldn’t help but wonder when the ticking time bomb within him might explode. His drinking had continued to increase throughout 1937. He now required great amounts of alcohol simply to get through each day. Despite this, he was seldom drunk. He had learned to be a functioning alcoholic.

In addition, his spasmodic relationship with chanteuse Lee Wiley continued. Their liaison tended to be in its “on” phase when Bunny was in New York. It was at these times that items in various newspaper gossip columns referring obliquely to them began to appear. This relationship was undoubtedly injurious to his less than successful marriage with Donna McArthur. Nevertheless, Bunny was in love with Lee Wiley.

The Berigan band performs on a CBS broadcast of Paul Whiteman’s Chesterfield radio show, February 11, 1938. L-R: drummer Dave Tough, Berigan, saxophonist Clyde Rounds,bassist Hank Wayland, saxophonist Mike Doty, guitarist Tommy Morganelli, saxophonist Joe Dixon, trombonist Sonny Lee, saxophonist Georgie Auld, and trumpeter Irving Goodman. (*)

Even though the Berigan band had achieved substantial success, certain limitations had been recognized as the band progressed through 1937. Bunny could not, or perhaps would not, conduct a show for the various vaudeville acts that appeared in theaters with his band. I do not think this was really a major drawback, because it would have been rather poor showmanship to have a featured performer entertain an audience for an hour or so, then remain onstage to conduct his band as they backed jugglers, dancers, or comedians. No other major bandleader conducted shows for the vaudeville acts that accompanied them in theaters.

Also, even though Bunny tried valiantly, he was usually not very good at onstage (or on-air) repartee. He was certainly never rude to audiences. He just said to them what he thought they needed to know at any given time, and that tended to be very little. And despite his memorable singing on his Victor recording of “I Can’t Get Started,” Bunny’s singing was rarely lauded by contemporary critics. Nevertheless, audiences enjoyed Bunny’s vocalizing. He wisely chose to sing only a few numbers each night, making it something of a special treat for his fans.

After the December 23 Victor recording session, Bunny hosted a party for all of the band members—and their wives and girlfriends. Saxophonist Clyde Rounds, in many ways Bunny’s Boswell in the 1937–1938 time period, remembered it well: 

Berigan and drummer George Wettling – strolling the sidewalks of New Yorksummer 1937.

We had a big Christmas party after that recording session and Bunny presented each member of the band with a watch, individually inscribed. Gail Reese got a traveling case, and he gave Donna a fur coat. We’d all clubbed together to buy Bunny a matching set of luggage. The day after Christmas, Bunny had called a rehearsal and (drummer) Rollo Laylan (2) put in another appearance, which really upset George Wettling, who went out during an intermission and had a few belts in a nearby bar. He stormed back into the studio full of Dutch courage, ordering Laylan to ‘get-the-hell-out-of-there’ and yelling at Bunny that he’d quit if Laylan wasn’t out in one minute!  It was all very awkward for Bunny and very embarrassing for the rest of us. In the end, I guess Bunny felt George had gone too far this time and let him leave the studio and the band.” (3)

Even though George Wettling was a fine drummer whom Bunny liked musically and personally, his work with the Berigan band (at least on records) seldom rose to thrilling heights. It seemed that he was very often trying to utilize various Dixieland devices that did not really fit with the strong swing orientation of the band. Although his playing did seem to get less busy the longer he was with the band, overall, his playing did not fit in too well with the musical concept of the rest of the Berigan ensemble. This may have been at the root of the sometimes violent disagreements between Wettling and the band’s chief arranger and pianist, Joe Lippman.

Bunny’s flirtation with the idea that Rollo Laylan would be a suitable replacement for Wettling did not last long. The band members disliked his playing, and referred to him as “Rudimental Rollo.”(4)  Bunny allowed Laylan to play with the band for only a short time, perhaps only a few days, while a number of other drummers were tried out. Indeed, several drummers likely worked with the band from the last week of 1937 through the first couple of weeks of 1938. The great drummer Dave Tough joined the Berigan band in mid-January. Nevertheless, for the rest of his career, Laylan’s resumé included the proud assertion that he had played with Bunny Berigan.

The music:

Irving Berlin was born Israel Baline on May 11, 1888, in the village of Tyumen, Russia to a Jewish family. Russia at the end of the Nineteenth Century was a scary place, especially if you were Jewish. His family fled to escape Russian persecution of the Jews and settled in New York City in the mid-1890s. As a teen, Baline worked as a street singer, and by 1906 he had become a singing waiter in Chinatown. His first published lyric was “Marie From Sunny Italy” in 1907,with Nick Nicholson writing the music. As the lyricist, Baline’s name was misspelled as “I. Berlin” on the sheet music. He decided to keep the name, which had a certain ring, becoming Irving Berlin.

A few years later, Berlin would become a lyricist for the music publishing company Waterson & Snyder. He released a major hit in 1911, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” earning the nickname “King of Tin Pan Alley.” After that, Berlin wrote both words and music. The rest, is history. (5)

One of the most touching and impressive songs in Irving Berlin’s oeuvre is “Russian Lullaby,” composed in 1927 and first performed by Douglas Stanbury at the opening of Samuel Rothafels’s opulent Roxy Theatre in New York on March 11th 1927. It became one of the most popular hits of that year and one of the most often performed songs of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Bunny Berigan played “Russian Lullaby” often while he was a member of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra in 1933.

Berigan’s recording of “Russian Lullaby,” as arranged by Dick Rose, was the fourth of five tunes recorded by the Bunny on the afternoon of December 23, 1937. The introduction, which suggests a Russian march, leads into the first chorus where the four saxophones set out the melody smoothly, with the open Berigan-led brass kicking them along. The brass then take the bridge, and the reeds finish the chorus. Georgie Auld takes a typically bouncing tenor solo; Joe Dixon follows on clarinet.

Then Berigan plays a fiery solo where in the last eight bars, he reaches an exciting climax by in effect dueling with the entire brass section. The gliding reeds then return, and Bunny’s excellent first trumpet playing carries this spirited performance to a satisfying close.

Another photo from the February 11, 1938 Whiteman-Chesterfield broadcast. Joe Dixon solos on clarinet. Note that Berigan is standing and playing with the brass. (*)

Since then “Russian Lullaby” has been recorded – often as an instrumental – by numerous artists. Jerry Garcia has introduced it to rock audiences. He learned “Russian Lullaby” from a recording by the Argentine jazz guitarist Oscar Aleman. It was included on his second solo-LP Compliments (Round RX 102, 1974), and became a staple of his live shows. He also recorded it with American mandolinist David Grisman in 1991 (David Grisman & Jerry Garcia, Acoustic Disc ACD 2). (6)

The recording presented in this post was digitally remastered and sonically restored by Mike Zirpolo.


(*) Photos with asterisk at the end of their captions are from the Otto F. Hess collection, copyright Music Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Used with permission.

(1) A feature article in the Milwaukee Journal, February 27, 1938, entitled “Boosting the Rabbit” detailed the costly buildup of the Berigan band and Berigan name. An article in Down Beat: December 1937, cited in the White materials: December 15, 1937 reported Berigan’s recent triumphs in major theaters while on tour.

(2) Drummer Rollo Laylan was an acquaintance of Berigan’s from the 1920s in Wisconsin. Due to George Wettling’s drinking, he had caused some problems for Bunny both musically and with other members of the band. Bunny’s way of dealing with the Wettling problem was to have Laylan available in case Wettling could not perform. As Clyde Rounds reported, this was awkward, and caused Wettling to quit, which may be what Berigan wanted. Unfortunately, Laylan could not swing the band, so Bunny never really hired him. In mid-January 1938, Dave Tough joined the Berigan band, and Bunny’s drummer problem was solved.

(3) White materials: December 23, 1937.

(4) White materials: January 1, 1938.

(5) https://www.biography.com/musician/irving-berlin

(6) https://hummingadifferenttune.blogspot.com/2015/05/a-land-thats-free-irving-berlins.html

One thought on ““Russian Lullaby” (1937)

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  1. I think many of us Berigan orchestra fans wish that there had been more studio dates like December 23, 1937, an all-instrumental feast. Though the band proved itself quite capable of making silk purses out of the many sows’ ears of songs foisted upon it, this hard-driving, jazz oriented outfit was at its best when it had something it could sink its teeth into, like “Russian Lullaby” — and particularly sans vocalist. My understanding is that Bunny’s band was given the lower-tier new numbers because all the best material was allotted to the likes of past Berigan employers, Goodman and Dorsey, both of whom had proven themselves to be reliable Victor hit makers. … Speaking strictly about Bunny’s work with his own orchestra, apart from the autobiographical ” I Can’t Get Started,” the instrumentals seem to be the clearest and truest representation of Bunny’s musical soul.

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