“Little Gate’s Special” (1939)

Composed and arranged by Ray Conniff.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Victor on March 15, 1939 in New York.

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Johnny Napton, first trumpet; Jake Koven and George Johnston, trumpets; Ray Conniff and Bob Jenney, trombones; Gus Bivona, first alto saxophone; Henry Saltman, alto saxophone; Don Lodice, tenor saxophone; Larry Walsh, tenor and baritone saxophones; Joe Bushkin, piano; Allan Reuss, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; Eddie Jenkins, drums.

The Story:

Berigan – early 1939.

In spite of the fact that Bunny Berigan’s reorganized band was playing very well in early 1939 (he had every reason to be quite happy with his new personnel), rumors, possibly started by his booking agency, Music Corporation of America (MCA), began to circulate that he would soon rejoin Benny Goodman, replacing Harry James, who had just left Goodman to start his own band, that would operate under the management of MCA. I wonder what Bunny thought when he started seeing or being informed about items like this in the trade press: “Rumored that Bunny Berigan may give up band and take Harry James’s place with Benny Goodman.” (1) Berigan had recently parted company with his personal manager Arthur Michaud because of Michaud’s numerous conflicts of interest, which had on more than one occasion placed Bunny and his band in bad (and costly) positions. He undoubtedly realized that the same was true with MCA, which seemed more and more to be relegating him to a minor league status. That was bad enough when Bunny’s in-house MCA competition was Gene Krupa. But Gene’s band was built around his drumming, so to some extent at least, the two bands were selling a slightly different swing product. Now, MCA was also using Harry James, whose hot trumpet calling card was the same as Bunny’s, to compete for the same gigs that the Berigan band had been getting in 1937 and 1938. There were only a finite number of good engagements for top grade big bands, and by 1939, those gigs were increasingly not going to Bunny Berigan.

Indeed, it seems that by early 1939, MCA had come to the conclusion that Berigan was now incapable of handling a lucrative one-week engagement at a major theater, playing four or five shows a day. (2) These gigs, grueling though they were, were lucrative, and they could result in some quick profits for a bandleader who was struggling with his overhead, as Berigan most certainly was during the early months of 1939. Evidently, MCA’s thinking that if he was drunk on a one-nighter, and either could not play well or at all (which rarely happened), then the damage would be relatively small. At a week-long or split-week theater engagement, the financial risks to MCA would be much greater. Since Bunny no longer had a personal manager to advocate on his behalf with MCA, (3) the agency simply booked his band as it saw fit. Consequently, Berigan and his band, no matter how good or bad, would henceforth be booked by MCA almost exclusively for one-nighters. In that way, MCA would continue to make money off of the band with relatively little risk for the agency.

Arthur Michaud and Berigan in happier times. Michaud’s conflicts of interest were very costly for Bunny and caused their relationship to end. Unfortunately, after he and Michaud parted, Bunny did not secure the services of another personal manager. This would prove disastrous for the business side of his career.

The inevitable adverse consequences that would flow from this business arrangement would fall squarely upon Berigan, and he probably understood this to some degree. Nevertheless, Bunny had repeatedly made it clear to his handlers at MCA that he was not going to give up his band. Bunny Berigan was a very stubborn/willful/tenacious person. So, MCA allowed him to play out the string with indifferent (at best) support from the agency, and no personal manager. It is likely that by early 1939 MCA’s operatives were making book on how long it would take before Bunny and/or his band would implode.

But that was in the future. In early 1939, the Berigan band was strong and Bunny himself was playing brilliantly. After a successful run at the Southland in Boston in early February, the Berigan band was once again scheduled to play a string of one-night engagements throughout the eastern United States. Probably because of the cold and snowy weather, a date in Charlottesville, Virginia (February 9) was cancelled. On the 10th and 11th, Bunny played at Virginia Polytech Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia. Vic Hauprich, who had been playing lead alto, became ill, and subs were used until a permanent replacement could be found. I am of the opinion that at this time, Gus Bivona, who had been a member of the Berigan band for six months, took over the first alto chair, in addition to continuing to play jazz on both alto saxophone and clarinet. Shortly after this, Henry Saltman joined the band playing alto. He may have played first alto at times, but Bivona undoubtedly played first alto at least some (and probably most) of the time. (4) 

The one-nighters continued: “February 12, Keith’s Ballroom, Baltimore; the 13th, Webster Hall, New York City; off on the 14th; the date at Berwick, Pennsylvania on the 15th, cancelled due to bad roads; 16th, Mealey’s Auditorium, Allentown, Pennsylvania.”(5). It was at this last gig that two men who would figure prominently in a later Berigan band would encounter him. George Quinty (lead alto sax with Berigan’s 1941-1942 band): “Don Palmer (who would become Bunny’s personal manager in July, 1941) and I drove up from Trenton to see Bunny on this date. Don was related to Bunny’s tenor sax soloist Don Lodice. I may have met Bunny very briefly at this time; I’m not sure.” (6)      

The next night, the Berigan band played at the prep school in Andover, Massachusetts. And so it went.

Drummer Eddie Jenkins.

Drummer Eddie Jenkins later recalled life on the road with the Berigan band during those weeks:

“On a night when the band was in rare form, Bunny would give most of the guys a chance to play a chorus and I think he often got more out of his men than maybe a strict disciplinarian like Glenn Miller might have. But it was in the realm of business organization that he took a beating. The agents exploited him to the full, as I’m sure did many of the ballroom operators. Since most of our dates were one-nighters, we barely had time to get checked into a hotel before we were leaving for the next job. So the only socializing would take place at a diner en route to the next engagement, usually in the small hours of the morning! Don Lodice and I often rode in the same car with road manager Jerry Johnson and his wife, singer Kitty Lane. We’d try to plug the cracks in the rear doors with old newspapers to keep out the cold drafts. We carried a portable phonograph balanced on our knees to lessen the vibration and listened to Count Basie records, especially ‘Blue and Sentimental’ with Herschel Evans’s fabulous tenor solo.” (7)

More one-nighters in New England followed until the band was informed that MCA had lined up a series of dates in the south, to commence on February 24, at Virginia Military Academy in Blacksburg, Virginia. This news was no doubt greeted by cheers of joy from the bedraggled and exhausted Berigan sidemen because it meant they would soon be leaving the frigid northern states and their ice-and-snow-covered roads, and heading into much warmer temperatures. From Virginia, the Berigan troupe headed further south, playing at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, on February 27–28; then to the Capitol Theater in Macon, Georgia on March 1 (a one-night engagement, from which they made one of their now rare radio broadcasts); the County Armory in Jacksonville, Florida on the 2nd; and at the University of Florida at Gainesville on the 3rd and 4th. On Sunday March 5, they arrived at Daytona Beach, and enjoyed a day off. According to Jenkins’s diary, some of the guys played golf and swam during the day, then went to nightclubs that evening.

Bunny clowning.

On Monday, March 6, they played at the Pier Casino in Daytona Beach. Despite the backbreaking traveling and work the Berigan band was doing, there was still a good deal of hilarity in the band, with Bunny contributing more than his share, often convulsing the sidemen with his humorous remarks delivered with an imitation of W. C. Fields. Gus Bivona was another clown, and he later recalled doing some “press agent” work for the band involving a lovely young lady reporter covering the Daytona Beach gig:

“That date was for the 5th Annual Junior Service League’s Ball and we were being pestered by a local gal reporter called Florence Pepper. Eventually, we got so fed up that we concocted a phony story that was 100% bullshit! We did it to get rid of her. Here is the story: ‘Bunny Berigan thinks jitterbugs are too noisy. The famed trumpet-leader likes sweet music and does some of his own arranging. Also arranging are Ray Conniff and Gus Bivona, members of the orchestra, and Joe Lippman, Andy Phillips and Jake Zarombie, New York arrangers. Berigan also composes numbers. His newest, yet to be published, is ‘Easy to Find and Hard to Lose.’ In collaboration with Bivona, he has written ‘Gus Bivona Blues.’  Bivona, a sax player in the orchestra, is a replica of William Powell (8) and plans to go to Hollywood to play a stand-in for the actor. An expert surfboard rider, he will be filmed in surfing sequences. Berigan’s wife and two infant daughters did not accompany him on this trip. They are vacationing in Canada.’ As Bivona was recounting this tale, he added: I’d never been on a surfboard in my life! I guess we really took that lady reporter for a ride! By the way, ‘Jake Zarombie’ was a name invented by Bunny, which he used as a gag or a brush-off, when somebody recognized him and he didn’t want to be disturbed.” (9)

Gus Bivona, one of the clowns in the early 1939 Berigan band. The trumpeter in the background is Johnny Napton.

At about this same time, Bunny’s real public relations department, probably an office boy at MCA’s New York office, produced a story that was designed to counteract the rumors that he would soon be disbanding. Here it is:

“Berigan’s going to join Goodman. That’s what the crowd was saying two months ago when Bunny let several of his men go. Others claimed Bunny was planning to organize a ‘chamber group’ and try something new in the way of swing trumpeting. But Bunny fooled us all. He went out and got new men and a new girl singer in the person of Kathleen Lane and now he’s back on the stand with a new band, which, in a few more weeks, Bunny and his men are convinced will be the best Berigan has ever assembled. The new combo includes 15 pieces: Gus Bivona, Vic Hauprich, Don Lodice and Larry Walsh, saxes; Bob Jenney and Ray Conniff, trombones; Johnny Napton, Jake Koven and George Johnston, trumpets; Hank Wayland, bass; Eddie Jenkins, drums; Andy Phillips, guitar; Joe Bushkin, piano; Miss Lane and Danny Richards, vocals and Joe Lippman and Andy Phillips, arrangers. Bunny, of course, makes it a 4-way trumpet section. Several factors point to the security of the band’s future. One is that it’s the most loyal gang Bunny’s had. Another is the presence of Wayland, Bushkin and Jenkins in the rhythm section. Wayland and Bushkin are proven men, but Jenkins, a youngster, is the man to watch. He’s young, but he is constantly improving and he plays good, solid drums. Don Lodice on tenor is about as good as Georgie Auld, but doesn’t have Georgie’s bite. Bivona’s clarineting is exciting and his alto work is excellent. ‘I’m tired of just making a living,’ Bunny said recently, ‘and I want the best band in the country.’ It looks as if he’s on his way.” (10)

The story was accompanied by a photo of Bunny and Bob Jenney, and is captioned “Berigan Fools All: New Band Despite Talk Is Best Yet.” This was not just press-agent puffery: this edition of the Berigan band was quickly coming into its own as one of the more powerful and swinging bands on the scene in early 1939.

The gig in Daytona Beach received some press coverage: “Bunny Berigan’s torrid tunes proved conclusively his right to the title, ‘Hottest Man in Town.’ Sparkling gaily-colored lights and a high revolving rainbow-hued ball trembled as the blasts from Bunny’s trumpet reached the ceiling and bounced back to tickle the toes of the dancers attired in the smartest and loveliest of evening gowns. True to his word that he had the loudest band extant, Bunny was aided by the pier’s peculiarly amplifying acoustics.” (11)

The Berigan bandsmen were booked to play the following day in Columbus, Georgia, but before they drove there from Daytona Beach, MCA notified them that the gig had been cancelled. Larry Walsh recalled this incident: “Bunny never seemed to worry about anything. We had that date at Daytona Beach and we were supposed to go from there to the Royal Theater in Columbus, Georgia, but for some reason or other that job was canceled. Bunny didn’t seem to care, so we took a vote and decided to have another day at the beach and get some sun.” (12) This small holiday, like all off days, reduced Bunny’s income, while the expense side of the ledger, principally his sidemen’s salaries, kept accruing. Off days were slowly putting Bunny in a deep hole financially. The band then moved to their next engagement at the City Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama, on March 8, followed by a gig at the Shrine Mosque in Atlanta, Georgia, on the 9th. Hank Wayland remembered that night well: “The place was packed to the doors when we arrived. Soon, nobody was dancing at all! They pulled their chairs across the dance floor and around the bandstand and we proceeded to play them a five-hour concert! The crowd acclaimed Bunny all the way for his outstanding playing that night.” (13)

The Berigan band’s southern tour was now about to end. They played on Friday–Saturday, March 10–11 at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, and then traveled back to New York. Hank Wayland recalled what was going on with the band’s personnel and schedule at that time: “Bunny phoned an old friend from Madison, Wisconsin, Doc DeHaven, to be prepared to join the band in New York, because Hank Saltman had tendered his two weeks notice. The band returned to New York that weekend and reassembled at the Jane Grey studios at 1:00 p.m. on the following Tuesday, March 14, to rehearse for a Victor recording date the next day.” (14)

In retrospect, we know that 1938 was the turning point in Bunny Berigan’s career and life. It was in 1938 that the business side of his career reached a plateau, and then began its decline. The waning of Berigan’s career was not precipitous, but it occurred somewhat ahead of the decline in his band, which happened as 1939 ended and 1940 began. In fact, Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra were a potent musical force throughout much of 1939. When Bunny and his musicians entered RCA Victor’s New York recording studio on the Ides of March 1939, they were prepared to demonstrate just how well they were then playing. This session commenced at 1:30 p.m. and ran for five and a half hours, to 7:00 p.m. Six masters were made during that time.

The Berigan band at a rehearsal at Hotel Sherman in Chicago, July-August 1939. L-R: standing: Andy Phillips, Danny Richards, Johnny Napton, Morty Stulmaker, Chuck DiMaggio, Larry Walsh, Robert “Little Gate” Walker, Don Lodice, unknown, Paul Collins; squatting/sitting: Jake Koven, Gus Bivona, Tommy Moore, Joe Bauer; lying: Joe Bushkin. Regardless of the financial difficulties Bunny and his band faced in 1939, they were generally happy, and made good music.

The music:

“Little Gate’s Special” was dedicated to the Berigan band’s equipment manager, Robert “Little Gate” Walker. It is a riffing original design on the blues composed and arranged by Ray Conniff. This chart, one of Conniff’s first successes, is a showcase for a string of jazz solos against shifting, bright, rhythmic backgrounds. It quickly became an audience favorite and a staple of the Berigan repertoire. “Little Gate’s Special” is prime swing material, and is one of many examples of how deeply Conniff’s writing had been influenced by the Count Basie band. (Indeed, the riffs in “Little Gate’s Special” were “borrowed” from Basie’s “Boogie Woogie (I May Be Wrong),” as recorded for Decca on May 26, 1937.) Starting in early 1939, it was the tune Berigan often wrapped up broadcasts with, supplanting “The Prisoner’s Song.”

The Berigan band digs in here with some strutting swing, and exciting solos by Bushkin on piano (one chorus); Conniff on trombone (one chorus); Bivona on alto sax (two choruses); Larry Walsh on baritone sax (one chorus); Bunny on open trumpet, building excitement and telling a story (two choruses); and a wild foray on tenor sax by Don Lodice (two choruses). The key moves upward and then the band riffs, reeds against brass, riding Jenkins’s heavy back-beats, and quiets down a bit as Bushkin’s piano runs set up Bunny’s vault into his high register for the exhilarating climax, answering the blazing brass with his open trumpet, only an octave higher.


Here is a rocking live version of “Little Gate’s Special” taken from a broadcast from the Trianon Ballroom in Cleveland on April 9, 1939, a few weeks after the Victor recording was made. The personnel for this performance is the same as for the Victor recording, except that Charlie DiMaggio replaced Hank Saltman on alto saxophone, and Morty Stulmaker replaced Hank Wayland on bass.


Here is another version of “Little Gate’s Special,” performed by Bunny and a substantially different band of musicians. This performance took place at Manhattan Center in New York in the early autumn of 1939.

“Little Gate’s Special”

Recorded from a radio broadcast over WNEW New York from Manhattan Center in New York on September 26, 1939.

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Jake Koven, Truman Quigley, Carl Warwick, trumpets; Mark Pasco, Al Jennings, trombones; Charlie DiMaggio (as/cl) Joe DiMaggio (as/cl); Larry Walsh (ts/bs); Stuart Anderson (ts/cl), reeds; Buddy Koss, piano; Tommy Moore, guitar; Morty Stulmaker, bass; Paul Collins, drums.

The first soloist is pianist Buddy Koss, who is followed by trombonist Al Jennings who growls a bit, plunger in hand. The next to play is clarinetist Joe DiMaggio who creates some satisfying jazz. Berigan follows on open trumpet, with two blues choruses that are an object lesson on how to build a solo, tell a story and play fine jazz. Larry Walsh follows on tenor sax. Then there is some antiphonal riffing, brass against reeds, with the dynamic level ebbing ever lower until Bunny orally cues the band to “come up here!,” which they indeed do, providing him with a hot, riffing ensemble over which he scatters trumpet high notes.

The recordings presented in this post have been digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.


Notes:

(1) Melody Maker: February 4, 1939, cited in the White materials.

(2) The sad incident where a tipsy Bunny had fallen off the stage into a canvas covered orchestra pit at the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh in August of 1938 (though he finished playing that show and the remainder of the gig-and racked-up a good weekly gross), had engendered much negative criticism of Berigan from the Stanley’s manager. This filtered back to MCA, and as punishment, Berigan received no new theater bookings. The financial effects of this over the next year would be severe enough to cause Bunny to seek bankruptcy protection.

(3) During these challenging weeks after Bunny had fired Arthur Michaud, Berigan, who could be quite stubborn, was operating his band without a personal manager. His road manager, Jerry Johnson, was attempting to perform the basic duties that that job required, and also to help Bunny with the overall business operation of the band. Both were full-time jobs, and business matters that required full-time attention were increasingly being left undone. This was another problem that spawned yet more problems that led to Berigan’s insolvency later in 1939.

(4) To my ears, it is Gus Bivona, who had a distinctive sound on alto saxophone, who plays most if not all of the first alto on Berigan’s March 15, 1939, Victor recording session.

(5) White materials: February 16, 1939.

(6) Ibid. I have often wondered what might have happened if Bunny Berigan had hired Don Palmer as his personal manager in early 1939. We know that when Bunny finally did hire him in mid-1941, he performed very well under diffficult circumstances. Bunny certainly could have used a good personal manager after the departure of Arthur Michaud.

(7) White materials: February 17, 1939.

(8) Gus Bivona also (later) very much resembled film actor David Niven.

(9) White materials: March 6, 1939.

(10) Down Beat: April 1939, cited in the White materials.

(11) Daytona News: March 7, 1939, cited in the White materials.

(12) White materials: March 7, 1939.

(13) White materials: March 9, 1939.

(14) White materials: March 14, 1939.

One thought on ““Little Gate’s Special” (1939)

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  1. “Little Gate’s Special” is, probably most of us would agree, one of the Berigan band’s hottest sides! I think that superb orchestra could have distinguished itself still further if there had been a more even mix between vocal sides and scorching instrumentals like this one. Conniff’s Basie influence is, of course, highly apparent, but the band takes its own unmistakable approach to the blues riffing. It’s nice to compare these three renditions, with their changing personnel and soloists. One highlight of the studio version has, for me, always been Larry Walsh’s baritone spot, which naturally brings to mind Jack Washington’s agile turns with the Basie crew. Gus Bivona’s work on both the studio and the first live version is wonderful; I’ve always considered his playing to be greatly underrated. I always get a kick out of the fact that Bunny used the beginning of Louis’ 1929 “Mahogany Hall Stomp” solo to launch his own spots on all of these takes — a beautiful homage to his idol! … It’s so maddeningly sad to be reminded that while the band continued to play beautifully as it soldiered on, through shifting personnel and cancelled engagements, behind the scenes MCA was essentially sabotaging Bunny’s efforts to get ahead. Perhaps, given Bunny’s own personal battle, it didn’t make any difference in the long run, but the agency’s shoddy treatment was, nevertheless, shameful.

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