“Blue Lou” (1937)

Composed by Edgar Sampson; unknown arranger, possibly Matty Matlock.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Brunswick on January 27, 1937 in New York.

Bunny Berigan, first and solo trumpet, directing: Harry Greenwald and Harry Brown, trumpets; Walter Burleson, trombone; Carl Swift and Matty Matlock, alto saxophones; Art Drelinger, tenor saxophone; Les Burness, piano; Arnold Fishkind, bass; Manny Berger, drums.

(The photo at the top of this post is of Bunny Berigan, his manager Arthur Michaud, and Tommy Dorsey in early 1937.)

The music: This recording captured one of the first performances by Bunny Berigan’s new big band. The most obvious features about this recording that grab attention are Berigan’s titanic trumpet solos. His playing here is quintessential: massive ringing trumpet sound; swaggering swing; exciting improvisation; and a lip trill and upward rip that will set your ears a-twirling. This recording presents Bunny at the top of his game.

Quite a bit of critical comment has been directed at the band that supports Berigan here (see below), but aside from a very small blemish in the concluding enesmble, I find nothing here to criticize. The band is well-rehearsed, and they play this chart cleanly, and with undeniable zest.

This recording was a bellwether of things to come from Bunny Berigan the bandleader.

The story:

We must remember that during the interval between the end of 1936 and mid-Freruary 1937, Bunny Berigan was in transition from super successful (and super busy) free-lance Manhattan studio musician, to bandleader. Through this time, he was completing the preparations for the debut of his own full-time big band, and CBS was preparing for his final departure from the Saturday Night Swing Club, which was by this time a recognized success that would remain on the air into 1939. During the day he was auditioning and selecting musicians, commissioning arrangements, rehearsing, and generally setting up the organization that is necessary to support a standing big band. The new Berigan band was scheduled to open at the Meadowbrook in Cedar Grove, New Jersey just outside New York City on February 3, 1937, following Tommy Dorsey.

On January 22, 1937 Berigan took his new big band into the ARC/Brunswick studios in Manhattan for its first recording session. Four sides were made: “The Goona Goo,” “Who’s Afraid of Love?” and, “One in a Million,” each with a vocal by Art Gentry, and the rollicking instrumental, “Blue Lou,” which is presented here..

A girl singer, Louise Wallace, was added to the Berigan band for the Meadowbrook gig. She possibly had sung with Frank Dailey’s band at the Meadowbrook, and would return to that job after her service to Bunny. (1)

Trombonist Walter Burleson, who was in this band provided a recollection of that first recording session:  

“I’d only been in New York a couple of weeks, finding it hard to get a job but after much skimping, scraping and existing on ten cent hamburgers, I got a break auditioning for Bunny Berigan at the new Haven studios on Fifty-fourth Street. Apparently, I was the 12th trombonist to try out, so imagine my surprise when I got a call later from Mort Davis, Bunny’s manager, to report to the Brunswick studios for a recording date! It was a bitterly cold day and I was hungry, but this was my first taste of the big time. The date lasted about five hours and I was the sole trombone in the brass section. Matty Matlock was the clarinet soloist, but the rest of the band members were unknowns like me. We had a special arrangement of a tune called ‘One in a Million,’ and after rehearsing it for about a half-hour, the recording director discovered it was the wrong ‘One in a Million’! So Bunny got somebody to rush out and buy a stock arrangement of the right song, which he doctored up with a new introduction and such.” (2)

Trumpeter Harry Brown was also on the scene:

“Bunny held auditions for his new band in New York, followed by rehearsals and a couple of one night stands in New England for the Shribman brothers. (3) We had a recording date while Bunny was still working for Tommy Dorsey off and on. They were good friends and their occasional feuds were usually patched up pretty quickly. Bunny had the greatest talent as a player, but not as a leader. When he laid off the booze, he was moody, but after a few belts, his spirits would soon rise again. It wasn’t a good band, but it was a happy one and that was the way Bunny liked it. We followed Tommy Dorsey into the Meadowbrook for a couple of weeks, and neither the public nor the critics seemed to like us, but I enjoyed being in the band and learned a hell of a lot from Bunny, who was a happy-go-lucky guy as a rule, and a marvelous musician. He loved life, travel, women and liquor. He never cared too much about money and always seemed to be broke.” (4) Harry Brown’s recollections about how the Berigan band was received at the Meadowbrook are contradicted, in part, by reviews the band received (see below).

Bunny Berigan conferring with Tommy Dorsey, possibly backstage at TD’s Raleigh-Kool radio show. The face at the right is Arthur Michaud’s. Michaud was the personal manager for both Dorsey and Berigan in early 1937.

At nights, before the new Berigan band opened at the Meadowbrook, Bunny was probably working either with Frank Trumbauer at the Hickory House, or sitting in elsewhere to relax a bit. On Saturdays, he was still rehearsing for and playing on the Saturday Night Swing Club program on CBS; on Mondays, he was broadcasting with Tommy Dorsey’s band on the Raleigh-Kool program on NBC. He also participated as a soloist at three Victor recording sessions with TD’s band in January: on the 7th, 19th, and 29th. As usual, Bunny Berigan was a very busy man in January of 1937.

The Berigan band opened at the Meadowbrook on Wednesday, February 3. It was a gala event: “Bunny’s Meadowbrook opening was attended by many of his friends and many trade representatives. Congratulatory wires were received from many notables in the music business, including Martin Block, Ray Block, Joe Higgins, Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra, Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra, Benny Goodman, Ray Noble, Jerry and Flo Colonna, Dave Harris, Johnny and Esther Williams, Edythe Wright, Cork O’Keefe and many others.” (5) The appearance of the name Cork O’Keefe in this list is significant. It indicates that by this time, Bunny’s band was definitely being booked by Rockwell-O’Keefe. Previously, the few dates Bunny played with a big band were booked by Columbia Artists.

Carl Swift, who played lead alto saxophone in this band, also recalled Meadowbrook opening:

“There were a lot of important people there and, of course, the ever-present song pluggers. Bunny didn’t know how to deal with them, so he just had another drink and didn’t! I recall seeing Artie Shaw at the opening. Although I later played pretty good clarinet and fair tenor, with Bunny I played strictly alto sax and I was very unhappy with my lead sax playing on the band’s first record date, particularly on ‘Blue Lou.’ So I insisted that Bunny get someone else for the next recording date. Hymie Shertzer played on the date, but didn’t work with the band at the Meadowbrook, where I continued to play lead alto. (Note: I have listened to this recording of “Blue Lou” very critically, and can find no fault with the playing of Carl Swift on it.) I don’t remember whether we used a guitar on the recording dates. The band sounded pretty bad and the press reviews reflected that, but there were changes in the brass section almost every night and that sure didn’t help!  I’d first come to New York from Boston in 1932 and played with Red Nichols and Jerry Blaine prior to joining Bunny. After the job at the Meadowbrook the band more or less fell apart. There was little or no work and Bunny didn’t seem to have the necessary backing to keep the band together. While we played the Meadowbrook, Bunny and I used to go to the local pool hall nearby. He was an extra-fine pool player.” (6)

Teen-aged kids were the biggest fans of all swing bands, Bunny Berigan’s included. Here they are pictured around a radio announcer who is about to do a remote radio broadcast of music from the Meadowbrook.

The band did broadcast from the Meadowbrook over WOR–New York on Friday, February 5, from 10:00 to 10:30 p.m. The next day, Bunny rehearsed for and played on the Swing Club broadcast from 6:45 to 7:15 p.m., then rushed from CBS’s Studio One on Madison Avenue across Manhattan and the Hudson River to join his band at the Meadowbrook. They were again on the air over WOR from 11:00 to 11:30 that night. He repeated this sequence on Saturday, February 13. Throughout the Meadowbrook engagement, the Berigan band broadcast frequently. Unfortunately, no airchecks from those broadcasts are known to exist. Their two-week stand there ended on February 17.

Critical reaction to the new Berigan band at the Meadowbrook was mixed. Here is a survey of some of those reviews:

From Down Beat, March 1937:

(Headline) “Shaw’s Ork Follows Bunny Berigan’s Outfit: ‘When Artie Shaw moved into the Meadowbrook the other night, he supplanted Bunny Berigan and his newly-formed organization. This proved to be a real break, not only because Artie Shaw’s music is both good and unusual (too seldom do those adjectives come together) but also because listening to Berigan’s band proved almost embarrassing. Bunny is probably the greatest white trumpeter in the business today, but when he gathers about him a group of musicians who are so utterly incapable of even approaching their leader’s ability, something should be done about it. Matty Matlock, the fine clarinetist formerly with Bob Crosby’s band, played with Bunny’s band during their engagement at the New Jersey roadhouse, but the task of swinging the rest of the men was a little too gigantic for even these two stars to undertake.” (7)

From Tempo, March 1937:

“Bunny Berigan made his debut as a full-fledged batoneer this past month by playing a two weeks engagement at the Meadowbrook. His band was composed (we use the past tense because, at this writing, an almost complete change is taking place in the orchestra) of twelve unknown instrumentalists and distinguished itself only by its leader’s contributions plus Matty Matlock’s clarinet work. Matlock joined as a favor and since has returned to the Bob Crosby unit. The band, however, did make one recording session, which should give you an idea of how things were running. Artie Shaw followed Berigan into the Meadowbrook for a fortnight of syncopation.”

From American Music Lover ‘Swing Notes,’ March, 1937: “In addition to his activities with the Saturday Night Swing Club, Bunny Berigan has found time to assemble an orchestra of his own. On February 3rd he and his new band opened at the Meadowbrook, Cedar Grove, New Jersey and the band proved to be an instant success. It followed Tommy Dorsey and it filled the spot excellently. A band of ten players with a vocalist their playing was surprisingly homogeneous for a group that had played together less than two weeks. Of course there were rough spots here and there on opening night which could have been attributed to poor acoustics, lack of rehearsals, conflicting styles of playing, etc., but these were, on the whole, minor defects. The band played with a terrific swing and the crowd which turned out to greet the band enjoyed the music. (8)

From George T. Simon in Metronome, March 1937:

“Roasts and Toasts: Possibly he’s been spoiling us by his consistently great trumpeting and so when he takes on his own band, we expect something on as high a plane. Whatever it is, it’s quite obvious that the band Bunny Berigan aired recently from the Meadowbrook is not really a fine outfit. For some reason, neither the brass nor the reed sections get together at all. The subsequent pushing and pulling make everything sound mighty rough. The really saving graces, though, were Bunny’s playing and Matty Matlock’s clarineting. The rest can be tossed into a corner.” (9) (It appears that Simon’s review was based on his listening to the Berigan band on radio.)

The interesting thing about the Berigan band’s second recording session on February 17 is that it (along with the first Brunswick session) gives us the opportunity to judge for ourselves how good or bad they sounded at the Meadowbrook. Since no recordings of the broadcasts from that venue are known to exist, I cannot express an opinion as to how the band actually sounded at the Meadowbrook. (10) I have however listened carefully to all of the sides Bunny’s band recorded on both January 27 and February 17, and I have concluded that the Berigan band that played at the Meadowbrook was probably pretty good. On both recording sessions, they played the arrangements with accuracy, unity, and spirit. Bunny’s playing was excellent, indeed inspired. The recordings are certainly acceptable. The arrangements, though competently written, are not in any way distinctive, (with the exception of “Dixieland Shuffle,” see note (11) below), but the band cannot be faulted for that. The band’s solo strength, aside from Bunny of course, and clarinetist Matty Matlock, was not what it should have been, therefore there was not enough variety in its presentation. But, it was a brand-new band that was trying to evolve some sort of group identity. Unfortunately (and quite unrealistically) the critics expected Bunny to start with a fully mature, distinctive band, and unfairly criticized him for not presenting such a band at the Meadowbrook. (12)

Still, there are valid criticisms to be made. They are: (1) that whoever was booking the Berigan band (probably Rockwell-O’Keefe) should have taken it out of the greater New York area for at least a couple of weeks to break-in. Then the band could have had a little time to play together in front of relatively less critical audiences, establish a stable personnel, accumulate at least a couple dozen good arrangements, and gain some esprit de corps. (2) There should have been at least a couple of other musicians in the band capable of playing jazz solos to lessen the load on Bunny, and to a lesser extent Matty Matlock, in that area. (3) More effort should have been exerted to have several special arrangements in the band’s book that not only provided Bunny a showcase, but that also allowed the band to shine a bit. To have dealt with each of these criticisms would have cost someone some money, and I’m sure that is why these things were not done. Plus, Bunny apparently was still tied to the Swing Club, and was still doing the commercial broadcasts with Tommy Dorsey, and those commitments would have made much travel impossible.

Berigan’s appearance with his new band at such a high-profile venue as the Meadwobrook in February 1937 was a bit premature. But that was the fault of his management team. He was doing everything he could to make the band he had sound good.He would return to the Meadowbrook in the summer of 1937 with a much more seasoned and stable band, and have great success there.

Bunny Berigan (center) with Arthur Michaud (left) and an unknown person, probably an agent from MCA. This photo was taken in the rehearsal space at MCA’s Manhattan office.

Despite the mixed critical reaction to the Berigan band at the Meadowbrook, Bunny’s management team was still behind him, pushing hard. Right after they closed at the Meadowbrook, the Berigan band auditioned for a sponsored radio program. Billboard carried this item in its February 27, 1937, issue: “Admiracion Shampoo auditioned Bunny Berigan and his Orchestra, and Tim (Ryan) and Irene (Noblette) for a coast-to-coast Mutual set-up last week.” (13)  At about this same time, Rockwell-O’Keefe, which was definitely Bunny’s booking agent by then, was angling to get his band a job making transcriptions for a series of shows to be sponsored by the Norge appliance company.

Immediately after the February 17 recording session, the Berigan band began to play a few one-night dance jobs in New England, and this kept Bunny away from New York for the Saturday Night Swing Club broadcast of February 20. He returned to Manhattan however for the Swing Club show that aired on February 27. This was his last appearance on the Swing Club as a regular. He also did his last work with Tommy Dorsey’s band at this time.

Shortly thereafter, Bunny learned that his band had been chosen for both the Admiracion Shampoo radio show, and the Norge transcription series. He was scheduled to do his first and possibly second of the Norge shows almost immediately. The first session Bunny recorded for Norge (program #5) was probably done on March 7, as an entry in trombonist Larry Altpeter’s diary indicates that he worked with Berigan on that date “from 12:30 to 2:30.” (13)

Variety reported, in its March 10, 1937, issue: “Fun in Swingtime, sponsored by Admiracion Shampoo, opens on WOR, April 4 (Sunday), to go over the full Mutual network. There will be a special guest of swing music each week. Tim and Irene, who subbed for Jack Benny on the Jello show last summer, Del Sharbutt, special commentator, and Bunny Berigan and his Orchestra are set for the show. Admiracion is manufactured by the National Oil Company.” (14) With substantial cash-flow now assured, Bunny finally got the green light from Rockwell-O’Keefe and Michaud to seek out better musicians whom he could now afford to pay. Bunny Berigan had finally become a full-time bandleader leading a full-time band.

Drummer George Wettling joined the Berigan band in March of 1937.

At this juncture, circumstances conspired to give Bunny a number of opportunities to acquire better musicians for his band. First, after following Bunny’s band into the Meadowbrook and completing its two weeks there, Artie Shaw’s string quartet band broke up for lack of work. This occurred on approximately March 1. Bunny’s band manager, the astute and experienced Mort Davis, who had worked previously with Benny Goodman, made it his business to know about the comings and goings of dance band musicians. He knew of Shaw’s plight and undoubtedly contacted several musicians who had worked with Shaw, and told them that Bunny now had some steady work on radio lined up. Two very important additions to the Berigan band resulted: the veteran drummer George Wettling, and the pianist and arranger Joe Lippman. From the beginning, it was understood that Lippman would be the band’s primary arranger.

Arranger Joe Lippman was a key musician in Berigan’s
band in the period 1937-1938.

Bunny was now in a position to benefit from Tommy Dorsey’s temper tantrums. Lead trumpeter Steve Lipkins, who’d had a run-in with TD recently, jumped at the opportunity to join the Berigan band. The veteran saxophonist Clyde Rounds, also disenchanted with TD, left at about the same time to join Berigan. Others who joined in early March were Cliff Natalie (Nat Natoli’s younger brother), trumpet; Frankie D’Annolfo, trombone; Slats Long and Hank Freeman on altos/clarinets. Tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld and vocalist Carol McKay had probably joined Bunny immediately before the Norge shows were recorded.

By March 15, the Berigan band had been substantially revamped, and they began playing some dance engagements within about a 200 mile radius of New York City to break in.(15) Carol McKay later recalled this time:

“I had a few lessons on classical piano. I was with Ben Pollack and we did a record date (September, 1936) before leaving for the West Coast. I left Pollack later and came back east with Harry James and another trumpeter around the Christmas holidays, joining Bunny in late February or early March 1937. Jimmy Van Heusen, the song-writer, who wasn’t yet very well known, was a good friend of Bunny’s. I think they’d known each other back in Wisconsin. Anyway, Jimmy told me, ‘This is the band for you,’ which impressed me, so I joined. Arrangers included Joe Lippman, (and a little later) Abe Osser, Fred Norman and Dick Rose. Soon after I joined we auditioned for that shampoo radio show. ‘The Goona Goo’ was one of Bunny’s favorite numbers and the band played it a lot. I recall Joe Bushkin being on piano for a bit at the Pennsylvania Hotel (in the spring of 1937) while Joe Lippman was busy with arranging. I don’t remember Bunny ever warming up; he’d just come out and play! Arthur Michaud and Mort Davis were both around the band, but Michaud was roundly disliked by almost everybody!  Bunny hardly ever rehearsed the trumpets, but the saxes were always being worked on and he never seemed happy with them. I remember one rehearsal when I left to go shopping as it wasn’t time for my songs, and when I got back a couple of hours later, they still hadn’t gotten to my numbers! Bunny was very definite about what he wanted soundwise. He and Joe Lippman worked closely together on most numbers and got along well. Bunny would make quite a few suggestions about how the brass was to be written for. He would say, ‘This is real good,’ or ‘Keep this in here,’ etc. He loved ballads and folk tunes and he’d say, ‘Well, let’s go get ‘em!’ when the band was going to play a fast tune like ‘King Porter Stomp.’ I remember we did a date, maybe a radio show, for a soda water commercial. Bunny really joked about that! “ (16)

At about this time, it was announced that Bunny had also secured a recording contract with RCA Victor Records. Berigan, like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, would produce recordings for RCA’s prestigious Victor label, which then sold for seventy-five cents a disc. The thinking at Victor in the mid-1930s was that the music of swing/jazz bands appealed basically to affluent young college students, a niche market. These were the people who made up the largest part of the audiences that showed up at venues like the Pennsylvania Hotel, where Goodman had been such a hit, and the Commodore Hotel, where TD’s band had been so well received. If these students had the money to buy a phonograph and go to those upscale venues for entertainment, Victor’s marketing department reasoned, then they could certainly afford seventy-five cents a record.

However, the ongoing strong sales of upstart Decca’s thirty-five cent discs would, by mid-1938, change the thinking of Victor’s decision makers on this issue. The success of Decca’s entire catalog, including such swing bands as Jimmy Dorsey, Casa Loma, and Count Basie, persuaded the people at Victor, by mid-1938, to offer the records of their stable of new swing bands to a wider market at a lower price. Thus, the bands RCA signed in 1938, including Les Brown, Van Alexander, Erskine Hawkins, Artie Shaw, and Glenn Miller, would have their recordings issued on RCA’s thirty-five cent Bluebird label. The first major beneficiary of this change in direction would be Artie Shaw, whose recording of “Begin the Beguine,” released in the late summer of 1938, rapidly became the most successful record RCA had issued in years. Soon thereafter, Glenn Miller’s record sales on Bluebird took a vertical leap with a number of hits, most notably “In the Mood,” which was released in the summer of 1939. While all of these changes were taking place, RCA would continue, inexplicably, to issue the recordings of Bunny Berigan’s swing band on the Victor label, where their sales were steady, but hardly spectacular.


Notes

(1) See the text (chapter 14) of Mr. Trumpet …The Trials, Tribulations and Triumph of Bunny Berigan for an account of the Berigan band’s triumphant return to the Meadowbrook in September 1937, for a full explanation of who Frank Dailey was, and what his role was as bandleader/co-owner of the Meadowbrook.

(2) White materials: January 22, 1937.

(3) The Shribman brothers, Si and Charlie, started in the music business in the 1920s as ballroom operators in New England. They would frequently book up-and-coming bands in their string of ballrooms, and occasionally would also invest in new bands. Three bands they invested in were those led by Artie Shaw, Glenn Miller, and Woody Herman.

(4) Ibid.

(5) Tom Cullen, one of Bozy White’s early collaborators, gathered this information, which is cited in the White materials: February 3, 1937.

(6) White materials: February 3, 1937.

(7) Cited in the White materials: February 17, 1937.

(8) Ibid.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

(11) “Dixieland Shuffle” is precisely the kind of music that would have appealed to Bunny, and brought out the best in his playing. He undoubtedly had heard King Oliver’s record of the tune it was based on, “Riverside Blues,” featuring Louis Armstrong, as a boy. Richard M. Sudhalter attributed the arrangement Berigan played to Matty Matlock, and this might seem to be reasonable since Matlock, who was a very capable arranger, was then Working, albeit temporarily, in Bunny’s band. However, this tune, which is ascribed to Gil Rodin and Bob Haggart, in almost the same arrangement, had been recorded by Bob Crosby’s band on April 13, 1936. Brian Rust’s discography attributes the arrangement used for that recording to Bob Haggart. Since Haggart excelled at reorchestrating recordings that had been made previously (often by Louis Armstrong) for the Crosby band, I am of the opinion that he did indeed write this arrangement. Regardless of who wrote it, it was a good piece of music, and the band plays it well. There were two takes made. Upon issuance of the record in May, it received a positive review in Down Beat. I am planning to present this recording here at bunnyberiganmrtrumpet.com in the future.

(12) Bob Inman did listen to a couple of those broadcasts, and his notes concerning the band’s performances are certainly not negatively critical. (See pages 116–117, Swing Era Scrapbook.) Inman had no compunction about judging something he heard as being “lousy.” This stinging appraisal was applied by him to the performances of many bands. It should also be noted that some great bands made many less than exciting broadcasts during the swing era. Nowhere in Inman’s Swing Era Scrapbook is there any such negative criticism of the Berigan band.

(13) White materials: February 15–19, 1937. Trombonist Larry Altpeter was a long-time Berigan friend from Wisconsin who by the mid-1930s was a busy studio musician in Manhattan.

(14) White materials: March 6-7, 1937.

(15) One such break-in date was Monday, March 15, 1937, at the Commodore Ballroom, Lowell, Massachusetts.

(16) White materials: April 1, 1937.

One thought on ““Blue Lou” (1937)

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  1. Though the fledgling Bunny Berigan Orchestra had a way to go before it would reach its artistic zenith, I think this first, “Blue Lou” session indicates as much promise as the initial dates of, say, the Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw bands, which of course proved highly successful. I agree that the obvious weaknesses of the first Berigan aggregation were the merely adequate, and not distinctive, arrangements and the absence of strong jazz soloists apart from Bunny himself and Matty Matlock — both hardly uncommon flaws for a new organization. I suspect that Bunny’s contemporaneous immersion in the very activities that were making it possible for him to fund the orchestra venture — the Saturday Night Swing Club, the Dorsey recording dates and live work and other assorted gigs (Trumbauer at the Hickory House, etc) — were, combined with the distraction of his drinking, physically draining enough to prevent him from giving his usual minute attention to the development of the sound of the new outfit. As always, he was spreading himself very thin, but now with more at stake! His own playing, then at its height, seems to have been the one thing over which he could maintain full control.

    In the reminiscences of trumpeter Harry Brown, we see, once again, a fascinating contradictory characterization of Bunny: “moody” when he wasn’t drinking, and yet “a happy-go-lucky guy as a rule.”

    Looking forward to your examination of “Dixieland Shuffle,” which, just as “Blue Lou” was the first date’s best side, was the gem of the second session. As much as I admire the Crosby band’s take, I find Bunny’s still more impressive.

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