“Frankie and Johnny”

Traditional folk song, arranged by Dick Rose.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Thesaurus Transcription Service on June 27, 1938 in New York.

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Steve Lipkins and Irving Goodman, trumpets; Nat Lobovsky and Ray Conniff, trombones; Mike Doty first alto saxophone; Joe Dixon, alto saxophone and clarinet; Clyde Rounds and Georgie Auld, tenor saxophones; Joe Bushkin, piano; Dick Wharton, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; Johnny Blowers, drums.

The story:

It is abundantly clear from the Berigan band’s Victor recording of “The Wearin’ of the Green” (see link 1 below), and this recording, that from a musical standpoint, Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra were among the top swing bands in the country in May and June of 1938. They had developed an assurance as an ensemble that bordered on swagger. When they chose to, they strutted the music. The band had very good, exciting soloists, most of their arrangements now were first rate, and Joe Lippman and others, most notably Abe Osser and Dick Rose, had shown again and again that they were capable of writing special arrangements that highlighted not only their skill and creativity, but also the capabilities of the Berigan band, and their virtuoso leader. Bunny himself had worked without letup for seventeen months to build every aspect of this band. He had been totally involved in assembling its person­nel and arrangements. He had constantly tried to infuse the band’s performances with his fiery jazz spirit. At last, his band had arrived at a point where to a large degree, it reflected his musical personality. He had to be pleased.

Management meeting – 1938; L-R: Arthur Michaud, Berigan and an agent from MCA.

Berigan had endured the vicissitudes of the band business more or less with equanimity, but basically entrusted business matters to others. He paid these people well, and expected that they would guide his band’s fortunes in a positive direction. To this point in the band’s history, Bunny’s management team had functioned reasonably well. Not perfectly by any means, but well. Bunny had every reason to be encouraged about the future of his band as the summer of 1938 began.

The Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, NYC. Few white bands were invited to play there because of their lack of swing. Berigan played there a number of times, always to great acclaim.

Immediately after the May 26 Victor recording session, the Berigan band played for one or two nights at New York’s posh Essex House on Central Park South. One wonders how well this romping jazz band fit in there. The next night, Sunday, May 29, they were in a much more congenial jazz atmosphere, Harlem’s famous Savoy Ballroom. There they did battle before more than 2,500 dancers with the “King of the Savoy,” Chick Webb. At that time, Webb’s band was also one of the leading swing bands in the nation, having good arrangements, strong soloists (especially Chick himself on drums, trumpeters Bobby Stark and Taft Jordan, and alto saxophonist Louis Jor­dan), and the lilting young vocalist Ella Fitzgerald. Coach Berigan very likely told his boys before this bout of musical combat to watch themselves lest they be embarrassed by the hard-swinging Webb musicians. The consensus drawn from the throng that attended this event was that Webb won by a whisker on his home turf. But the Berigan band had nothing to be ashamed of: it was said that nobody ever outplayed Chick Webb’s band at the Savoy.

The twenty-two year old trombonist Ray Conniff, who had just joined the Berigan band in April, was having the time of his life playing with Bunny and his hard-swinging sidemen. He later recalled his visits to Harlem as a member of the Berigan band: “Whenever we’d play the Savoy up in Harlem, if we’d walk along the streets or go into a rib joint they would say, ‘Hey Pops, them’s Bunny’s boys.’ They loved him up there. He had that beat.” (1)

Dorney Park Allentown, PA 1938.

After this stimulating experience, the band played a number of dance dates within about a 150 mile radius of New York City until they returned to Manhat­tan for another Victor recording session on June 8. One of the gigs the Berigan band played during this period was at the Al-Dorn or Castle Rock Ballroom, Dorney Park, Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Thursday June 2, 1938. In the third volume of his monumental Benny Goodman biodiscography, D. Russell Connor included some financial data he obtained from the owners of Dorney Park that provide a very revealing insight into the realities of the band business in the spring of 1938. Dorney Park presented name bands only on Thursdays because these bands charged more on weekends and holidays.

Here is the information from left to right: band name; date of appearance; band fee; paid/comp admissions; ticket price; profit/loss.

Hal Kemp                     (4/21)     $1,000         774/6       $1.10       $226.26-

Sammy Kaye                (4/28)       $ 750      1096/67       $1.10      $346.80+

Louis Armstrong           (5/5)       $ 800        282/82       $1.10       $516.80-

Benny Goodman          (5/12)     $1,250    1327/110       $1.10       $76.99+

Red Norvo                   (5/19)       $500        271/60       $0.85       $190.48-

Kay Kyser                    (5/26)     $1,000       674/70       $1.10       $328.00-

Bunny Berigan          (6/2)      (After racking up losses with four out of six name bands, Dorney’s management insisted on a deal where they would pay the band a percentage of paid admissions up to $400. Consequently, Bunny grossed $142.15 for this dance date. He drew 383 paid and 63 comps. The ticket price was se­venty-five cents, and the park made a profit of $12.85. This date had to have yielded less than one-seventh of the weekly Berigan band “nut,” an ominous sign.) 

Here is the rest of the information gathered by Connor:

Count Basie                    (6/9)        $250        342/30         $.50         $79.09-

Paul Tremaine              (6/16)       $200        165/30         $.50       $117.50-

Casa Loma                    (6/23)       $700        722/92       $1.10        $22.71+

Sammy Kaye                (6/30)       $500        319/78       $1.10        $191.10- (2)

Many conclusions can be drawn from these figures. The first and probably least speculative one is that more established bands commanded higher fees. Hal Kemp and Kay Kyser were by 1938 among MCA’s top grossing bands. Benny Goodman, also represented by MCA, was then riding the crest of a sponsored network radio show, a Hollywood film, frequent sustaining radio broadcasts, steady if not spectacular record sales, and the recently completed Carnegie Hall jazz concert. Also, MCA was then putting a vast amount of promotional push behind the Goodman band—publications everywhere contained something about Benny Goodman. BG’s career was definitely at an early peak in the spring of 1938.

By 1938, Sammy Kaye’s band, also represented by MCA, had been in exis­tence for several years. It was modeled to some extent on Kay Kyser’s band and played acceptable dance music, with a lot of gimmicks along the way. People loved it. Even so, it was not guaranteed top dollar, or a hugely successful date, as the numbers from June 30 show. Louis Armstrong, who was being booked by Joe Glaser, received an excellent guarantee, but the date was a bomb for Dorney Park. Rockwell-O’Keefe’s top band was Casa Loma. They too got a good guar­antee, but their date was also successful for the ballroom. Count Basie’s band, then also booked by MCA, was similar to Bunny’s in that it was a heavily jazz-influenced dance band, and it had existed (at least in the East) for a similar length of time. Dorney Park lost money on Basie, Kemp, Armstrong, Norvo, Tremaine, and Sammy Kaye’s second appearance. It essentially broke even with Berigan and Casa Loma. The only really successful date was the first one with Sammy Kaye. Overall, their name band program for the above-cited period was a big loser.

Since MCA was notorious for “block booking” its talent, that is, offering promoters a package of talent, rather than booking individual bands on individ­ual dates, their tack here could well have been “take the package and you get Benny Goodman, Kay Kyser, and Sammy Kaye. Don’t take the package and you get whatever is available.” And MCA would make sure that not too much was available. Bands like Berigan’s, Norvo’s, and Basie’s were hardly in a po­sition to negotiate: the bandleader’s overhead continued nonstop regardless of where the band played, or for how much.

Berigan clowning in front of his band bus: He knew that leading a band on the road was a high-risk business, but he accepted the risks to play the music he wanted to play.

If a band was on the road, it was always preferable, from the bandleader’s standpoint, for that band to play a “cheap date,” that is one at less than market rate, as opposed to not playing at all. But if a bandleader did that then he under­cut the efforts of his booking agent to get the most money possible for the band. So MCA would advise their clients to take a night off rather than play a date at below market rate. While the band rested, the bandleader’s overhead continued unabated. The secret to having a financially successful band on the road how­ever, was to secure a guarantee on each date that at least covered expenses, and balance these high-risk/cost one-night dance jobs with more lucrative theater dates, which normally lasted for a week, or a split week, where a band would play in one theater for three or four days, then hop to a nearby town and finish up the week there. This usually resulted in more cash and less financial risk on the revenue side, and less transportation costs on the expense side. Also, it was essential to pull a band off of the road for periods of time and fill its engagement book with something other than one-nighters, preferably a hotel booking with sustaining radio broadcasts. Then supply would not overwhelm demand; indeed the radio exposure would strengthen demand. It was during these longer “resi­dencies” in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles that most bands also made their recordings. If a week at a theater could also be secured while a band was in one spot for a period of time, all the better. It was up to the bandleader’s manager to see to it that the proper balance of engagements was being maintained for his client so that revenue met or exceeded expenses.

Any band that constantly played one-night dance dates, no matter what they were paid, was on a high-risk journey that would almost always eventually lead to complete exhaustion and bankruptcy for the bandleader. Booking agencies loved one-night dance dates however because they got their full commission off the top of the guarantee, before the bandleader paid his expenses and got his share. They had no cash flow problems; indeed, their costs and risks were mi­nimal. The bandleader had to pay all of the costs for the band, including heavy costs for sideman salaries and ex­tremely variable transportation costs, out of whatever was left over at the com­pletion of the gig. From the bandleader’s perspective, the classic MCA-de­vised business plan was extremely risky. If Bunny Berigan thought about this at all, and I suspect that he did, he undoubtedly hoped that Arthur Michaud would look after his best interests in these often perilous business matters. Michaud after all had guided Bunny in the months he was organizing and strengthening his band, and had directed its first very successful tour in late 1937. At the end of that tour, Bunny was able to pay back all of the loans he had taken to keep his band going while MCA built his name, and have quite a bit left over. Unfortunately, during the spring and summer of 1938, Michaud’s attention was being stretched be­tween Tommy Dorsey’s established band and Gene Krupa’s new band, as well as Bunny’s. Slip-ups started to occur that would be very costly for Bunny Berigan.

L-R: Arthur Michaud, Berigan and an agent from MCA. Berigan was probably asking the agent: “Are you sure I’m going to come out of this three month tour with some money in my pocket?”

The Berigan band forged on through a series of one-nighters in Pennsylvania and Ohio. They played at Moonlight Gardens, Meyer’s Lake Park, Canton, Ohio, on Thursday, June 16. Billboard reported on this engagement in its June 25, 1938, issue: ‘With Glen Gray the attraction less than twenty miles away at Summit Beach, Akron, Ohio, Bunny Berigan drew almost 1,000 dancers here last Thurs­day at Moonlight Gardens in Meyer’s Lake Park. Harry Sinclair, Moonlight Gardens manager, was pleased with the $460 take.”(3) The next night, Bunny’s band was broadcast over WABC–New York, probably from somewhere in Pennsylvania. Johnny Blowers kept a diary of places he played with the Berigan band, but sometimes did not place a date with the location. Here are some of the venues the band played for the period June 17 to June 25: Tyrone, Pennsylvania (west of State College); Hershey, Pennsylvania, at Starlight Ballroom, Hershey Park, (15 miles east of Harrisburg); Shamokin, Pennsylvania, at Edgewood Park; on June 23, at the Crystal Ballroom, Cumberland, Maryland; Ithaca, New York, at Cornell University; Middletown State Armory, Kingston, New York, on Saturday, June 25; Greenwich, Connecticut. At some point in this eight-day span, a mix-up occurred involving a date at Old Orchard Beach, Maine.

Blowers recalled this venue in his biography Back Beats and Rim Shots—The Johnny Blowers Story: “Wherever we played the crowd loved the band, and there were hundreds of dancers, but we had a peculiar tendency to be in the wrong place, or in the right place at the wrong time. Even sometimes the wrong day. Once we went to Old Orchard Beach a day ahead of schedule, so we spent it enjoying rides and games. We played the following night. I really believe that band could have been very successful if more care had gone into planning and management.”(4)

The fact is that in the summer of 1938, the Berigan band was very successful. Its management (MCA and Michaud) however were by then fo­cusing most of their attention elsewhere, primarily on the development of Gene Krupa’s new band. Engagements that otherwise might have gone to Berigan now were going to Krupa. As a result, there seemed to be no real plan as to how to achieve maximum financial return for the Berigan band on the road. Also, logistical slipups started to occur. These snafus have long been attributed to Bunny’s lackadaisical attitude about business matters. However, he was paying others to attend to these important issues, as all other bandleaders did, and had every reason to expect that they would be handled properly. Increasingly, they were not being handled properly, and Bunny’s normally sanguine attitude sometimes turned edgy. He, not MCA or Michaud, had to pay his band members while they enjoyed an unplanned off day, rode amusement rides, and played games at Old Orchard Beach.

Berigan returned to New York City on June 26 to play on the RCA Magic Key radio show, which was broadcast over the NBC radio network.(5) Comedian Bob Hope appeared on this Magic Key program with Bunny, and I’m sure he was very favorably impressed by the hard-swinging Berigan band. Rumors im­mediately began to circulate (again, probably started by MCA), that Bunny and his band would soon be headed to Hollywood to be the featured band on Hope’s soon to be debuted NBC network radio show, and/or in an upcoming Hope movie.

The Berigan band broadcasting – early 1938: L-R: Dave Tough, Berigan, Clyde Rounds, Hank Wayland, Mike Doty, Tommy Morgan, Joe Dixon, Sonny Lee, Georgie Auld and Irving Goodman.

The next day, June 27, Bunny again visited the RCA Victor studios, but this time he and his musicians were scheduled to make recordings for NBC’s The­saurus transcription service. The sixteen inch 33 1/3 rpm discs on which the music was marketed were leased or sold to radio stations under the generic name “Rhythm Makers” or “The Rhythm Makers.” No identification of the many bands that made Thesaurus transcriptions was ever done. It is extremely fortui­tous that this opportunity existed for the Berigan band, because this Thesaurus recording session, and one which would take place in the not too distant future, like the airchecks of the band from the Paradise Restaurant and elsewhere, allow us to have a much more complete understanding of the Berigan band’s capabili­ties. The difference between this band and the one Bunny had led on his pre­vious Thesaurus session almost two years earlier is immense. The earlier band sounded very much like what it actually was—a part-time band with no identity. This Berigan band had now reached the place where it was imbued with its leader’s passionate musical persona: it was powerful, exciting, and sometimes a bit unpredictable, even reckless.

They recorded twenty tunes that day, and as always was the case on tran­scriptions, only one take on each tune was made. There is no indication of when the session started or ended. Indeed, there is some question as to whether this session took place in New York, or at RCA’s Camden, New Jersey “church stu­dio.” I think that this session was recorded in New York at Victor’s East 24th Street studios, because I know that other Thesaurus recording sessions with many other bands, including Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Les Brown, Joe Haymes, Charlie Barnet, and Chick Webb, took place in New York. Although Joe Dixon on at least one occasion recalled recording these transcriptions in Camden, every other source I have ever checked indicates that all Thesaurus sessions took place in Victor’s Twenty-fourth Street studios in Manhattan.

The music:

“Frankie and Johnnie” (as it was identified on the Victor recording Berigan made of it on June 25, 1937), was a staple of the Berigan repertoire, and the band never performed it better than they do here. The soloists in this rollicking performance are Berigan, with his massive sound, wide range, and powerful swing, on trumpet; Georgie Auld on tenor saxophone, Joe Dixon on clarinet, Hank Wayland on bass, and Johnny Blowers on drums. Bunny’s trumpet lead, soaring over the band, lights up the last chorus.

The Berigan band would often open its stage shows with a performance like this. The curtain would go up, Bunny would play about eight bars of his theme song, “I Can’t Get Started,” and then segue into this kind of romping instrumental having a lot of jazz solos. Audiences primed to hear hot music were very receptive and demonstrative.

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.


Notes:

(1) Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya—The Story of Jazz as Told by the Men Who Made It, by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff , Dover Publications, Inc. (1955), 324.

(2) Benny Goodman—Wrappin’ It Up, by D. Russell Connor, Scarecrow Press Inc. (1996), 17–18.

(3) Cited in the White materials: June 16, 1938.

(4) Back Beats and Rim Shots—The Johnny Blowers Story: 40.

(5) White materials: June 25, 1938.

(6) An almost complete set of Magic Key broadcasts are available for listening at the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, the Berigan broadcast from June 26, 1938 is not a part of this collection. It is however a part of the Savory Recordings at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Unfortunately, for legal reasons, those recordings have not been released to-date.

Links:

(1) Here is a link to the Berigan recording of “The Wearin’ of the Green”:

https://swingandbeyond.com/?s=The+Wearin%27+of+the+Green

One thought on ““Frankie and Johnny”

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  1. Though the ’37 commercial recording has always been one of my favorite Berigan band sides, I find the transcription version to be better still, owing to a combination of Johnny Blowers’ more modern drumming, Georgie and Joe’s better solos and Hank Wayland’s spot. Bunny is superb, and very different, on the two takes. Interestingly, in the track commentary for the liner notes for Jass Records’ CD release of the ’38 Thesaurus dates, Joe Dixon claimed that though this arrangement was very popular with audiences, he “never really liked it.” According to Johnny Blowers, this one went on for fifteen minutes when they were out on the road. We’re so lucky to have these transcriptions (as well as the live Paradise material) to gain a fuller understanding of this marvelous outfit’s capabilities at its peak. Michaud really blew it: I’m a great admirer of both Krupa and his band, but I can’t imagine why Michaud would pour all his energy into promoting an orchestra that, while showing promise, obviously hadn’t yet established a clear identity apart from its leader’s prominence when he had in Bunny’s band a top-notch crew, with a distinctive sound and excellent soloists, that could do everything well. Bunny was both giving his musical all to the band and paying those whose job it was to look after the business side, and still he couldn’t get a break. It’s sad to think that the year in which the band attained its artistic and commercial zenith was also the year in which things began to fall precipitously apart. Fortunately for us, the specter that, history shows us, began to shadow Bunny around this time is not apparent in this joyous take of “Frankie and Johnny.”

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