Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Thesaurus Transcription Service on July 20, 1936 in New York.
On July 20, 1936, Bunny Berigan took a group of musicians into the Victor recording studios at 155 East Twenty-fourth Street to record twenty tunes(1) for NBC’s Thesaurus transcription service. Although Bunny would have scarcely suspected it, he would be making a good bit of musical history in these studios in the next couple of years. Neither RCA’s nor NBC’s files contain much information about this session, and the personnel, aside from Berigan himself, remains a mystery. The personnel that has been reported for many years is: Ralph Muzzillo, Harry Preble, Bunny, trumpets; George Mazza and/or Artie Foster, trombones; Carl Swift, possibly Artie Manners, altos and clarinets; Artie Drelinger, and unknown, tenors and clarinets; Joe Lippman, piano; Morty Stulmaker, bass; Bill Flanagan, drums. The vocalist who sang with the Berigan band at this time has been identified as “Peggy Lawson, a brunette from Indianapolis” by drummer Flanagan.(2)
Aside from Berigan’s trumpet solos, and he is in fine form here, there is little of distinction about these recordings. The arrangements are mostly workmanlike blueprints that present the melody of the song, and do little else. Although it would be a mistake, I think, to attribute all of these arrangements to Joe Lippman, who played piano on the date and was a most capable arranger (at that time, he was mostly occupied working with Art Shaw and a few other arrangers to create a book of charts for Shaw’s then forming string quartet band), he nevertheless may have written some of them. Most of the tunes recorded were then-current pop tunes, but a few jazz numbers (“Take My Word,” “That’s A Plenty” and “Dardanella”) were sprinkled in.
Still, the arrangements are competently performed, especially when one considers that each of them, like all Thesaurus recordings, was made in one take. It is obvious that Bunny had taken considerable pains with the musicians in rehearsal before the recording session to prepare them for this marathon of recording. He had to have done this because this band was definitely only a part-time operation for Berigan. As always, he was very busy with other musical activities.
The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) had launched the Thesaurus transcription program service on July 15, 1935. It was the third such service in the United States, after World Broadcasting System and Standard Radio Advertising Co. Inc.
Since all Thesaurus transcriptions in 1936 were identified with some nondescript language like the “Rhythm Makers Orchestra,” these recordings did nothing to promote Bunny Berigan or any other bandleader who made similar recordings as a “name” performer or bandleader in the marketplace. In addition to the money Bunny and all his sidemen earned making these recordings, this project could have been used by him or his handlers to create demos, simply to show that he was capable of preparing music and a band for a recording session basically from scratch, and then leading the musicians at that session to produce acceptable recordings.
I find it very interesting to compare the recordings made at this recording session with similar transcriptions made by other bands early in their existence, like those led by Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnet, and others. There is really not much difference in the overall quality of the repertoire, or the performances. Over the years, many critics have disparaged these recordings by Berigan as dull performances, devoid of any spirit or individuality, except for his trumpet solos. While these criticisms are valid in some cases, the same could be said for similar recordings made by many other bands that were just beginning to find themselves who made similar transcription recordings. And we must remember that the band that made these recordings was not a full-time band being operated and led by Bunny Berigan.
Metronome’s August 1936 issue reported: “Bunny Berigan is readying himself a permanent swing band. He’s been hitting out of late fairly well on CBS with what has always sounded like a bunch composed mostly of house men. But now it is said that Bunny is going to go on NBC with a picked band, a band that he’s been rehearsing for quite a while now and which is supposed to have some swell swingers in its midst.”(3) (This never materialized.) Billboard carried a blurb in its July 25, 1936, issue stating that the Berigan band, such as it was, was being handled by Consolidated Radio Artists. If this is accurate, it probably meant that what few engagements this band played, if any, were booked by CRA. Given Bunny’s continuing weekly commitment to CBS and the Saturday Night Swing Club, and his ongoing heavy schedule of free-lance work in the New York recording studios, there would have been little time for him to be playing jobs on the road with this band. Saxophonist Murray Williams, who was a member of the Berigan band in late 1938, was a part of this band in the late summer of 1936: “The band of 1936 as I recall was an attempt by Bunny to have a big band. He was still on staff at CBS and doing the Saturday Night Swing Club, but wanted his own band. I’m under the impression it played no dates at that time, but was strictly a rehearsal unit. Joe Lippman wrote some arrangements and played piano. I joined Charlie Barnet at the Glen Island Casino and lost contact.”(4) Bunny Berigan was now carrying on a dual existence in his professional life: he was not a full-time studio musician nor was he a full-time bandleader.
It is difficult to fathom what Arthur Michaud had in mind during this period. Clearly, his ultimate goal was to make Bunny Berigan the leader of a full-time, touring band. Whatever Bunny was doing with the band he was then leading part-time may have been simply on-the-job training. And then, maybe Michaud was testing Bunny’s resolve, trying to determine how much he wanted to be a bandleader, or, considering his numerous peccadilloes, whether Berigan was in fact bandleader material at all. While Arthur Michaud played Pygmalion with Berigan’s career, Bunny continued working at CBS, principally on the Swing Club, and making a lot of records as a free-lance studio musician. His “band” such as it was, remained strictly a sideline activity for him.
The music: “Dardanella” was the fifteenth of twenty selections recorded by Bunny Berigan at this Thesaurus recording session. The material that Bunny had to work with, which he had little control over insofar as choice, is not very inspiring, except for the few tunes that lent themselves to jazz improvisation. “Dardanella” was certainly one of those. It was composed in 1919 by Fred Fisher, and was a favorite vehicle of 1920s and 1930s jazz musicians. Berigan had undoubtedly played this tune many times, and had arrived at an understanding of its harmonic structure that served as a ready springboard for his flights of improvisational fancy. His solo here is a classic example of his art: it is a full 32 bars long, and has a logically constructed beginning, middle and ending. It covers much of the range of the trumpet without strain, is delivered with rhythmic panache, and his unique, rich and ringing trumpet sound.
The arrangement, though it includes some tricky mid-1930s flourishes, is nevertheless fairly good, and is played with enthusiasm and reasonable swing by the band, which as was noted above, was basically an ad hoc group, put together by Bunny to make these recordings. The hoarse-sounding tenor saxophone spots after Berigan’s solo are likely by Art Drelinger. Bunny leads the brass strongly in the out-chorus.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) The titles Berigan recorded on July 20, 1936 for Thesaurus are: “Take My Word,” “Rendezvous With a Dream,” “On a Cocoanut Island,” “On the Beach at Bali-Bali,” “But Definitely!,” “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “I’m an Old Cowhand,” “Empty Saddles,” “On Your Toes,” “Did I Remember?,” “San Francisco,” “I Can’t Escape from You,” “I Can’t Pull a Rabbit Out of My Hat,” “When I’m with You,” “Dardanella,” “When Did You Leave Heaven?,” “You’re Not the Kind,” “You’ve Got to Eat Your Spinach, Baby,” “Sweet Misery of Love,” and “That’s a Plenty.”
(2) White materials: July 20, 1936.
(3) White materials: late July 1936.
(4) White materials: September 8, 1936.
It’s true that these ’36 Thesaurus arrangements, if examined strictly on their own, without consideration of how Bunny filled the space that was allotted to him, seem rather sedate and bare-bones — not unlike some of the bland, not quite up-to-date representations of swing music we find in Hollywood film soundtracks of the day. As you point out, though, this characterization could apply to the transcription arrangements for — and performances thereof by — many of the day’s swing bands. Despite the rather uninspiring charts and merely adequate support for the leader that was provided by the ad hoc band, I’ve always had a certain affection for these sides, in some measure for their time capsule quality, displaying swing for the masses in its somewhat tentative infancy, but especially for the showcasing of Bunny’s ability to create interest and excitement in a somewhat inconducive musical environment. Though promoting — or testing — Bunny was the whole purpose of this session, and he is the obvious star, he comes across, too, as someone who might have plied the trumpet-playing leader with drinks after the first set and then brazenly taken over his fair-to-middling dance band for the remaining sets, as represented by the 20 transcription sides. He figures that he’s going to make the most of his opportunity while the tuxedoed leader is slumped over, soused, in a booth and the patrons are still in their chairs or on the dance floor.
I love that figure Bunny uses to open his solo, tossing the song’s distinctive melody line right out the window, with no attempt to paraphrase, and installing something entirely different in its place, as if to say, “You’ve heard this old smoker often enough.” His note choices, as always, are perfect, though conversational and surely entirely off-the-cuff. The others, besides “Dardanella,” that I particularly like from this date are “Take My Word,” “I’m An Old Cowhand,” “Empty Saddles,” “On Your Toes” and “That’s A-Plenty.” Muted on “I Can’t Escape From You,’ he displays his superior ballad skills.
The “brunett” vocalist Peggy Lawson they refer to was my mom!