Composed by Jerome Kern; arranged by Joe Lippman.
Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Victor on December 23, 1937 in New York.
Roland Bernard “Bunny” Berigan, trumpet, directing Steve Lipkins, first trumpet; Irving Goodman, trumpet; Thomas B. “Sonny” Lee, first trombone; Al George, trombone; Robert “Mike” Doty first alto saxophone; Joe Dixon (Giuseppe Ischia) alto saxophone and clarinet; Georgie Auld (John Altwerger) and Clyde Rounds, tenor saxophones; Joe Lippman, piano; Tommy Morgan (Morganelli), guitar; Frederick “Hank” Wayland, bass; George Godfrey Wettling, drums.
The Berigan band opened a two-week engagement at the Paramount Theater on Times Square in Manhattan on Wednesday, November 17, 1937. Although they had spent the prior six weeks successfully playing in various theaters in the East, they were playing in the big league now. The Paramount Theater was the nation’s number one big band showcase. If the Berigan band could play a successful two-week stand at the Paramount, they had truly arrived. If they failed, MCA, their booking agency, would banish them to the road forever doing whatever small theater engagements and one-nighters were available.
Bunny had a great deal of help in making the Paramount show something audiences would enjoy. As usual, Bob Weitman, the Paramount’s very aggressive manager, made sure that his audiences received great variety, and plenty of it, for their money.
Here is the Billboard review of the show Bunny Berigan headlined at the Paramount Theater: “Thursday eve, November 18: the current show, slated for two weeks, is a Technicolor picture, Ebb Tide, combined with Bunny Berigan’s band and Frances Langford. Miss Langford, a lovely sight in a white-beaded gown, clicked from the time she came on. Without gushing Hollywood talk, she swings right into her singing, landing an appreciative hand after each number and going off to heavy applause. A sweet personality, she delivered a varied set of songs, including a medley of tunes she introduced in recent films, giving each number attention-compelling delivery. She knows how to sell her songs.
Berigan, making his Broadway theatre debut as a bandleader, makes fair impression. He’s got a flashy swing combo, but Berigan himself lacks real stage presence, despite valiant attempts at singing and comedy banter. When he gets down to tooting that trumpet, he is at his best, providing a brilliant tone and showing off some pretty fancy licks. His 12 men (comprising four saxes, two trumpets, two trombones, string bass, piano, guitar and drums) form a rather solid unit. The sax, clarinet, trombone and bass fiddle standouts in the catchy ‘Prisoner’s Song’ arrangement drew individual hands, each man doing a swell job. A swing arrangement of ‘Frankie and Johnny’ is another standout, the band as a whole making a good impression. Specialties are offered by Edna Strong, Bob Williams and Fred Sanborn, with Miss Langford closing the show. Miss Strong, a charming brunette, won her audience quickly and completely with fancy loose-jointed taps spins, while Sanborn worked his funny eyebrows overtime to wean a steady run of laughs. His silent cavorting and expert comedy and straight xylophoning put him over solidly. Helen and Bob Williams bring on their remarkable dog, Red Dust, with Bob putting the handsome canine through comedy and acrobatic contortionistics. Bob uses more comedy now and it’s a good idea too. The show is preceded by the usual organ session by Don Baker, who can certainly finger that keyboard.(1)
The show, really a vaudeville revue, was a success, and during its second week was being called a “smash,” not only in the trade papers, but also in the New York Times. Weitman extended the revue for a third week.
Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra had passed the test. Everyone connected with the Berigan band was ecstatic. This was a major triumph.
But in the last week of the engagement, Clyde Rounds, one of Bunny’s sax men, saw something happen that seemed insignificant at the time:
“We were received most enthusiastically at the Paramount and we also played for The Hollywood Hour, which starred Frances Langford, who shared the stage with us. All this helped to enhance the band’s reputation with the public. But during our last week an incident occurred, the significance of which didn’t strike us at the time. In order to get on to the Paramount stage, we had to go through the basement, past the huge organ and on to the bandstand which was lowered for that purpose. The bandstand rose from the pit like the organ and it was quite a small area, so we had to proceed more or less in single file. Suddenly, on that occasion, the stand started going up before we’d all managed to get on! Bunny was bringing up the rear, giving us a shove, but by the time it came his turn to mount the stand, it was almost level with his head and still rising. All he could do was hang on and pull himself up, but by then he was in full view of the audience and it took him a little time to regain his balance and composure. Of course, word soon spread around that he was drunk again! Despite this injustice, the rumor persisted, resulting in the band being turned down by at least three top locations, the Roosevelt, Biltmore and Commodore hotels in New York, all of which had valuable air-time. At least the Biltmore did us the courtesy of an audition, but to no avail. Gail Reese didn’t work the Paramount date, probably because of Frances Langford’s act in the stage show which also included Freddy Sanborn, a comic xylophonist. The film was Ebb Tide, starring Ray Milland. (2)
In spite of this strange mishap, there was no denying that the Berigan band had done well at the Paramount Theater. A sampling of band grosses at the Paramount appeared in The International Musician at various times in late 1937–early 1938, and it revealed where he ranked among other top bands:
“New York Paramount grosses for Bunny Berigan: first week unknown (probably in excess of $50,000 – MZ); second week $43,000; third week $30,000. The top grosses in 1937 were by the sweet bands, e.g. Shep Fields with $64,000, $42,500, $34,000 in September; followed by Russ Morgan. Berigan out-grossed Tommy Dorsey for his two-week stand in November. Dorsey did $38,500 and $28,000. Fred Waring had the top gross up to early 1938, with a single week record of $70,000 plus weeks of $50,000, $35,000 and $26,000. Benny Goodman grossed $57,000 for the first of his three-week stand in February 1938, which was the third best in two years”(3)
In December of 1937, the Berigan band was on a major roll. In addition to its continuing success in theaters and ballrooms, its Victor records were beginning to sell, especially the disk that contained “I Can’t Get Started” and “The Prisoner’s Song.” In early December, Victor edited both of these tunes to fit onto a ten-inch record that could be played in jukeboxes. But at that moment, Bunny was simply too busy with other more lucrative endeavors to take his band into Victor’s Manhattan studios to make more records. Attractive opportunities existed outside of New York City.
After closing at the Paramount Theater on Tuesday December 7, the Berigan crew drove to a one-night dance engagement at the Ritz Ballroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on the 8th that had been postponed due to the band’s Paramount engagement being extended. They then moved on to “The Showplace of New England,” the Metropolitan Theater in Boston for a one-week stand. Bunny’s road manager then, George Stacy, provided the details: “The band shared the stage show with Freddy Sanborn, who had appeared with us in New York, Frances McCoy, another singer who kept Gail Reese at home, plus a couple of comedians, Kepple and Betty and a dance troupe. The film was Submarine D-1, which starred George Brent, Pat O’Brien and Wayne Morris. There were four stage shows a day. Prices 25¢ until 1 p.m.; 45¢ 1 to 5 p.m.; 65¢ after 5 p.m.(4)
Vocalist Gail Reese had been unable to work at a number of theaters with the band, because she would have been competing with the starring female singers in the various shows. She explained how this was handled: “I played the Hippodrome Theatre date (in Baltimore), but I didn’t play the Met in Boston because Frances McCoy was on the bill, or the New York Paramount, when Frances Langford was the headliner. So I wasn’t allowed to sing and went home for three weeks.
We had one comedy routine, we used in theatres: I was a girl reporter sent to interview Bunny and it would end with me being chased off the stage by his high notes! On one-nighters, we would occasionally split vocals and that was fun. The greatest I ever heard Bunny play was on ‘Dark Eyes’ at a slow tempo. When he felt like playing that, he was so great!”(5)
The Berigan band closed at the Metropolitan Theater on December 15, having grossed $24,000 while they played there.(6) 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. They had grossed more than $300,000.00. (Multiply by 15 to get the value in today’s dollars.)
As the historical record of Berigan’s life and career has been assembled in fits and starts since 1937, we have learned that the end of that year marked the commercial and financial high-water mark for Bunny. This is sadly ironic because at that very time, when he was enjoying the first fruits of the major success that he had been working toward over the previous ten or more years, a series of misfortunes lay just ahead. They would combine to undermine and then destroy what he had worked so hard to achieve. Musically, Berigan continued playing brilliantly on a consistent basis through 1938 and 1939. His band reached its zenith musically in the last half of 1938. Through much of 1939, his band was still remarkably good. As he struggled to maintain the best band he could in late 1939, he found that whatever he did, he could not stay ahead of his creditors. Some of the moves he made on the business side of his band in 1939, with the best of intentions, were decidedly ill-advised, and accelerated the demise of the band he organized in early 1937. The final gig for that band was at the end of February 1940.
But all of these things, harmful as they were to Berigan’s career at that time, were far less significant that the disturbing chronic health difficulties he began to experience at the end of 1939, when he had to be hospitalized. From that time on, cirrhosis of the liver, the disease that would eventually kill him in June of 1942, began to slowly erode his health.
But at the end of 1937, all of that was unknown to Bunny.
On December 23, Berigan 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 those performances are good, and a couple of them are more than that.
The music: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” was composed by Jerome Kern in 1927 for the pioneering Broadway production Show Boat. The song, (with a lyric by Oscar Hammerstein, II), was strongly associated with 1920s torch singer Helen Morgan, who played the character Julie LaVerne in the original 1927 stage production, as well as the 1932 Broadway revival, and the 1936 Universal film version. While Morgan was alive (she died at age 41 in 1941), she “owned” the song as much as Judy Garland owned “Over the Rainbow” (from The Wizard of Oz). (7)
Berigan’s recording of “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” may have been instigated by the publisher of Kern’s music as a part of the promotional campaign for the 1936 Hollywood film of Show Boat. Whatever reason was behind Bunny recording this tune, his approach was 100% jazz, with little reference to Kern’s melody. Joe Lippman’s arrangement is minimal, and affords the jazz soloists room to blow. Basically, he organizes each chorus with a 16 bar space for each solo, then a contrasting bridge played by part or all of the ensemble, followed by the soloist returning for the final eight bars.
Berigan’s opening 16 bar solo in the first chorus is a delightful and concise abstraction of the melody. In the last eight bars after the bridge, listen to how the notes tumble out of his trumpet. It reminds me of a small mountain stream flowing over a waterfall on a warm, sunny day.
Young Georgie Auld follows on tenor saxophone, rhythmic as usual. Auld was featured a lot by Bunny because he had great command of his instrument, and looked, hunched shoulders and eyes closed, very intent and when soloing. Audiences like Auld’s playing for what they saw as much as for what they heard. Bunny taught (by the process of osmosis) Auld how to play jazz in the almost two years they were associated as leader and sideman. Nevertheless, Georgie’s great jazz epiphany came in the summer of 1938 when he first heard Herschel Evans, one of the tenor saxophone soloists in Count Basie’s band, play.
The next jazz solo is played by trombonist Sonny Lee. Lee, along with drummer George Wettling, was one of the senior (in terms of age) members of the Berigan ensemble. He was 33 years old when this recording was made, and had already had a career in jazz that covered 15 years, including work with myriad bands and with jazz soloists Bix Beiderbecke, Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman. Bunny respected Lee’s ability as both a jazz soloist and lead trombonist. He was one of the highest paid members of the Berigan band. In his solo on this recording he demonstrates his jazz ability.
I have been puzzled by the sound Sonny got with the mute he used on this solo for a long time. Recently, I consulted veteran jazz trombonist Dan Barrett about this, and asked him to explain. Here is what Dan said:
“It sounds to me like Sonny Lee was using an old kind of mute that is no longer manufactured. It’s called a Voca-tone mute. It’s similar to the longer, more common Solo-Tone mute used often by Tommy Dorsey on ballads, and (Ellington trombonist) Lawrence Brown on things like “All Too Soon.” (Bandleader) Vince Giordano sent me one years ago, and I still use it. I think (jazz trombonist) Vic Dickenson also had one. The Solo-Tone mute is comprised of two parts, glued together. It has a second “cone” sticking out of the first. It’s about fourteen inches long, or so. I used to carry one around with me, but the second cone kept breaking off in my mute bag!
The Voca-tone mute (and its modern replacement, called a Mel-O-Wah mute) gets a very similar sound, is only one “part,” and doesn’t break! (Do you see how artistic decisions are often the result of practical considerations, ha, ha?)”
Lee plays 16 bars of fine jazz, then Joe Dixon on clarinet spells him on the bridge for eight bars of rhythmic jazz, being spurred on by drummer George Wettling. Lee returns to finish the chorus in style.
A brief upward modulation brings Berigan back for another eight bars of jazz and his upward glissando in the finale.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
(1) Billboard: November 27, 1937, cited in the White materials: November 17, 1937.
(2) White materials: November 17, 1937.
(3) Cited in the White materials: December 7, 1937.
(4) White materials: December 9, 1937.
(5) White materials: October 15, 1937.
(6) Down Beat: December 1937, cited in the White materials: December 15, 1937.
(7) The information about the song “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and the Broadway musical and later Hollywood films of Show Boat, come from the Wikipedia post for it.