“Honeysuckle Rose” (1935) with Benny Goodman

Composed by Thomas “Fats” Waller; arranged by Fletcher Henderson.

Recorded in performance by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra from an NBC “Let’s Dance” radio broadcast on January 5, 1935 in New York.

Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Bunny Berigan, first and solo trumpet; Ralph Muzzillo and Jerry Neary, trumpets; Jack Lacey and Sterling “Red” Ballard, trombones; Nuncio “Toots” Mondello, first alto saxophone; Hymie Shertzer, alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Dick Clark, tenor saxophones; Frank Froeba, piano; George Van Eps, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Gene Krupa, drums.

The story:

Benny Goodman in the mid-1930s. The “Let’s Dance” show over NBC radio gave his career as a bandleader a major boost.

The birth of the swing era as a mass-media driven cultural phenomenon was taking place in a number of places and in a number of bands in 1934. The role of Benny Goodman in the birth of the swing era has perhaps taken on a larger significance in retrospect than it actually had when these events were taking place. There are many reasons why this is so. Probably the largest reason is that Benny Goodman, who early on was dubbed “The King of Swing” by his booking agency, Music Corporation of America (MCA), enjoyed a tremendously successful career, lasting long after the end of the swing era, well into the 1980s. The length of Goodman’s career was possible in large measure because of the surprise success, in the early 1950s, of the recordings from his 1938 Carnegie Hall concert, followed shortly by the success of a set of his live radio broadcast recordings from the late 1930s. (Both sets of recordings were well produced, handsomely packaged, and heavily promoted by Columbia Records.) These successes led directly to the making by Universal Pictures of the Hollywood film version of his life, The Benny Goodman Story, in 1956. As hokey and inaccurate as that film is, people are still watching it over sixty years after it was released, and will undoubtedly continue do so for as long as it remains in the stream of commerce. As the renowned film composer (and former Tex Beneke band pianist/arranger) Henry Mancini (who worked on that film’s music) was wont to say: “films are forever.” And as long as people watch that film, they are going to get a distorted picture of what actually happened at the birth of the swing era. I do not intend to minimize the role of Benny Goodman in the birth of the swing era. I merely want to place his part in that process into the context of what was actually happening then. Here is some background:

Benny Goodman and the NBC Let’s Dance radio show.

Even though there had been much publicity surrounding the departure of Billy Rose from the Billy Rose Music Hall in September of 1934, Benny Goodman’s newly organized band apparently continued to work there until October 17.(1)  After that gig ended, the Goodman band had spotty work at best for several weeks. On November 6, 1934, Benny Goodman and His Orchestra auditioned for the Let’s Dance radio program at NBC.(2) They got one of three available places on that show.

The story of the NBC Let’s Dance radio series is an essential part of any review of how swing came to be a part of the mainstream of American popular music in the 1930s. The December 1, 1934 broadcast was the first of the Let’s Dance programs, which had been in the planning stages for several weeks, and the public relations executives of the advertising agency handling the account had been filling the trade press with many handouts. Here is what the trade papers reported:

Let’s Dance is the first sponsored, three hour show, coast to coast, in radio history.’ (Variety: October 23, 1934) ‘The National Biscuit Company is throwing a shindig November 21. (Billboard: October 24, 1934); Let’s Dance is to be on 57 NBC stations and supplement others. The first show is to be December 1, 10:30 p.m. to 3:30 a.m., going three hours into each time zone in the U.S.A. (Broadcasting: November 1, 1934) The National Biscuit Company radio show, Let’s Dance, is being extensively ballyhooed with a party last week, reams of releases and a ‘Hollywood’ opening with searchlights and ‘names’ at the first broadcast. (Billboard: December 1, 1934).” (3) The show was used to launch Nabisco’s newest product, the Ritz cracker.

The Benny Goodman band appearing on a “Let’s Dance” broadcast in late December of 1934. The singers in front are Buddy Clark (Samuel Goldberg) and Helen Ward. front row L-R: Dick Clark, BG, Hymie Shertzer, Toots Mondello, Arthur Rollini; middle row: Frank Froeba, Harry Goodman, George Van Eps, Jack Lacey, Red Ballard; back: Jerry Neary, Sammy Shapiro, Pee Wee Erwin and Gene Krupa.

Helen Ward, who was the girl singer in Benny Goodman’s band then recalled: “This was the first time I ever worked with Bunny Berigan. The shows emanated from NBC’s Studio 8H (in what was then the RCA Building, now called 30 Rock). (4) The band sat on tiered platforms with the brass section perched on the top tier at the back. One night, Bunny fell over backwards, right off the stand! They had to rush out and get Mannie Klein to sub for the remainder of the show”(5) (See comment below by saxophonist Ben Kanter about the December 29, 1934 New Year’s Eve Let’s Dance show when this happened.)

A print ad introducing some of the bandleaders who were to appear on network radio in late 1934. Although Benny Goodman is pictured playing a clarinet, the caption refers to him as “the hottest cornetist in the world.”

“Top-grade Manhattan dance band musicians expect the Let’s Dance show to have trouble building. They figure that established name orchestras on other networks will not be turned off for newcomers Kel Murray and the not-so-well-known Benny Goodman and Xavier Cugat, even though these outfits all have good musicians. A few of the opposition names are Hal Kemp, Wayne King, Freddy Martin, Enrique Madriguera, Joe Haymes, Glen Gray, Will Osborne, Eddie Duchin and Claude Hopkins. Another expected difficulty will be orchestrations for approximately fifty tunes, that being the number played during each three hour show.”(6)

Here is a detailed review of Let’s Dance from the January 1935 issue of Metronome:

“Dancing Party (fair).  Let’s Dance sponsored by National Biscuit with Kel Murray’s, Xavier Cugat and Bennie (sic) Goodman’s bands, vocalists: Phil Duey,  Frank Luther, Carmen Castillia, Connie Gates, Helen Ward, Jack Parker and Luis Alvarez, three hours, Saturday night, WEAF (then the New York flagship station for the NBC radio network).”

“Musicianship: Fifty-six stations on the red web carry these three hours of terpsichore to the four corners of the country. It means a five hour work out for the bands since they will be on the air from 10:30 p.m. in the East to 1:30 a.m.; 9:30 p.m. to 12:30 on the Pacific Coast. The three hours set up is for straight dancing, each dance running approximately three minutes in quarter hour period, for each band. Titles of numbers are announced. Cugat dishes out tangos, rumbas, waltzes and others of South American influence; Benny Goodman hands out the hot stuff and Murray comes smooth and sweet. Each band holds forth for four or five numbers, when another one is switched on (sic). Still greater variety would be secured if the bands alternated each number although that would not give them much of a rest. For a dance routine the bands mesh nicely. Kel Murray who is a first class musician, comes through with a sonorous and well balanced ensemble. Benny Goodman and his clarinet capers are outstanding. The vocalists singly and in combination are adequate.”

A sponsored network radio show was what every top-grade big band during the swing era wanted. It provided good, steady money, good public relations and advertising for the band, and ongoing publicity, like this piece that appeared in the Phoenix Star on December 31, 1934.

“Showmanship: There is nothing new about dance music on the air. Anyone can tune in on a Sat Night especially and get all they want from the best name bands. The only difference with this program is that you can set the dial at one spot and let it ride which makes it a little easier for lazy fans and the majority are. Neither is it the longest sponsored program as announced. The Metropolitan Opera rambles on for four and sometimes five hours. But there are enough angles to this as a three hours strictly dance routine to make a spread about it, and Sat Night is a likely spot in the week.”(7)

“Each band played for fifteen minute alternating sets. Some trade press reports indicated that commercial skits were repeated late in the shows, but it is not certain if that also applied to band numbers. Reviews were generally unfavorable at first, asserting that the commercials were twenty years behind the times, and that there was plenty of good dance music being broadcast during those hours, without commercials. Don Carey, who hosted a long-running children’s show as “Uncle Don,” appeared on the first two shows, but then was dropped because, according to Metronome, “he was ribbed by every radio scribe in town.”(8)

“This program was an expensive undertaking in the middle of the Depression. In addition to all of the costs involved in paying the bands, and arrangers, copyists, and so on, for new music, and paying the large technical staff needed to stage the show, there was the cost of ‘renting’ the lines over which the NBC radio network’s programs flowed to its affiliates. The Let’s Dance show, a Saturday night dancing party, will run for three hours, beginning December 1. The sponsor is the National Biscuit Company and the program begins at 10.30 p.m. and continues until 1.30 a.m. Sunday in the East, with earlier times for Central, West and Pacific coast. The line cost for the three hours will be $30,000, approximately, which ordinarily would run the ante up to $45,000, since after 11:00 p.m. is quoted at half rate.”(9)

Bunny Berigan with Benny Goodman on the NBC Let’s Dance show.

Because of his enormous musical talent and lofty standards, Benny Goodman found it difficult to admire many of his musical associates. Bunny Berigan was one of the few exceptions.

Ben Kanter, who on a few occasions early-on filled-in as lead alto saxophonist in the Goodman band on the Let’s Dance show (he had played lead alto for BG at Billy Rose’s Music Hall) recalled: “Bunny wasn’t a regular member of the Goodman band at this time as he was still working (full-time) at CBS. He would not normally be present at rehearsals, but would just show up for the broadcasts.”(10)

Berigan continued working at CBS during the day in December 1934, appearing in all manner of combos, bands, and orchestras on the air, including as a member of the Instrumentalists, led by Harry Warnow, CBS conductor Mark Warnow’s younger brother, professionally known as Raymond Scott. He also took club dates on some evenings. Drummer Johnny Williams (father of legendary film composer John Williams), worked with Berigan at CBS and elsewhere then: “I did a couple of Benny’s Let’s Dance shows. Bunny was definitely on the early shows, even though he was still working over at CBS, plus doing some society dates with Joe Moss, who ran Meyer Davis’s New York office. He would get as much as $50 from Moss, which was big money then for a dance job.”(11)  Clearly, Bunny Berigan’s work with Benny Goodman at this time was strictly on the side

Bunny Berigan: workaholic becoming an alcoholic.

It appears that Berigan played on the December 8, 15, 22, 29 and January 5 Let’s Dance shows, and made a one-nighter with BG on December 25, 1934, at the George F. Pavilion, in Binghamton, New York. Ben Kanter later had vivid recollections of the December 29 Let’s Dance show: “That was a special New Year’s Let’s Dance program and Bunny had gotten so drunk he passed out in the middle of the opening theme! Once again Mannie Klein came over from Kel Murray to fill in for the show. Also, about that time, Dick Clark came in on 4th tenor for Gil Rodin, who was only there on a temporary basis.”(12)

Bunny Berigan at CBShis employment there was lucrative and high-level, but it, along with the other work he enthusiastically took on, exacted a toll on him.

The destructive pattern of Berigan overworking, followed by him collapsing as a result of being drunk had started. His use of alcohol had progressed to the abuse stage during the year 1934 while he was at CBS. Undoubtedly, the long hours, and downtime between broadcasts, on top of the incredible demands of playing a wide variety of music on live network radio on a stop watch schedule, plus his outside work, all combined to increase his perceived need for alcohol to help him get through. Unfortunately, when the rare opportunity to play a little jazz came along, Bunny was often too tapped out and/or inebriated to play at the top of his ability. His use of alcohol to “help” him at such times often had precisely the opposite effect. Still, he was able to stop drinking periodically, or reduce his intake to levels where he was not incapacitated, no doubt to convince himself that he didn’t have a problem. His coworkers knew differently. He now had to have alcohol to perform at all. He was in the process of learning how to be a functioning alcoholic.

Alcohol was not only affecting Bunny Berigan’s ability to play the trumpet and his professional reliability, it was also beginning to affect his behavior.           

Fellow CBS musician Buddy Sheppard recalled how Bunny was beginning to behave at CBS:

Members of the various bands would receive a weekly schedule of the shows we’d play and the names of the conductors, Fred Rich, Howard Barlow, Leith Stevens, etc. Bunny Berigan at that time was a sensational musician who would almost shock us with his daring improvisations. It was always a thrill to hear him. As a person, however, he was an enigma. He could be very nice, very easy-going, but after a heavy drinking bout he could get nasty. He had many run-ins with the authorities, like the famous one with Kate Smith(13) on her radio show. Kate was very proper and very religious and reacted strongly to an outburst of Berigan profanity! Bunny was banished from the studio and the whole episode took an awful lot of smoothing over!(14)

Bunny Berigan in 1934.

The incident Buddy Sheppard referred to, like so many others involving Bunny Berigan, has been greatly embellished over the years. He was certainly not fired by CBS, as some sources have reported, for whatever he did. He was simply removed from the Kate Smith show, temporarily. Indeed, there is evidence that he returned later in 1935 to play on the Kate Smith show. “Bunny’s famous ‘run-in’ with Kate Smith was well known to many members of the CBS staff orchestra(s), but none interviewed could offer details of the event nor help ‘date’ it. All agreed Smith attempted to have Bunny fired, but he had only been ‘removed’ from her shows. (15) Kate Smith and her manager, Ted Collins, were held in very low esteem by most of the CBS musicians, but by 1935–36, when the event probably took place, Smith was an important source of income for CBS and she certainly had the ability to demand that something be done.”(16)  

There can be no justification of this lapse in professional demeanor by Berigan; however, there were undoubtedly reasons why it happened. Bunny, like all musicians, resented people like Kate Smith, whose musical background was limited, telling him how to play. Moreover, the musical level of the Kate Smith show was minuscule, so Bunny was probably already irritated by having to be a part of that. Add the exhaustion and boredom that were becoming greater the longer Bunny stayed at CBS, a bit of alcoholic fuel, and you have a blowup.

By January of 1935, Bunny Berigan had completed another full year as a CBS staff musician since returning to the network the previous year. Although he was superbly equipped to be a studio musician from the technical standpoint, he was far less well suited temperamentally to do this kind of work. He was first and foremost a jazz musician, and his duties at CBS gave him almost no opportunity to play jazz there. He chafed at the constant restrictions and confinement his employment at CBS imposed on him. His increased reliance upon alcohol and chronic overwork at and away from CBS were direct results of the ongoing frustration within him caused by this situation. There were indeed other run-ins with the authorities at CBS. Trumpeter Ruby Weinstein recalled: 

“I first met Bunny Berigan when I was working with Victor Young on the Ponds radio show and we also did the Lucky Strike program with Lennie Hayton’s forty-piece orchestra, when Mr. Hill, president of the tobacco company, was alive. He gave strict orders not to deviate from the melody, so when Bunny was given a chorus, he obeyed the instruction at rehearsal. But when we went on the air, he took such liberties with the tune that Mr. Hill nearly had a fit and fired the entire orchestra! Hayton had a thirteen weeks contract and as we’d only worked for three, they had to pay him for the remaining ten weeks. Naturally, we, the musicians, didn’t get paid!“(17) By this, Weinstein meant after the musicians had been fired, they no longer had that job, so they were unable to earn the pay they had expected to receive at the beginning of the show’s run.

Yet there were other aspects of Bunny’s CBS employment that were extremely positive and enjoyable. CBS, in the mid-1930s, was a haven for some of the most creative people on the entertainment and broadcasting scene at that time. The musical fare at CBS then was so widely varied that it boggles the mind, especially when compared with the generally homogeneous and unimaginative offerings found on radio today. At CBS, one could within one broadcast day, run the gamut from outright concert music (The Ford Sunday Evening Hour), to the light classics, with André Kostelanetz, to Kate Smith to Raymond Scott to The Saturday Night Swing Club (which had a great deal to do with establishing jazz as a part of the American cultural landscape-and launching Bunny Berigan as a bandleader). In addition, there was a wide variety of what are now called “scripted shows,” from soap operas to dramas to comedies. The Mercury Theater of the Air, under the wildly unconventional leadership of the prodigious Orson Welles, was allowed to appear and thrive on CBS radio. The music for Welles’s radio dramas was provided by CBS staffer Bernard Herrmann, who followed Welles to Hollywood, and composed the music for Welles’s classic film Citizen Kane. Herrmann later went on to a now legendary collaboration with film director Alfred Hitchcock, composing the music for such memorable films as Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Birds, and Psycho.(18)The mid-1930s also marked the beginnings of the renowned news division at CBS, which ultimately produced the first superstar news person: Edward R. Murrow.(19) By 1938, CBS was broadcasting, via live relay from WGAR in Cleveland on Sunday afternoons, the first network radio program that was dedicated to Afro-Americans: Wings over Jordan. It came to be recognized as the first radio program of the American civil rights movement. CBS was not the largest radio network in America, but it could certainly claim to be the most creative and inclusive. Bunny Berigan was at CBS in the midst of this heady atmosphere, and he encountered many people there whose creative outlook must have been a healthy antidote for the very often grueling and stultifying work he had to do in the music department.

The nation was deeply mired in an economic depression in the mid-1930s. Berigan’s work at CBS, tedious and exhausting as it was, paid very well, and due to his schedule there, he was free most evenings to take outside jobs. Some of these, like the ones with Joe Moss at the Meyer Davis office, were hardly satisfying in the musical sense, but they paid well. Financially speaking, Bunny was (or should have been) doing very well. There were few musicians in New York or anywhere who were making more money in 1934–1935 than he was. His wife reported that he was often earning $500 weekly,(20) and if this amount is multiplied by fifteen, we can approximate the value of those Depression era dollars today. It appears that by 1935, Bunny had his own car, and he and his family resided in the comfortable house at 83-28 Sixty-third Ave. Rego Park, in Queens that he had purchased upon his return to CBS in early 1934.(21) This residence is located near Juniper Valley Park and St. John’s Cemetery, and was not far from the Forest Hills home of Mildred Bailey and Red Norvo.(22)

Trumpeter Dave Wade, a colleague of Bunny’s at CBS recalled: “Raymond Scott’s group also recorded backing singers Red McKenzie and Midge Williams. My solo on ‘Wanted’ (with Red McKenzie) fooled some people into thinking it was Bunny. I did my best to sound like him, as Ray Scott told me I had to sound like Bunny to get the CBS job. While Bunny was still on staff at CBS I recall that Nat Natoli was in the ‘night band’ at that same time and was a good friend of Bunny’s. Bunny and I were in the so-called ‘morning band.’ Nat and I went out to visit Bunny for some reason, it was mid-winter and cold, and when we arrived we found the house with no heat; the kids were on the floor with their coats on. Nat was so mad!  He wanted to fracture Bunny! While Bunny was still on staff, but before I had joined, I used to do a lot of sub work in his place; he was always so busy.”(23)

Bunny and Donna in a gag photo taken at an amusement park in the early 1930s. The people behind them are Darrell and Joyce McArthur. Darrell was Donna’s brother.

If Bunny was irresponsible with money, and he certainly was, Donna was too. Bunny provided large sums of money for Donna to run the Berigan household, and she used that money as she saw fit. He was not one to bother with things like a family budget, and he was not around enough to monitor the family’s finances in any event. It appears that Donna’s overall immaturity extended into the area of family finance. Consequently, there was never enough money to keep things running smoothly at the Berigan home no matter how much Bunny earned. As a result of both Bunny’s and Donna’s spendthrift ways, he and Donna were always short of funds. Although he was clearly the dominant partner in their marriage, he was not domineering or cruel. Donna was undoubtedly aware of the fact that her husband was capable of making a lot of money, and she seemed to defer to him in most, if not all matters. It appears that she was along for the ride, and for a long time, that ride included a lot of laughs, a lot of fun, and a lot of goodies. She seems to have come to the conclusion that whatever Bunny did, and his conduct was becoming more damaging to their marriage, that conduct was necessary for him to continue his very successful career. Donna was using denial to deal with Bunny’s behavior, especially his deepening dependence on alcohol. Her way of dealing with Bunny’s drinking, more and more, involved her having a few with him, whenever he was around, which was less and less. Nevertheless, Donna was by this time also developing her own problem with alcohol.

The repeal of Prohibition was certainly not a factor in Berigan’s advancing alcoholism. He was well on his way in that direction long before repeal. However, repeal was a substantial factor in the economic revival of the dance band business in the mid-1930s.

One of many remarkable things about Bunny Berigan was his ability to bounce back from the most humiliating, ego-crushing experiences, like falling off the bandstand at the Let’s Dance radio broadcast in a drunken stupor, and then somehow pulling himself together and playing well (sometimes magnificently) within a short time thereafter. There is no doubt that after that sad incident with Benny Goodman, Bunny returned to CBS (probably the next day) to once again resume his demanding and exacting duties, which likely included playing in the band on the Kate Smith show, appearing with the Instrumentalists, a forerunner of the Raymond Scott Quintet, and working with various bands under the direction of Mark Warnow. Incredibly, he also returned to play on the very next Let’s Dance radio show.

The music:

The recording presented with this post is amazing for a number of reasons. First, it demonstrates that the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), which in January of 1935 was only nine years old, had made a substantial commitment to dance music, the dance bands and musicians that made the music, and last but not least, to jazz. Although sustaining (unsponsored) remote radio broadcasts by bands from venues around the U.S. were not new in 1935, a largely un-gimmicked sponsored network radio show built around dance music certainly was. The second reason this recording is amazing is that it presents a band playing undiluted, cutting-edge jazz. The third reason it is amazing is that it includes three substantial jazz solos. Jack Lacey steps forward first on trombone – he takes the three “A” sections of “Honeysuckle Rose” with Bunny Berigan playing the bridge on muted trumpet. Lacey’s solo is very good. Then we hear two entire choruses played by Benny Goodman, which are great. And finally, there are the two full choruses played by Berigan, also great. These solos occupy three minutes of sponsored network radio air time. (The overall length of this performance is 4:41.) The infamous “stop-watch” of network radio is completely absent!

From a musical perspective, we have to remember that in January of 1935, almost all of the history of jazz as we know it today, had yet to be played out. Nevertheless, the three jazz solos on this recording, which sounded great in 1935, still sound great. Trombonist Jack Lacey (1911-1965) is the least well-known of the three soloists. He worked his way through a number of Pennsylvania territory bands in the late 1920s and arrived in New York in 1930. He worked with Fred Rich at CBS (with Bunny Berigan) in the early 1930s, and also did dance band work outside of that job in New York. He joined Benny Goodman at Billy Rose’s Music Hall in August of 1934, and remained with Goodman until the end of September 1935. Upon completing of BG’s famous engagement at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, he and Berigan left the Goodman band to return to CBS in New York. Lacey continued to work at CBS for several years, doing outside recording whenever his CBS duties allowed. Although there is scant information about his activities after 1940, he apparently continued working in New York into the 1960s. Despite being in very fast company in this performance, Lacey holds his own.

Benny Goodman and Bunny Berigan in 1935.

People understandably remain curious about the human dynamic between Bunny Berigan and his two most famous employers, Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. Based on all the evidence I have been able to turn up, both BG and TD had the same reaction to Bunny Berigan as a musician: they were very cognizant of his overall musical talent and they understood that his gifts as a jazz improviser were great. They both also understood that he had the ability to inspire his fellow musicians and to electrify audiences with his playing. They both also deplored what was happening to him as a result of his increasing use of alcohol. But neither of them, as gigantic as their egos were, had a savior complex in their dealings with Berigan’s alcohol problem, or indeed with any other musician they worked with who had a problem with alcohol – and there were many. Their main concern was with the music, as was Berigan’s.

By the time this recording was made, Benny Goodman had been the leader of his own band for only a few months. But he had undoubtedly come to the realization that this particular band, playing the particular music they were playing at that particular time, under the circumstances provided by the NBC Let’s Dance show, represented a golden opportunity for him to move his career as a bandleader ahead by a quantum leap, and to do so playing the music he wanted to play. With his business-savvy brother Harry helping him with the business side of the operation of his band, Benny had more time to practice his clarinet. Goodman’s gifts as a jazz improviser have been justly celebrated since the mid-1930s. His way of approaching music was to practice as much as possible by himself, then to rehearse intensively with his band, often driving them crazy with his endless repetitions, and then go out to play the gig with enormous confidence. It was a successful formula for him, and he continued to follow it for the rest of his career.

Benny Goodman’s confidence as a performer and as a jazz soloist was rooted in preparation. And he had plenty of time during the six months run of the Let’s Dance radio show to prepare for each weekly broadcast because he was doing little work elsewhere.(24) But Bunny Berigan’s approach to his work with BG on the Let’s Dance show was quite different. Indeed, it was quite the opposite. Because he was working 40 or more hours a week at CBS, and doing some recording session and other work outside of that job, he did not have time to rehearse with the Goodman band. During the week, a trumpet player rehearsed the part of the BG book that would be played by Berigan, and then Bunny would simply appear on Saturday night and play the live-broadcast radio show by sight-reading his parts of the arrangements, and playing whatever jazz solos were required.

From his place of confidence based on his great talent, and then his enormous preparation, the result of individual practice and rehearsal with his band, Benny Goodman could be arrogant in his dealings with other musicians who worked with him. The attitude in him they often sensed was, hey, I’m doing this and I’m doing it well. I expect you to do the same thing. If there was a musician who was confident in his playing, BG would in essence challenge him to go toe-to-toe with him, and see exactly how good he was, especially when playing jazz. That is exactly what he does with Bunny Berigan in this historic performance.

It is significant to me that Benny Goodman played his solo in this performance before Bunny Berigan played his. I interpret this as Benny throwing down the gauntlet for Berigan, challenging him to play as well as he just had. Bunny handled that challenge beautifully. His jazz solo, like Goodman’s, is a gem. Berigan went toe-to-toe with Goodman here, and played with inspiration. Note how he built the excitement in his solo through the first chorus, then exploded the emotional climax in the first sixteen bars of the second chorus. (25)

I do not understand why Bunny used a buzzing straight mute when he played this solo, I think an open trumpet would have been more effective. (26) But a muted trumpet seems to be what Fletcher Henderson specified in this arrangement. (When BG finally got around to making a record of this chart (on November 22, 1939), Ziggy Elman played an excellent trumpet solo, using a cup mute.)

The source recording I used for the music presented with this post was in extremely low-fidelity condition. I did quite a lot of audio restoration work with it, and what you hear is about as good as I can make it. It is far from my usual audio standard for recordings from the 1930s, but its historical importance for fans of both Bunny Berigan’s music and Benny Goodman’s compelled me to share it with those who appreciate great swing.


(1) Thirty Years with the Big Bands, by Arthur Rollini, University of Illinois Press (1987), 36–7. Cited hereafter as “Rollini.”

(2) How Benny Goodman got to perform that audition is explained in Swing, Swing, Swing, The Life and Times of Benny Goodman, by Ross Firestone Norton (1993),106–108, hereafter “Firestone.”

(3) White materials: December 1, 1934.

(4) The “NBC studios” referred to by Helen Ward and contemporary press reports was the huge studio 8H, located in the then newly completed RCA Building in Rockefeller Center. Studio 8H could comfortably seat an audience of over a thousand people. It was from studio 8H that Arturo Toscanini would broadcast with the NBC Symphony, starting on Christmas night 1937. Later, after the advent of network television, this studio became the home of NBC’s Tonight Show, first hosted by Steve Allen, then Jack Paar, and finally Johnny Carson. With Carson, the show moved to Burbank, California, in 1972. Studio 8H has for many years been home to Saturday Night Live.

(5) White materials: December 1, 1934.

(6) Variety, December 4, 1934; cited in the White materials, December 1, 1934. Benny Goodman’s near desperation to acquire arrangements that would be appropriate for presentation on the Let’s Dance show turned out to be a golden opportunity for Fletcher Henderson. He sold outright many of his band’s pre-existing arrangements on original jazz tunes to Goodman, and Benny then started using him to write new arrangements on pop tunes of the day and standards.

(7) Ibid.

(8) Metronome: December 1935; cited in the White materials: December 1, 1934.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ibid.

(11) Ibid.

(12) White materials: December, 1935. Before the Let’s Dance broadcast began at 10:30 p.m. on December 29th, Berigan had been celebrating New Years Eve is bit early at Hurley’s Bar, located adjacent to 30 Rock on Sixth Avenue and West 49th Street.

(13) Kathryn Elizabeth Smith was born on May 1, 1907, in Greenville, Virginia. As Kate Smith, she began her recording career in the late 1920s, then moved on to a popular radio program on NBC, then on to a series of ever more popular radio shows on CBS built around her singing, starting in 1931. Smith was a large woman who weighed about 230 pounds, and was the object of many jokes by musicians at CBS. Her commercial success was no joke, however. She went on to even greater popularity in the 1940s, fueled by her singing of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”during the trying years of World War II. She made the transition from radio to television and had continued success in that medium in the 1950s. She died on June 17, 1986, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

(14) White materials: January 1, 1935.

(15) Robert Dupuis offered an explanation of what happened between Berigan and Kate Smith in his Berigan biography, at page 97. There is no indication as to where the information to support this report came from however.

(16) White materials: January 1, 1935.

(17) White materials: April 20, 1935.

(18) A vivid summary of so-called serious music at CBS in the 1930s is to be found in A Heart at Fire’s Center, The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann, by Steven C. Smith, University of California Press (1991).

(19) Edward R. Murrow gathered around him at CBS a great number of exceptional broadcast journalists including: Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, and Daniel Schorr. Mr. Schorr was the last survivor of that illustrious group, working as a senior news analyst on National Public Radio until his death in 2010.

(20) Dupuis: 127.

(21) White materials: April 20, 1935. One recollection has the Berigan family living in a house. Another has them living in an apartment. Currently, 83-28 Sixty-third Avenue, Rego Park, Queens is in a residential neighborhood block that contains spacious brick homes that are contiguous, so I guess both characterizations are correct.

(22) Kenneth Norville was born on March 31, 1908, in Beardstown, Illinois. As Red Norvo, he was a part of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra in the late 1920s, where he met Mildred Bailey. In the early years of his career, Norvo played the xylophone, and also piano. His approach to jazz from the beginning was harmonically rich and rhythmically supple, making him a pioneer in many respects, albeit a largely unappreciated one. He began to record in the early 1930s, and began leading his own band in the mid-1930s. Though Norvo tried again and again to make it commercially acceptable, his big band was a failure. By the mid-1940s, he was playing the vibraphone and appearing as a featured artist with the Benny Goodman and Woody Herman bands. Late in the 1940s, he began to lead a series of small jazz groups, all of which were musically inventive. He achieved some success in these ventures, appearing with them in a number of films during the 1950s. Norvo continued to work well into his later years. He died in Santa Monica, California, on April 6, 1999.

(23) White materials: February 20, 1937. The incident referred to by Dave Wade probably took place in late 1936 or early 1937. By then, baby Joyce would have been able to crawl.

(24) Benny Goodman made six record dates during the six months he and his band were being featured on the Let’s Dance radio show. Five of these were with his own band and one was an ad hoc group that was billed as The New Music of Reginald Forsythe.

(25) We must remember that this “Let’s Dance” broadcast occurred only one week after the infamous incident where Berigan fell off the bandstand. Bunny rebounded from that fiasco quite well, as his playing on this recording shows.

(26) Indeed, when Fletcher Henderson recorded “Honeysuckle Rose” with his own band on November 9, 1932, the trumpet solo was played by Rex Stewart using an open horn (probably a cornet). The arrangement Henderson used for that recording was revised and updated before Fletcher sold it to Benny Goodman, which probably happened in very late 1934.

5 thoughts on ““Honeysuckle Rose” (1935) with Benny Goodman

Add yours

  1. This is a wonderful performance in so many ways. Up until now, I only knew this arrangement from Fletchers own 1932 recording, but this, although essentially the same chart, has some very sophisticated tweaks made. To my ears, Bunny cuts Goodman well and truely, going deeper into the groove with each passing 8, his final 16 being positively triumphal!
    With Bunny’s story, I keep finding myself back at Duke Ellington’s well-known aphorism “Jazz is music- Swing is business”, which, cynically, could almost be Bunny’s epitaph. One thing you’ve illustrated so vividly, Mike, is that the music business was as cutthroat then as it is today, perhaps more so. So I guess Its no coincidence that the ones who made it to the top of the tree, and stayed there, generally have the enduring reputation of being hard-nosed bastards!

  2. This recording is historic based on many connections, including those to Goodman; Bunny; the imminent official launch of the Swing Era; radio’s leap of faith in broadcasting jazz and, finally, ’30s pop culture. The reference to Orson Welles within this post is apt also in the context of a discussion of, or debate on, the general public’s awareness in the mid ’30s of jazz and swing: While certainly there were many members of the listening public who had been avidly following the evolution of music through the Jazz Age of the ’20s (or perhaps even from the ’10s and the ODJB) and into the Swing Era, when a verb that jazz musicians commonly employed became a noun, there must have been more than a few radio enthusiasts for whom this “Honeysuckle Rose” sounded like a War of the Worlds-style alien invasion, so very different was this extemporaneous and vital music from the strictly “scripted” and more sedate fare that they were accustomed to hearing.

    I’m convinced that both Benny and Tommy, despite their prodigious talent and confidence therein, recognized (perhaps grudgingly or enviously?) that Bunny had something extra — an effortlessness or naturalness as an improvisor and a galvanic quality that they couldn’t match. It does seem that Benny pulls out all the stops in his solo as a challenge to the next man, Bunny. As hot and lucid as Benny’s playing is, I think it lacks the grace, drama and pacing of Bunny’s statement. Besides the “duel” (which Bunny wins), there’s also some fine blowing by the underrated Jack Lacey and rather aggressive rhythm from the great George Van Eps, who generally did not display the wallop of his successor, Allan Reuss. It’s interesting to compare the phrasing of the trumpets on the riff behind Benny’s second chorus with that on the same riff in the ’39 version.

    Finally, the Kate Smith story, however hazy it may be, has always amused me. Whatever her talents, which frankly have never impressed me, she was entirely unqualified to give instructions or pointers to Bunny (or lesser musicians). That she apparently did so is laughable and serves only to call into further question her artistic acumen.

    I must say Bunny’s playing here is much more evocative of the daring young man on the flying trapeze than of a guy who had only recently fallen off a bandstand.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: