“I Dance Alone” (1938) with Gail Reese and Dave Tough

Composed by Lew Kessler and June Sillman; arranged by Joe Lippman.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Victor on March 16, 1938 in New York.

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Steve Lipkins, first trumpet; and Irving Goodman, trumpet; Sonny Lee and Al George, trombones; Mike Doty, first alto saxophone; Joe Dixon, alto saxophone; Georgie Auld and Clyde Rounds, tenor saxophones; Joe Lippman, piano; Tommy Morgan, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; Dave Tough, drums.

The story:

Earle Theater – 11th and Market, Philadelphia, early January, 1938.

The winter of 1938 was a very exciting time for Bunny Berigan and his band. They had worked successfully through 1937 on a network radio show that allowed Bunny to build his band into a formidable performing unit. Then in the autumn of 1937, they embarked on a tour of major theaters through the east, and did very well. This theater tour was climaxed by a successful two-week run at the Paramount Theater in Times Square in Manhattan which was extended by a week because of the great business the band generated. The year 1937 ended with a Victor recording session on December 23 at which memorable music was made.

The Berigan band opened a one-week stand at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia (which he headlined), on New Year’s Eve. Unfortunately, during that engagement, Bunny came down with the flu. He insisted in going on with the show, even though he was suffering from bouts of nausea. He was required to leave the stage a number of times to cope with that, and then missed a couple of shows, during which Irving Goodman led the band. Bunny recovered sufficiently to complete the Earle Theater engagement, where he was required to play four shows a day. He knew that work in theaters, gruelling though it was, was lucrative, and would keep his band operating profitably in less remunerative times. He was also obsessive about fulfilling his commitments.

Just before the Earle Theater engagement began, Berigan had a falling-out with his drummer George Wettling, which resulted in Wettling being fired. Wettling’s rather abrupt departure put Bunny in the uncomfortable position of scrambling to quickly secure the services of a drummer who was capable of swinging the Berigan band. It is not clear who played the drums through the Earle Theater engagement, but it may have been Rollo Laylan. The Berigan band members did not like Laylan’s playing, referring to him among themselves as “Rudimental Rollo.” Whatever happened, Bunny and his band successfully completed their week at the Earle Theater, then returned to New York, where Berigan took a few days off to fully recuperate from his influenza.

During this recuperation period, Bunny auditioned drummers. He was intent on securing the services of a drummer who really, profoundly understood the concept of swing, and in early 1938, there were relatively few who did. Many auditioned, none were hired. Then the wildly swinging pendulum of luck suddenly moved into a more positive phase for Bunny. After being fired by Tommy Dorsey for drunkenness, the drummer Dave Tough was hired by Berigan, probably before January 15. Tough was unquestionably one of the greatest drummers of the swing era. He not only understood the concept of swing, he embodied it. Bunny and his sidemen were elated. Clyde Rounds, one of the saxophonists then in the Berigan band, recalled the diminutive Mr. Tough: 

Dave Tough and Bunny Berigan in the Victor recording studio in Manhattan – January 26, 1938.

“Davey, as we all called him, was a man of many parts. Of Scottish descent, he could be as dour as any true member of the kilt set or convulse us with his outrageously wild sense of humor. Also highly intelligent and imaginative, he could have been a successful writer, poet or composer. He was the best and most solid drummer I ever worked with, who despised the idea of a drummer being a flashy soloist in the Krupa tradition, and played very few solos himself. Like Bunny and his predecessor Wettling, Davey had a strong affinity for hard liquor, and also like Bunny, he couldn’t stay on the wagon for long. Rollo Laylan couldn’t swing the band, and the difference with Davey Tough in the driving seat was obvious to musicians and listeners alike. Bunny had auditioned several drummers, but none of them had what he was looking for. When he heard that Tough was available, he went all out to get him and dispensed with an audition.”(1)

In mid-January, the Berigan band did some one-nighters within a 150 mile radius of New York for a few days before they opened for a week at the Brunswick Hotel in Boston on Tuesday, January 18. That job ended on the 24th. They then returned to New York for a Victor recording session on the 26th.

Bunny was delighted to have Dave Tough in his band, and Davey, the little giant of the drums, was very happy to be there. Unfortunately, the commercial records they made together in the winter of 1938 gave Tough relatively little opportunity to demonstrate why he was one of the greatest drummers of the swing era. There are however, at least a few preserved radio broadcast performances of the Berigan band including Dave Tough. I have not heard these recordings, but can say without reservation that if they are made public, they will constitute a major find for Berigan aficionados. (See below for more details about these recordings.)

It seems that MCA was uncertain of what to do next with the Berigan band because the bookings it had lined up revealed no overall plan: scattered one-nighters, including one at the Ritz Ballroom in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on Sunday January 30, followed by several days at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, starting on Saturday, February 5. After the Roseland gig, they returned to the road, playing at Davidson College, near Charlotte, North Carolina, on Friday and Saturday February 11-12, and then the Sunnybrook Ballroom in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, on February 13. It was at this time that road manager George Stacy left the band, being replaced temporarily by Bob Parke. On February 14, the Berigan band opened for a week at the Carmen Theater in Philadelphia. Billboard reported at the time that the purpose of this engagement was to build-up the buzz around the band for its upcoming engagement at the Arcadia International Restaurant in Philadelphia. (2)

A sweat-soaked and shaky Dave Tough takes a break.

After closing at the Carmen Theater, the Berigan band traveled to an afternoon gig on February 20 at the Fordham Club in New York City, playing opposite Count Basie. (3) The Basie band had been the beneficiary of the ongoing enthusiastic support of John Hammond, and had been improving steadily in the year since they had arrived in New York. Their first engagement in New York was at Roseland during Christmas week 1936. Metronome’s George T. Simon welcomed them with one of the most brutally negative reviews he ever wrote. On the issue of the early Basie band, King George and King John disagreed completely. Hammond had just recently persuaded Benny Goodman to include Basie and Basie sidemen Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Freddie Green, and Walter Page in his Carnegie Hall swing concert, which took place on January 16, 1938. After that momentous occasion, the full Basie band then invaded Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, where they battled the local favorite Chick Webb (4) to a draw. That event had to be fabulous: Basie and Billie Holiday, and Chick and Ella Fitzgerald. (5) Heaven! The swing era was nearing an early apogee.

I can imagine that Bunny gave his band a pep talk before the Fordham Club engagement, telling his boys that if they weren’t careful, the Basie band would blow them off the stage. It must have worked. The always gracious Bill Basie, after hiring Georgie Auld for his early 1950s small band, remembered this encounter with the Berigan band: “The first time I met Georgie Auld was when Bunny Berigan’s band battled ours one Sunday afternoon in the Bronx, and cut us. Georgie was great and has been ever since.” (6) For his part, Bunny took tremendous admiration of the Basie style of swing away from this battle. In fact, he became somewhat obsessed with the light but powerful way the Basie band’s rhythm section functioned, and on at least one occasion a few months after this event, had his musicians, including his new drummer, Buddy Rich, deliberately study what the Basie band did so well. (For those interested in how Count Basie’s band sounded at the time it battled the Berigan band, listen to the recordings they made for Decca a few days before, on February 16, especially “Every Tub” and “Swingin’ the Blues.”)

The Fordham Club in 1938.

Graham Forbes, one of several pianists (including Fulton McGrath) that Bunny used to cover for Joe Lippman when he was too busy writing arrangements to play with the band, recalled, among other things, that Dave Tough may have been a casualty of this battle with Basie: 

“My real name was Charles Graham Forbes but I went by C. Graham. After the big band period I was a vocal (male) accompanist for a number of years into the 1960s. I also did solo work including a gig at Eddie Condon’s club in NYC. I’d been introduced to Bunny by George Stacy, his road manager, when he was looking for a pianist. My parents came to my first date with the band at the Fordham Club, where we shared the bill with Count Basie. I think Jo Jones, Basie’s drummer, was called on by Bunny to sub for Davey Tough, at least part of the time. I guess Davey was under the weather. Soon afterwards, we traveled back to Philadelphia, where Bunny hired Harlow Atwood as permanent replacement for Stacy as road manager.” (7)

Placemat from the Arcadia International Restaurant in Philadelphia – 1938.

The Berigan band opened at the Arcadia International Restaurant in Philadelphia (7A) on Thursday, February 24 for two weeks. They broadcast from there on opening night and regularly thereafter at various times over WABC, WOR, and WMCA. Graham Forbes recalled that engagement: “Bunny did terrific business at the Arcadia. He and Davey Tough were both on the wagon and playing great. During the second week, Benny Goodman, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Larry Clinton were all playing in or around Philadelphia, and one night both Tommy Dorsey and Gene Krupa were on the stand, jamming with Bunny for about an hour! I believe the local union officials didn’t take kindly to such goings-on.” (8) Indeed, the local musicians’ union did make a big issue about this, which was reported on in the trade papers. The Berigan band closed at the Arcadia Restaurant on March 10.

On March 3, while the Benny Goodman band was on the stage of the Earle Theater in Philadelphia, Benny and Gene Krupa had an argument, after which Krupa abruptly left the Goodman band. The ultimate significance of this event would be very great for Bunny Berigan for a number of reasons.

Another memento from the Arcadia Restaurant in 1938.

On their last night at the Arcadia Restaurant, the Berigan band was on the air (WABC) from 11:30 p.m. to midnight, and their entire thirty-minute broadcast was recorded. I have not heard these recordings. They have never been issued commercially. But I would bet that they are excellent if for no other reason than that they present the Berigan band on a successful engagement with drummer Dave Tough playing at least a few jazz tunes. The selections: “Back in Your Own Back Yard,” as an instrumental; then “Serenade to the Stars,” “Heigh-Ho,” “Goodnight Angel,” all with vocals by Gail Reese; three more instrumentals; “In a Little Spanish Town,” “Thanks for the Memory,” “‘Tain’t So Honey, ‘Tain’t So;” then “The One I Love,” with a Reese vocal; and finally “The Prisoner’s Song,” which Bunny had been using for some time as his wrap-up tune. This lineup shows that Berigan was playing a mixture of jazz vehicles, tunes he had recently recorded, and some new (“Thanks for the Memory”) and old (“The One I Love”) goodies. It was a very well-balanced program. Musically, Bunny continued to make the right moves. Where, I wonder, are these recordings?

MCA then announced that the Berigan band would begin an lengthy engagement at the Paradise Restaurant in New York on March 20, with frequent sustaining broadcasts over the entire Mutual network, originating from WOR–New York. Their plan had finally emerged: build up the Berigan name again via radio broadcasts, then send the band out on tour again to play a few weeklong engagements in theaters, and with fill-in one-night dance jobs along the way. A sponsored radio show would also have provided Berigan with a financial base to continue to operate his band in the black. Unfortunately, despite a number of auditions, one was not forthcoming.

Drummer Dave Tough.

Nevertheless, before Bunny started the Paradise stand, he kept very busy playing dance dates and making records. On March 15 and 16, the band made two separate recording sessions at Victor. These were Dave Tough’s last appearances with the Berigan band. Almost immediately after the departure of Gene Krupa from the Benny Goodman band, probably through machinations engineered by MCA, it was decided that Tough was needed to hold the very successful, but somewhat shaken, Goodman band together. He was now on the last days of his two-week notice with Bunny. It was obvious to everyone, including the people at MCA, that Tough was a marvelous big band drummer. His work, first with Tommy Dorsey, and then with Berigan, had been exemplary. His services would be of greater benefit to MCA if he worked for Goodman. This development greatly pleased Benny, who had for some time been growing more resentful of Gene Krupa’s loud (and crowd-pleasing) drumming and histrionics. By comparison, Tough’s drumming and persona were almost unnoticeable to audiences. Musicians in the Goodman band (and fans attuned to the rhythms of jazz) took note of what Tough was doing however, and they liked it.

Berigan in 1938, the year he began to experience the vicissitudes of being a bandleader.

This development did not please Bunny Berigan. After George Wettling departed, Bunny had greatly miscalculated when he thought “Rudimental Rollo” Laylan could take Wettling’s place. After a few weeks of frustrating uncertainty, a stroke of good luck brought Dave Tough into the Berigan band, and Bunny could not have been happier. Tough’s unobtrusive, though powerful swing had freed Berigan’s musicians to play with greater abandon than they ever had previously. As anyone who knows anything about jazz knows, if the drummer is not right the band is not right. With Dave Tough, the Berigan band was right. Unfortunately, the ten Victor recordings made while Tough was a member of the Berigan band are all very ordinary (at best) pop tunes, each with a  Gail Reese vocal chorus, that the band performed professionally. They probably felt that with this material, the best thing they could do was get acceptable takes as quickly as possible, and move on to more stimulating endeavors outside of the recording studio. That they found it difficult to work up much enthusiasm for these run-of-the-mill songs is understandable. Bunny, however, usually invested a lot of thought and feeling in his solos, even on the most pedestrian of these songs, as the produce of the next two Victor recording sessions shows. Dave Tough propelled the Berigan band with his unique panache and swing. And the arrangements, mostly by Joe Lippman, contain some excellent writing.

The business of running a successful band.

Achieving success during the swing era was a gradual process. In order for any band to achieve any measure of success, their activities and work had to be managed carefully. This necessarily involved people on the business side of the music business, some of whom knew something about music, some of whom didn’t, telling professional musicians what they should be doing. Musicians, especially those who had devoted most of their life to mastering their instruments and developing their personal musical aesthetic sense, usually went along with what their business advisors told them (not always without resentment), especially if they had begun to achieve some success in the commercial marketplace all bands had to work in.

By the late winter of 1938, Bunny Berigan had been a bandleader for some fourteen months. He had painstakingly built his band, chair by chair, over that time. He and his band had indeed achieved a good measure of success by March of 1938. They had worked successfully on a sponsored network radio show for six months. They had toured ballrooms and theaters in the last few months of 1937 and into 1938 attracting large and enthusiastic crowds. They had made a series of records for Victor that sold reasonably well. Though they had not scored any one big record hit, Bunny’s great recording of his theme song, “I Can’t Get Started with You,” which had been recorded in August of 1937, was a very good, steady seller, but not a breakout hit. Bunny and his band were like many other new bands that had achieved some measure of success in that the companies they made records for found it profitable, at least in the short-term, to assign to these bands tunes to record that people in the music business, primarily music publishers and their aggressive in-the-trenches hucksters, the song pluggers, were promoting.

It is safe to say that no song, at least none that was created in the Tin Pan Alley world of American Popular Song in the period from the 1920s through the 1950s, ever became a hit, much less a standard, without substantial promotion over a period of time, often a long period of time. Modes of promotion for a song then included the song being published, with the piano sheet music for it being sold to the public. This was supplemented by having the song recorded, preferably by many bands in many styles, and by having those bands play it on radio broadcasts. The books of arrangements for all bands had a lot of current plug tunes in them at all times. If a band was successful enough to score an appearance in Hollywood film, they always played one or more of the tunes someone somewhere was promoting. Repetition was the key. But no amount of promotion would or could ever create a hit. Something magical had to happen between the tune, the band playing it and the audience for a hit to happen. No one ever knew what that magical formula was, though quite a few people in the record business professed to know.

Bunny Berigan leads his band through a rehearsal – early 1938. Visible L-R: are: front: Joe Dixon, Mike Doty, Clyde Rounds; middle: Sonny Lee, Al George, Irving Goodman, Steve Lipkins, Tommy Morganelli; rear: Dave Tough and Hank Wayland.

Victor executive Eli Oberstein (Elliott Everett Oberstein 1901-1960) was definitely one of those people. He was an aggressive person who had no trouble bossing around bandleaders including Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Bunny Berigan. He understood how the music business worked and had little patience explaining the nuances of that to the bandleaders who made records for Victor and Bluebird. Despite his self-proclaimed reputation as a hitmaker, it appears from the historical record that Oberstein actually knew no more about how to make a hit record than anyone else. As an A and R man (producer), he threw a lot of musical spaghetti against the wall, and like everyone else, saw what would stick. If there was a recording that he supervised that sold more than normal, he took credit for that. The dud recordings he produced, and there were hundreds, were quickly forgotten by him and others. The recording business then was always moving fast. If musical quality did not guide Oberstein’s records, quantity certainly did. There had to be an uninterrupted stream of product flowing into the marketplace, and Oberstein produced it.

Eli Oberstein.

Eli Oberstein supervised many of Bunny Berigan’s Victor recording sessions through 1937 and well into 1938. By the end of 1938, Bunny’s Victor sessions were being supervised by the much more thoughtful and sensitive Victor producer, Leonard Joy. Joy was fond of Bunny Berigan, and recognized his unique gifts as a jazz trumpet virtuoso. Unfortunately, because of many reasons that had nothing to do with Leonard Joy, he was able to supervise only a few of the recording sessions made by Bunny Berigan’s band. Nevertheless, those few sessions produced many of the most memorable Berigan recordings on the Victor label.

There is no evidence that Berigan in any way resisted or disagreed with the choices Oberstein made for him about what songs to record. Bunny seemingly just went along, did what he was told to do, and tried to infuse as much musicality into those recordings as he could. Indeed, whatever feelings Berigan had about Oberstein during their Victor association, he would later sign a contract to make recordings with Oberstein for his Elite label. More information about Oberstein can be found by clicking on the link at endnote (9) below.

The music:

On Wednesday March 16, 1938, probably at 9:00 a.m., Bunny Berigan and his band entered the Victor recording studios on East 24th Street in Manhattan to make some recordings. The session lasted until 1:45 p.m. The tunes to be recorded were three less than good current pop offerings: “Rinka-Tinka Man,” “An Old Straw Hat,” and “I Dance Alone.” It is my informed speculation that these three tunes were first encountered by Berigan and his band in the studio that morning. I say this because very often Bunny was able to comfortably record four tunes within a three-hour span. That was undoubtedly made possible by the Berigan performers having become familiar with the tunes to be recorded sometime before actually recording them. But before making this recording session, and the one they made the afternoon of the day before, they had been bouncing around Pennsylvania and New York State playing one-night dance dates for a few days, so it is unlikely that these new tunes were even known to them before they showed up to record them.

“I Dance Alone” (10) was the final tune to be recorded on March 16. Whatever strain was encountered by Berigan and his band before this master was made is entirely absent from this recording. Indeed, this performance is excellent, and Bunny’s contributions are quintessential. One of many things that has fascinated me about Berigan was his astonishing, unflagging zest for the job to be done, no matter how prosaic the materials he had to work with.

Gail Reese sings with the Berigan band. Visible behind her are, L-R front: Georgie Auld, Joe Dixon, Mike Doty, Clyde Rounds; middle: Sonny Lee, Irving Goodman, Steve Lipkins, Tommy Morgan; back: Dave Tough and Hank Wayland.

The tempo Bunny chose for this performance was perfect for dancing, and for relaxed swing. After a bright, economical introduction, Berigan steps forward to play the main melody of this song on open trumpet. His sound is full and rich, his phrasing the essence of swing. One immediately notices Dave Tough energizing both Bunny and the entire band with his high-hat cymbals. Tough is playing in 2/4 meter, with the rest of the band playing in 4/4. This 2 against 4 results in an exciting, swinging rhythmic base for the music. Arranger Joe Lippman provided a syncopated cushion of saxophones for Berigan to play against in this sixteen-bar sequence. The open brass, with reeds below them, carry the secondary melody through the tune’s bridge. The final eight bars of the first chorus spot the Berigan saxophone quartet of Mike Doty (lead alto), Joe Dixon, alto, and Georgie Auld and Clyde Rounds, tenors demonstrating what a finely meshed unit they were. There is also a brief, contrasting burst from the two open trombones in this space.

Tough’s gentle crash on one of his small cymbals launches the band into a colorful modulation leading to Gail Reese’s vocal. Ms. Reese was an attractive girl who sang well, but sometimes without conveying much emotion. Given the content of the lachrymose lyric she was saddled with here, one can hardly blame her. Nevertheless, she carries on gamely, staying on pitch and enunciating the words clearly so that an acceptable take could be made. Everyone in the Berigan band was a solid professional. They all took pride in their work.

A tiny nuance: listen for Dave Tough’s perfect, subtle rim shot in the one-bar opening between the end of the vocal chorus and the beginning of the last ensemble passage. It communicates to the band …let’s swing! And they do.

The ensemble, with Steve Lipkins’s first trumpet leading the way, moves this performance into its next phase. Then lightning suddenly strikes as it so often did when Berigan was playing. Listen to him paraphrase the melody, then rip into a high note. The finale has him preaching in his high register. Soul and passion are words often used to describe Bunny’s playing. They certainly apply here.

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

Notes and links:

(1) White materials: January 26, 1938.

(2) I do not understand why Bunny’s management team was concentrating so much of his work in early 1938 in the Philadelphia area, except to say that frequent radio broadcasts in any area usually served as a prelude to a band then playing a string of one-night stands in the surrounding area. Also, Philadelphia was the home of Arthur Michaud, Berigan’s personal manager.

(3) White materials: February 14, 1938.

(4) Drummer William Henry “Chick” Webb was born on February 10, 1905, in Baltimore, Maryland. From childhood he suffered from tuberculosis of the spine, which left him with the appearance of a hunchbacked dwarf. Nevertheless, because of his iron willpower and great ambition, he became a spectacularly flashy drummer, and successful bandleader. He moved to New York City in the early 1920s, and by 1926 was leading his own band in Harlem. By 1931, Webb’s band was in essence the house band at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom, where he built a fanatically loyal fan base. In 1935 he began to feature the singing of Ella Fitzgerald, and this and a Decca recording contract caused his band to move from the category of local favorite to one of national prominence. By the late 1930s, the Webb band was one of the most formidable swing units. Unfortunately, his health began to decline dramatically in late 1938, and he died on June 16, 1939, in Baltimore. After his death, his band was led for a time by Ella Fitzgerald.

(5) Singer Ella Jane Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1917, in Newport News, Virginia. She had a lovely, sweet, but rather callow vocal quality as a youngster that bandleader Chick Webb successfully exploited in the mid and late 1930s. Consequently, Ms. Fitzgerald was catapulted to success very early in her career. She led the Webb band for a few years after its leader’s death in 1939, then commenced a long career as a soloist, where she was even more successful. As her voice matured, she began to invest her performances with a bit more emotional depth, but she seemed to eschew an overtly emotional approach to singing, perhaps in reaction to the deeply emotional approach of one of her earliest competitors, Billie Holiday. Nevertheless, her vocal equipment and sense of pitch were so fine that she could make anything sound good. Her series of recordings of songs by America’s greatest popular song composers in the 1950s–1960s are landmarks. She could swing as well, and starting in the 1950s, began to feature scat singing in her shows to the delight (and dismay) of many of her fans. Her later career, when she was known as “the First Lady of Song,” was expertly guided by impresario Norman Granz. Ella Fitzgerald died on June 15, 1996, in Beverly Hills, California.

(6) Down Beat:  June 15, 1951, cited in the White materials: February 20, 1938.

(7) White materials: February 20, 1938. The affliction that may have put Dave Tough “under the weather” at the Berigan band’s battle with Count Basie’s band at the Fordham Club was epilepsy. Tough suffered with that disorder.

(7A) In 1915, Fritz Pflug opened the Arcadia restaurant in Penn Square’s Widener Building in Philadelphia. By the 1930s, the renamed Arcadia International Restaurant and Club hosted the top musical acts of the time.

(8) White materials: February 20, 1938.

(9) Here is a link to more information about Eli Oberstein: https://www.discogs.com/artist/901092-Eli-Oberstein

(10) “I Dance Alone” was from the Broadway revue Who’s Who, which opened at the Hudson Theater on March 1, 1938, and closed 23 days later.

One thought on ““I Dance Alone” (1938) with Gail Reese and Dave Tough

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  1. It’s a sad day when you’re in the recording studio and the best among your assigned tunes is one of the immediately apparent mediocrity of “I Dance Alone.” For sure, though, in the case of the Berigan band’s 3/16/38 Victor session, this uninspired offering, whose bridge gives the listener the impression that the vocalist is merely extemporizing, beats the abysmal “Rinka Tinka Man” and the REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM (of all things) number, “An Old Straw Hat,” introduced by Shirley Temple. One really has to give credit to Bunny for his patience with all the so-called business experts he had to play ball with in order merely to get by as a bandleader. Eli Oberstein obviously didn’t have any special talent for recognizing a sure hit. He was just lucky enough to have been working at a time when there was a great deal of quality writing, to go along with the inevitable dross. It was a vicious cycle for bands such as Bunny’s, though: If you don’t score a hit, you’re not awarded the most promising material (bearing the, say, Gershwin; Berlin; Rodgers & Hart; Warren-Mercer pedigree) — and if you’re given only junk to record, you’ll never make a hit! However, Bunny was driven by both his work ethic and his belief that something worthwhile could be made out of even the shoddiest material. “I Dance Alone” is certainly one of those silk purses that he fashioned from a sow’s ear.

    Given Bunny’s highly warranted admiration for the up-and-coming Basie band, it’s a great pity that the Berigan crew couldn’t have squeezed out a recording of at least one head arrangement instrumental during Davey’s brief stint — a stay made short by “the suits,” MCA in this instance, and their maneuverings to favour the more established (and money-generating) Goodman band, suddenly Krupa-less. Bunny, who was welcomed with open arms at any jam session he ever dropped in on, should have been in a position to work with whomever he wanted. I’m sure that, at least in a personal sense, Davey enjoyed his time in the Berigan band more than he did his two terms with Goodman (though surely he was glad when old friend and sympathetic soul Bud Freeman came aboard with BG in ’38). Davey’s lithe approach gave the Berigan band such a lift, as we hear, but it’s just a shame that there were no Victor instrumentals during that time, to offer greater exposure of Davy’s influence on the overall sound.

    Those ten vocal sides, as the sole studio documentation of the Tough stint, in fact really call into question the wisdom of Oberstein. I’ve always considered the vocal department to have been the Berigan band’s one and only weakness. Bunny, with his beautiful singing tone and interpretive sensitivity, actually had to be the orchestra’s “singer” on trumpet, in addition to his jobs of making an opening melody statement and playing a jazz solo. Despite the fact that the material for her scant three sides was lousy, the uniquely-toned Sue Mitchell is the only Berigan canary I’ve found to display a little pizzazz. The rest were just fair — that’s the best I can say. Imagine how that band would have sounded with Jo Stafford … or Billie Holiday … or Helen Ward … or Connee Boswell (each with whom Bunny worked at some point in his career) as its vocalist! Though she manages accurate pitch (and not every vocalist does) Gail Reese simply can’t invest “I Dance Alone” with greater drama.

    Despite these various artistic hindrances and odds, Bunny, the band and Joe Lippman make of “I Dance Alone” a slick piece of work. Lippman creates a sense of anticipation with the opening brass-reeds figure. Bunny’s voluptuous tone and natural phrasing are, as always, compelling in his statement of the first two A’s, Davey sets a perfect, relaxed tempo, and we can appreciate the distinctive sound the reed section has developed by this time in the band’s existence. I love the brief appearance of the trombones, almost anticipating the writing for Goodman’s greatest sliphorn section, McGarity and Cutshall, a few years later. Davey’s accents and gentle nudges are models of taste, and the interplay between reeds and brass and the modulation leading up to Bunny’s final statement pick things up after the vocal chorus — and then, Bunny’s back with final remarks that give the song an importance and immediacy it lacks in strictly written form.

    Though I can think of no more satisfying discography than Bunny’s, which was voluminous despite the short time in which it was produced, it’s impossible to resist the urge to imagine what he would have produced had he not left us when he did, at a critical point in jazz’s evolution. Davey Tough, so prominent in the artistic success of this spotlighted take on an inherently subpar tune, got to drive the First Herd through things like “Apple Honey” and Northwest Passage” a few years later. Imagine if Bunny hadn’t had “suits,” with no musical knowledge, pushing off fodder on him all the time! As it is, though, it’s his great musical taste and judgment we remember now, not theirs.

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