“Find Me a Primitive Man” (1940) with Lee Wiley

Music and lyric by Cole Porter.

Recorded by Lee Wiley and Bunny Berigan’s Music for Liberty Record Shop on April 11, 1940 in New York.

Lee Wiley, vocal, accompanied by Bunny Berigan, trumpet; Joe Bushkin, piano; Sid Weiss, bass; George Wettling, drums.

The story:

On October 13, 1932, singer Lee Wiley appeared as a guest on Rudy Vallee’s radio program. Bunny Berigan was in Vallee’s orchestra that night. This evidently was the first time they worked together. It is unlikely that anything more than a casual meeting between Berigan and Wiley, if that, occurred at this time. But soon they would meet and be drawn to each other, and an intense but spasmodic relationship would develop between them. Beginning either in the summer of 1935 or in early 1936, and continuing until mid-1940, Bunny Berigan’s relationship with Lee Wiley would deeply affect him personally as well as professionally.

The complex Ms. Wiley – about 1940.

I have frequently advocated for someone who has an understanding of the music, musicians and milieu of the swing era to write a biography of Lee Wiley. In addition to her being a marvelously individual and memorable singer, the story of her life, which was inextricably intertwined with the mores prevalent in the world of swing, would be fascinating if for no other reason than to allow a glimpse of how a strong woman interacted on myriad levels with her almost exclusively male musical contemporaries amidst rampant and pernicious male chauvinism.

In preparing this post, I went back to many of the recordings Lee Wiley made throughout the 1930s. Almost all of those recordings presented her as a pop music diva, though one who was aware of jazz. As the 1930s drew to a close, a change was taking place in Ms. Wiley’s presentation. She was delving more deeply into the music of composers whose work in the 1930s was regarded as great popular music, but not yet identified as a part of the body of music that has since become known as Great American Popular Song. In addition, she began to devise and produce small collections of recordings dedicated to one composer. In golden age of the long-playing record album that began in the 1950s, this idea came to be known as the “concept album.” The first series of these Lee Wiley “concept” recordings was produced in late 1939, and was dedicated to the music of George and Ira Gershwin. Unlike almost all recordings of songs that either were already standards then, or were in the process of becoming standards, Lee Wiley often sang the prefatory verse for each song on her recordings of them.

Last but certainly far from least, Ms. Wiley surrounded herself with jazz musicians on these recordings to create what was often a marvelously relaxed, late-night informal jam session atmosphere as a showcase for her singing. I have often wondered what role Bunny Berigan played in the metamorphosis of Lee Wiley’s singing. Bunny was of course a jazz musician, and that orientation shaped and informed his approach to music no matter how mundane the material he was told to play or record was. We know that Berigan recorded his own “concept album” late in 1938, in the form of several tunes either written by Bix Beiderbecke or identified with him. That was a novel idea in 1938. I have often wondered what role Lee Wiley may have played in developing that idea.

Bunny Berigan and Lee Wiley – 1937.

Lee Wiley’s series of recordings of Gershwin music was recorded in November of 1939. Those recordings were produced on the boutique Liberty Music Shop record label. Liberty Music Shop Records was a record label formed in New York City in 1933. At one time in the late 1930s, Liberty had three shops in New York City. In addition to recording their own masters, they also imported a number of records from the United Kingdom, as copies of British HMVs and Deccas have been found with large Liberty Music Shop stickers covering the foreign logos.

In 1933, they started recording their own masters at the Brunswick Records studio near 57th and Broadway in Manhattan, and later at Decca’s 57th Street studio. Liberty Music Shop Records specialized in dance music, including that of Enrique Madriguera, Freddy Martin, Emile Petti and Ted Straeter; cabaret and Broadway personalities including Beatrice Lillie, Ramona Davies, Mabel Mercer, Ethel Merman, Cy Walter, Ethel Waters, and Lee Wiley. About 200 records were produced by Liberty Music Shop Records between 1933 and 1942. In the 1950s the label produced LP reissues of many of the recordings they made in the 1930s and early 1940s. (1)

The tempestuous relationship between Lee Wiley and Bunny Berigan (there was no other kind with LW) was nearing its end when this recording was made in the spring of 1940. Berigan was temporarily working in Tommy Dorsey’s band to clear the debts he had incurred with his first band, and attempting to regain his health after a disturbing hospitalization at the end of 1939 and into 1940 which was caused by symptoms of cirrhosis. The various business arrangements Berigan had made to pay his creditors left him with very little money each week. It is my informed speculation that whatever money Berigan made from the recording date that produced this recording was not taken by his creditors. Shortly after this recording date, the Dorsey band was on vacation from May 5 to May 20. During that time, Berigan took one of the few vacations he ever took.

The mere thought of a layoff was anathema to Berigan. Vacations made him extremely nervous. Nevertheless, for one of the few times in his professional life, he now found himself with two entire weeks off, with no work scheduled. He and Donna, his wife, perhaps as an attempt to patch-up their marriage, planned to spend at least some of this time in far upstate New York. Since their daughter Patricia was in elementary school, she would not have been able to join them for the entire two weeks. Little Joyce, now four years old, could. They worked out a compromise that would allow all four members of the family to be together for at least a few days. As Donna recalled it: “I remember five days at Saranac Lake, New York. It was the only vacation for Bunny in the eleven years of our marriage.”(2) Evidently, she did not consider the summers in Fox Lake, Wisconsin, Bunny’s home town, in 1933, 1935 and 1939 as vacations, because Bunny wasn’t there for much of those times. But in all of these cases he was there with her and Patty at first, and then with both girls for more than five days. Harry Struble, a former member of the Paul Whiteman band with Bunny, recalled “Bunny, Donna and the kids up in Syracuse, New York in 1940.”(3) Bunny probably paid for this vacation with the money he had received for the Lee Wiley recording date, which unlike his wages from Tommy Dorsey, was not subject to garnishment. After this brief hiatus, Bunny undoubtedly rushed back to Manhattan, and probably showed up at various clubs to sit in until the Dorsey band resumed operations.

Bunny Berigan takes a solo with Tommy Dorsey’s band on the stage of the Paramount Theater in Manhattan March 13 – April 9, 1940.

The morning after the Dorsey band closed at the Paramount Theater (April 10, 1940), Tommy had them in Victor’s Manhattan recording studio to make some records. Six sides were cut at that session, including a Sy Oliver arrangement on “I’m Nobody’s Baby,” with a vocal by Connie Haines, and some fine trumpet playing from Berigan. The available information indicates that this session began at 9:30 a.m. and concluded at 6:30 p.m. Somewhere along the line, the musicians took a lunch break. We can assume therefore that Tommy Dorsey had his band in the studio on that date for the better part of eight hours.(4)  Then, three of TD’s sidemen, Joe Bushkin, Sid Weiss, and Bunny Berigan, went to another studio to make more recordings! Bushkin recalled that day many years later:

“We were at the RCA studios on Twenty-fourth Street between Third and Lexington. It was a long day. Tommy Dorsey was a workaholic. We all got a guarantee, including Frank Sinatra, of $125 a week. (In addition to this base salary, the sidemen also were paid for recording dates and sponsored radio broadcasts. Berigan was reportedly making $250 a week as a base salary. MZ) After a late closing at the Paramount, we started at 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning and had a break for lunch then worked through 6:00 or so. Then we had just enough time to get uptown and grab a sandwich or something—and in Bunny’s case a number of drinks. So we showed up at the second studio at about 8:00 in the evening and played until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. That means that Bunny Berigan’s lip held up from 10:00 in the morning until about 2:00 the next morning, with a lot of pressure on him, because there’s no screwing around at RCA Victor with Tommy Dorsey.”(5)

The second studio to which Bushkin referred contained Lee Wiley and Bunny’s former drummer George Wettling, one of her favorite percussionists. They were there waiting when Bunny, Bushkin, and Weiss arrived. What transpired during the six hours these musicians were in the studio has been documented to a large degree on BluDisc LP T-1013. Ultimately, four takes were made that were issued: “Let’s Fly Away,” “Let’s Do It,” “Hot House Rose,” and “Find Me a Primitive Man,” all composed by Cole Porter. There were in addition several other completed takes of these tunes, as well as numerous breakdowns, with talk among the performers about what was wrong and how to fix it. (See note (6) below for a transcript of some of this studio talk.)

After this marathon of work, the Dorsey band had a day off on April 11, which was used to travel from Manhattan to the next gig, a week long stand at Shea’s Theater in Buffalo, New York. The young trumpeter Ray Linn, who was a member of the TD trumpet section, was once again surprised by Bunny Berigan: “I knew nothing about Bunny’s relationship with Lee Wiley, but I saw her standing around a couple of times outside the band bus and kissing him goodbye, when we were leaving town to play some one-nighters. I would have to assume that they weren’t just toasting marshmallows together!”(7)

Despite all of this, there is no evidence that after April of 1940, Lee Wiley and Bunny Berigan continued their relationship.

The music:

“Find Me a Primitive Man” was composed in 1929 by Cole Porter for the Broadway show Fifty Million Frenchmen. Among the other Porter songs in that show was the standard “You Do Something to Me.” Porter was a master at creating subtly humorous double-entendre lyrics to go along with his often sophisticated melodies. In this performance, Lee Wiley sings Porter’s lyric with just the right ironic twist. Her clear feminine voice, heard above Berigan’s growling trumpet sounds, create many effective sonic contrasts throughout this performance.

After a jungly introduction that features drummer George Wettling’s tom-toms, and pianist Joe Bushkin’s vamping, Ms. Wiley sings the facetious words of Cole Porter’s verse for “Find Me a Primitive Man” with mock seriousness. Her accompaniment consists of simple piano chords and runs. As as she begins to sing the satirical first chorus, bassist Sid Weiss joins the fun, as does Berigan, muting the sound of his trumpet with a pixie straight mute and a plunger to suggest a primitive man lurking in the background. Wettling continues tapping his tom-tom.

Berigan and George Wettling.

The second chorus begins with Berigan playing a growling sixteen bars against Wettling’s insistent tom-tom beat, with some tasty chords being provided for him by pianist Bushkin. Ms. Wiley returns enthusiastically to finish the chorus.

The final sequence consists of Ms. Wiley floating through a delightful wordless vocal for four bars, evoking Eve in the Garden of Eden bearing the apple, followed by four bars of Berigan’s growling trumpet, evoking Adam, taking a bite.

This is a remarkably sophisticated performance that reflects a good deal of advance planning, probably by Lee Wiley herself.

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


Notes and links:

(1) Wikipedia post for Liberty Music Shop Records. NOTE: Liberty Music Shop Records is not to be confused with another specialty record label, Commodore Records, which were sold in the Commodore Music Shop in Manhattan in the 1930s and 1940s.

(2) White materials, May 4, 1940.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Robert Dupuis Berigan biography: 224.

(5) Ibid.

(6) A transcript of the conversation between the performers that occurred after a rejected take of “Find Me a Primitive Man” provides a fascinating insight into the often tedious business of recording music. By the time this exchange took place shortly after midnight on April 11, 1940, Bunny Berigan had been in recording studios for the previous fifteen hours, with two short breaks for lunch and dinner. This recording session with Lee Wiley, which had produced three usable masters among numerous rejected takes and breakdowns, was entering hour five, and she was behaving like a diva:

A take of “Find Me a Primitive Man” ends. Laughter.

Lee Wiley: Well, that was perfect all except the end, I think, and that don’t upset me that much…Wasn’t it?

Berigan begins humming the melody of “Find Me a Primitive Man,”perfectly on pitch.

LW: Well, what was wrong with that?  That’s what I’m trying to figure out.

Berigan continues humming. There is silence otherwise. Breaking the pregnant pause…

Joe Bushkin (piano): Well, it was OK except for the ending.

Berigan continues humming, and then…to Wiley:

BB: You didn’t, you don’t do what (we rehearsed)…

LW: (defensively to Bushkin) …You didn’t change the chord…

BB: (to Wiley)…You don’t change the chord…

LW: (peevishly)…Well, it doesn’t matter what I do.  I can do anything…

JB: Well, I got to know what you’re doing…

LW: (now conciliatory, to Bushkin)…Darling, I started out and the reason I didn’t change is that you didn’t give me a chord. You only played one chord with me…

JB: I played two chords…

BB: (softly to Wiley)…Uh, you just didn’t sing the last note. That was all that was wrong.  Know what I mean?

LW: I didn’t because he didn’t change the chord.

BB: No, he played the same as he always played.

LW: (In her most sheepish, babylike voice to Berigan)…Well, if he did, I would have sung it. (Then more defensively, to Bushkin)…I’ve been doing that all my life, I don’t know why I wouldn’t have done it there…You didn’t change in the right places!…

BB: (Now agitated, to the recording supervisor) …Put on some more wax! Put on some more wax!

Sid Weiss (bass): Well, let’s make this one.

George Wettling (drums) starts drumming on his high-hat cymbals.

Berigan resumes humming…and a new take begins.

(7) White materials: April 10, 1940.

Here is a link to a guestbook that was maintained at the Liberty Music Shop, and information about that, courtesy of jazz historian Michael Steinman:

3 thoughts on ““Find Me a Primitive Man” (1940) with Lee Wiley

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  1. Though I’ve never found verification that Cole heard this version of one of his most amusingly suggestive songs (among many!), I must assume that he did, and I would love to know how he felt about it. I recall reading that he, like many others among the important songwriters of his general era, was not a fan of jazz and its taking of melodic, harmonic and, where applicable, lyrical liberties. Too, supposedly his favorite interpreter of his own material was the blaring, unsubtle Ethel Merman. Still, I have — or at least want — to believe that Cole loved this sublime treatment, as I do. The combination of Lee’s knowing (and probably sympathetic!) lyrical interpretation — matter-of-fact in the verse and, with the aid of exquisite phrasing, only slightly restrained in the chorus — and the spare accompaniment, ideally suited to the material, surely must have pleased the sophisticated Mr Porter.

    Joe, though native in the verse, like tom-tom pounding George, can’t resist contrasting the prehistoric barrelhouse with a few pretty, dainty Buskinisms between Lee’s stanzas — and these additions fit what is, after all, hardly a primitive number, despite its title. Bunny, though … In his portrayal of the titular character, Roland Bernard of Hilbert, WI, with that pixie straight mute and plunger (shades of “Caravan”) is truly the elemental character “just out of a cave” — with club.

    Whatever amount of musical planning (and attendant diva-like behavior on Ms Wiley’s part) went into this recording date, its comes off, through its four sides, as a lighthearted session involving highly simpatico participants. One has to wonder, particularly given Ray Linn’s recollections of cozy goodbyes at the Dorsey band bus, if either Bunny or Lee had any sense that this lengthy, albeit sporadic, affair was coming to an end. Although I’ve always had the feeling that Lee wasn’t the best influence on Bunny with regard to resisting the bottle and thus keeping his band operating optimally, I can certainly understand how these two musically sympathetic, and very attractive, people wound up together — and why Bunny preferred Lee’s company to that of the childish Donna, a lousy mother and herself a bad influence and alcoholic-in-the-works.

    Finally, that studio dialogue has fascinated me since I first read the transcript. Lee does indeed sound defensive! According to Barbara Lea’s liner notes for a CD reissue of Lee’s mid ’50s sides, the OK-born chanteuse also had some experience playing piano. It’s therefore especially surprising to me that prior to the glorious issued take Lee’s musical compass failed her and she got a little lost in the “Primitive Man” ending. … Regarding the issued take, though, I am the only one to whom it sounds as if she’s singing “Someone with vimmer and vem” instead of the written “vigor and vim”?

    1. “Vimmer and vam” it is. How strange.
      I guess it must have been a long day for everyone, but it does rather put Joey Bushkin’s “missed” coda chord into perspective.
      Mike, this is probably one of the most illuminating posts of all. I’d give anything to hear that verbal exchange as picked up on the discarded wax, stuff like this being very hard to come by in the pre-magnetic tape era.
      Interestingly, I always thought the accompanist followed the singer, rather than vice-versa. At least in my own experience, so the frisson between Lee and Joey is certainly very illuminating. After 15 hours at the mike, Bunny is still well in charge of that superhuman lip of his. Amazing.
      Regarding the verse: this was a time when the (sung) verse was really beginning to make its rightful appearence as a vital part of the performance, per se. -Previously it had so often been relegated to a part of the arranger’s art, if included at all, yet so often its lyric was an integral part of the composer’s narrative. Plucking one out of thin air, “Street of Dreams”, as performed by LW, is a world away from the piece of froth recorded by Sinatra and the Pied Pipers with Dorsey, immaculate as that was.
      Lastly, a final word for Mr B- he is shown here as an accompanist of sensitivity. His moody and sensitive backing never at any stage overshadows the central performer, and it’s altogether another dimension we see here from the exuberant leader, and principal soloist.
      Thanks, Mike- this has been most illuminating.

      1. Keen observations, Mark! It seems to me that typically the earliest versions of show or Tin Pan Alley material usually included the verse, although often instrumentally in otherwise vocal treatments. Certainly in the Swing Era, whose arrangement features quickly became codified, the verse was routinely eschewed, in order to provide space for more elaborate intros, codas and modulatory passages. I well recall my mother, who was a great Wiley admirer, saying she loved the fact that Lee customarily included the verse. You’re so right that we receive vital narrative information from this introductory segment of the lyrics. This is certainly the case with “Primitive Man,” but also for me there are just some verses, such as the melodically winsome one in “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home,” that I like as much as, or more than, the chorus, and I’m a little disappointed not to hear them in later versions. There were a few instances late in the Swing Era in which the verses to new tunes were included, and this, I believe, was a result of singers and vocal records’ rise in popularity as WWII was heating up and those on the homefront were becoming more sentimental. A classic example is the war theme-implicit “I Don’t Want to Walk Without You,” as sung by Helen Forrest, who had actually stipulated more space when she joined the James band.

        And, yes, so true about Bunny the accompanist. One of the many great features of his artistry is that, while he strove to be the best musician he could possibly be, his ultimate focus was serving the song and enhancing, rather than merely dominating, the overall performance. As a singer’s accompanist, he understood the value of silence and staying out of the way as well as how to gently amplify — or agree with — the vocalist’s lines. There were simply no holes in his playing!

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