Composed by Al Neiburg; arranged by Gene Kutch.
Recorded in performance by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra on April 12, 1942 at the Nu-Elms Ballroom in Youngstown, Ohio.
Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Kenny Davis, first trumpet; Bob Mansell, Fred Norton, trumpets; Charlie Stout and Max Smith, trombones; George Quinty, first alto saxophone; Walt Mellor, alto and baritone saxophones; Eddie Swift and Neal Smith, tenor saxophones; Gene Kutch, piano; Tony Espen, bass; Jack Sperling, drums.
As we approach the 80th anniversary of Bunny Berigan’s tragic death, I have been thinking about what Bunny was doing in the weeks just before his passing. This post will summarize the events that led to his death at age 33 on June 2, 1942.
The historical record leading up to Berigan’s death is now fairly clear. He was an alcoholic. He became an alcoholic in approximately 1934, and died an alcoholic. As early as 1938, he was advised by doctors that he was developing cirrhosis of the liver. Despite his alcoholism, and his advancing cirrohisis, he was able to play the trumpet at virtuoso level until literally days before he died. But, even though his booking agent, Music Corporation of America, (MCA), billed him as The Miracle Man of Swing, he was human. Trying to be a miracle man almost every time he put his trumpet to his lips could and did result in musical mishaps and psychological pressures. Those pressures, plus the pressures of leading a touring band of musicians, plus the pressures of an unsuccessful marriage to a non-supportive spouse, led him to drink far more than his compromised liver could tolerate. Still, incredibly, he was able to produce much memorable music in the eight years he was an alcoholic.
Berigan launched his career as a publicly recognized musician gradually in the mid-1930s. His stellar work as a sideman in Benny Goodman’s band (mid-July through September 1935), and in Tommy Dorsey’s band (basically the first two months of 1937 on a part-time basis), bookend the time he spent as a featured performer on the CBS radio network show The Saturday Night Swing Club, which was from June of 1936 to February 1937. Taken together, these associations are what brought the name Bunny Berigan to the attention of swing band aficionados.
Berigan formed his own band in January of 1937, and through the first few months of that year, he was able to secure solid professional management (with MCA as his booking agent and Arthur Michaud as his personal manager), a good contract to record for the leading record label in the United States at that time, Victor Records, and a sponsored network radio show, Fun in Swingtime, presented over the Mutual Broadcasting System.
Starting in the autumn of 1937, Berigan took his band on the road, playing at all kinds of ballrooms, night clubs, show rooms and theaters. He enjoyed major success with his band through most of 1937 and 1938. However, due to a number of situations, some of his own making and some over which he had no control, he began to suffer a series of business reversals starting in the last months of 1938. His reactions to these setbacks were inadequate to stop them, and in some instances may have exacerbated the problems he was experiencing.
In mid-1939, Bunny essentially shut off his concern about the business operation of his band. This led to the filing of a bankruptcy petition on his behalf, but, paradoxically, no discharge of the debts that were crushing him. Physically and emotionally exhausted, and severely ill, Berigan was hospitalized at the end of 1939 for several days. Somehow, he managed to keep his band together through that traumatic period. Nevertheless, Berigan’s first band played its last engagement at the end of February 1940.
Without taking any time off to recuperate from his recent illness (the symptoms of cirrhosis of the liver had begun to affect him), Berigan accepted help from his good friend Tommy Dorsey, and joined the TD band at the beginning of March 1940. Although Bunny was paid a good salary by Tommy Dorsey (approximately $250 weekly as a base, plus extra for recordings and sponsored radio show performances), for reasons that have never been explained, he turned over to a third party (some say MCA, some say the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the musicians’ union to which he belonged, and to which he owed money as a result of a $1,000 fine levied on him in 1939 by James Caesar Petrillo, an executive of the union), all of his weekly earnings except a small amount, which he was expected to live on. This plan apparently reduced and then eliminated the debts he had accrued and which had precipitated the filing of his petition in bankruptcy in the summer of 1939. Soon after the debts were eliminated, Berigan left Dorsey and began to organize another road band, booked again by MCA.
By September of 1940, Berigan was touring again with a band of his own. Incredibly, Bunny operated this band, which became quite good musically, without a personal manager. He also operated without any contract to record this band. In baseball terms, these two mistakes were strikes one and two. Berigan ran the band as a panic band, which survived solely on the work that was provided for it by MCA, basically an endless series of one-night stands. The band worked more days than not, but still, open dates in its weekly schedule of engagements gradually submerged Bunny in the same quagmire of debt to his musicians he had been in in 1939-1940. That was strike three. The band members quit Berigan en masse in July of 1941 because they were not being paid fully each week. Once again, the musicians’ union became involved withholding money from Berigan’s earnings to obtain payment of the wages owed to Bunny’s sidemen.
Then, in a series of events that can only be described as serendipitous, at the very time Bunny Berigan’s old band was leaving him, he acquired a new band, and of equal importance a new personal manager, the young and energetic Don Palmer, whose real name was Domenico Ciro Plumeri. This new band, which was comprised of some professional musicians and some semi-pros, was over a couple of weeks time forged into a solid professional band by Berigan.
Bunny, who was always an inspired and inspiring leader, shaped not only the band’s performance capabilities, he also encouraged the young men in the band who could arrange to submit new music to the band’s book of arrangements. Consequently, the band began to develop its own musical personality around the featured trumpet of their virtuoso leader. His new pianist, Gene Kutch, was one who could arrange. Very soon, Kutch came up with his interpretation of the Victor Young-Ned Washington song “One Look at You,” which he formulated as “…an instrumental with very good swing, that we would open with each night.”(1) Audiences liked that arrangement, and generally liked the music of this edition of Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra. Soon, other new arrangements were written by Kutch and others, including an original special feature for the band’s explosive young drummer, Jack Sperling. It was called “Solid, Jack!”
While all of this was going on on the musical side of the Berigan band (something that Bunny handled very well), positive developments were going on on the business side of the band for the first time in almost three years. In a move that was quintessentially Beriganesque, though still rather astonishing to most everyone else, almost immediately upon meeting and hiring Don Palmer in the summer of 1941, he gave Palmer a comprehensive power of attorney, essentially the legal authority for Palmer to do whatever he thought was necessary to manage Bunny’s career. We must remember that after coming to a parting of the ways with his first personal manager, Arthur Michaud, in early 1939, Berigan operated without a personal manager for the next two and a half years. The damage this caused to Bunny’s career was enormous. Palmer, who was just learning the basics of talent management, was an honest person who genuinely cared about Berigan’s career. He began immediately to initiate various business practices that were designed to enable Bunny to pay off the debts he had accrued to the sidemen of his last band, and to pay the sidemen in his current band in full each week. This was business 101: expenses could not exceed income; bills must be paid on time. Then Palmer began making moves that were designed to increase the income of both the Berigan band, and of Bunny Berigan himself. One of these was to secure for Berigan his first recording contract since the lapse of his Victor recording contract in March of 1939.(1A) This was a contract with Eli Oberstein’s small Elite label. It was not one of the majors, but it provided Bunny with much needed revenue, and an opportunity to document the musical development of this band, and reach his fans wherever they were in the United States.
In addition, Palmer snagged a number of other opportunities for the band and for Bunny himself as a soloist working away from his band. The net result of Palmer’s management was that the Berigan band on the road was working more, and it was making more money on the road (Palmer clocked the gate of each gig and watched the box office like a hawk. The net result was that Bunny got paid in full for each one-nighter, based on his percentage of the gate.) Palmer also secured a lucrative opportunity for Bunny to work on the soundtrack of a Hollywood feature film (Syncopation – 1942), which paid Bunny enough for him for finally clear the debts he had racked up with his last band. By early 1942, Bunny Berigan was on the comeback trail with a good band that was getting better, and no debt, and solid management.
It was at this auspicious time when Bunny’s health began to deteriorate. Berigan had been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver in 1938, and certainly was well aware of its ongoing insidious presence in his body after he was hospitalized at the end of 1939. He thought (or perhaps convinced himself) that the various “cures” he attempted to reduce his drinking and his dependence on alcohol, including one apparent hospitalization/dry-out in July of 1940 when he was with Tommy Dorsey, would slow the advance of the cirrhosis. His thinking in this regard was wrong – deadly wrong. In fact, every drink Bunny Berigan took after his initial diagnosis for cirrhosis in 1938 moved him one step closer to his death. By early 1942, the physical mechanism that would kill him had begun. Manifestations of this that those who worked with him on a daily basis saw were his swollen and painful liver, which was visible even through his suit jackets; his increased spitting of blood into a handkerchief while he was onstage playing his trumpet and entertaining the patrons who had come out to hear him and his band; and his continuing loss of weight and general indifference to food.
The essence of all of this is that by 1942, Bunny Berigan had come to the conclusion that he was soon going to die. Basically, what made what was left of his life worth living was him leading his band and playing his trumpet. He therefore resolved to go on doing what he did, which included those things, and also included drinking. That was him being Bunny Berigan. Without that, there was nothing.
Despite all of these obvious outward warning signs in the first three and a half months of 1942, those who were around him then, and this definitely included his band members, seemingly had no idea that he was approaching death. He traveled with the band, played the gigs, played his trumpet, usually well and sometimes magnificently, and functioned as the leader of a band in every musical respect. He carefully supervised the band’s current repertoire, making sure there was a proper balance between current pop tunes, standards, new originals, and numbers associated with his bands. Over the two-month period from early February 1942 to mid-April, Bunny Berigan maintained a brutal schedule of travel and work with his band. Most of their work took place in the Midwest and the Northeast. Berigan interacted with audiences, signed autographs and did promotional events for the band.
But the inevitable always arrives.
After a travel day on April 7, the band played at the Maryland Theater, Cumberland, Maryland, on April 8. Pianist/arranger Gene Kutch’s diary explains what happened during this couple of days: “We checked into the Cumberland Hotel and then played four shows at the Maryland Theatre. We left after the last show and drove to Wooster, Ohio, arriving at 6 a.m. on Friday and checked into the Ohio Hotel there.”(2) At Wooster, the band played at the College of Wooster on the 10th, then drove to Saginaw, Michigan for a one-nighter the next night. It was after this gig that an exhausted Red Lange (tenor saxophone and clarinet) departed: “I left the band after a date in Saginaw, Michigan. The band played for the Knights of Columbus Ball opposite Leroy Smith, and after we finished the job, I left for Toledo.”(3) Lange was replaced by Eddie Swift. After this gig, the band moved on to Youngstown, Ohio, (a trip of approximately 350 miles) to begin an engagement at the Nu-Elms Ballroom there. (3A)
Perhaps Bunny (more likely Palmer) told MCA that Bunny and the band were now exhausted by the grueling travel of the previous two months, and needed to settle down somewhere for a while to recuperate. Whatever happened, MCA’s plan was to use the Nu-Elms Ballroom in Youngstown as the Berigan band’s base of operations for a week or so, doing one-nighters into the surrounding territory. The band opened at the Nu-Elms on Sunday, April 12, playing an afternoon session at 3:30 and an evening session at 8:30. It appears that during the afternoon session the band was broadcast. One tune was recorded: “I’m Confessin. (That I Love You).” Based on the sound of the brass voicings used throughout this arrangement, which are identical to those in Gene Kutch’s arrangement of “Somebody Else Is Taking My Place,” I think this chart was written by Kutch. Bunny has three separate solos, each on open trumpet, and they are excellent. This is the last known recording of Bunny Berigan.
The next night, the band played a dance date at Cole Auditorium in Norwalk, Ohio for the benefit of the Norwalk Police Department. They returned to the Nu-Elms for the evening of April 14. What happened the next day is not known, but they may well have played another one-nighter near Youngstown. They were at the Nu-Elms again on April 16 (Thursday) and on the 19th (Sunday), which was their last night there. Between these dates, they played at Granville College, Granville, Ohio on the 17th, and at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania, on the 18th. It appears that vocalist Kay Little, who was married to Berigan’s former male vocalist, Danny Richards, who had been drafted, left the band permanently in Youngstown. She was about half-way through her pregnancy. A new girl vocalist, Doris Bell, joined.
There was now great concern in the band about Bunny’s rapidly failing health. Lead alto saxophonist George Quinty remembered the time the band was in Youngstown:
“We stayed at the Palace Hotel, and I remember Ella Fitzgerald coming in to hear Bunny, also the entire Henry Busse band. Busse offered me a job with his band, and when I told Bunny, he said, ‘Take it George, get some more experience and a reputation.’ I guess we all had realized that Bunny was a sick man by then, but we never dreamed that he might die soon, even though he looked haggard and his clothes were hanging on him. I don’t think Donna made things any easier for him either, the way she treated him. One day, my wife, Helen, asked him, ‘Bunny, what are you trying to do to yourself? A guy who’s so handsome and plays so beautifully.’ And all that Bunny replied was, ‘Ask Jimmy Petrillo about that.’ He loved his daughters and at the slightest excuse would bring out their photos that he always carried in his wallet. He was always so calm, nothing seemed to upset him. He used to tell me I was the only musician he’d ever met who did not drink or smoke. He was a strict Catholic and used to often go to Mass, but I think there was something wrong between Donna and him. It was ironic, really, because Don Palmer used to call her a lush. She’d call him up at any hour of day or night to get him to bring her some booze. He reckoned she made Bunny worse. His playing at the Elms was pretty bad.“(4)
Sick or not, Bunny had to make the next one-nighter, which was on April 21 at the Aragon Ballroom in Pittsburgh. It is unclear whether he played all, a part, or none of this job. Gene Kutch, probably with the assistance of his diary, recalled that Claude Thornhill, who was also playing in Pittsburgh with his band on that date, came to the Aragon and played a set or two to help Bunny out. After the Aragon gig, Bunny had to be taken to Allegheny General Hospital, 320 East North Avenue, in Pittsburgh.
The acute ailments that put him in the hospital then were complete exhaustion, malnutrition, and pneumonia. These health challenges were in addition to his chronic alcoholism and advanced cirrhosis of the liver. His profoundly damaged and swelling liver had caused portal hypertension to occur. Attempts by his body to establish a better, collateral flow of blood between the portal and systemic circulations had resulted in enlarged veins at the points of connection, mainly the esophagus and the intestine. His blood pressure, no doubt elevated by his playing the trumpet, had caused these thin-walled veins (varices) to rupture.(5) Bunny’s pneumonia had undoubtedly been caused by him aspirating the blood that was seeping through the ruptured veins in his esophagus. Blood was being drawn into his lungs by him every time he took a breath. The internal mechanism that would cause Bunny Berigan’s death had now started.
Nevertheless, his band had to move on to honor the engagements MCA had booked.
Soon after Berigan’s hospitalization, Variety ran this item: “Bunny Berigan is in Allegheny State Hospital in Pittsburgh recovering from an attack of pneumonia. He played that city with his band on Tuesday (21st), thereafter being hospitalized. His outfit went on without him to Andy Perry’s Empire Ballroom in Allentown, Pennsylvania, the next night. The group opened a stay at the Summit in Baltimore the next night (Thursday), where Bunny will rejoin the band when he is sufficiently recovered.”(6)
While he was hospitalized, MCA arranged for the Berigan band to be led by vocalist Sonny Skylar, who had been preparing to go on the road with his own band after singing with Vincent Lopez’s band for some time previously.
As was the case with all previous Berigan bands, this last one gradually developed its own musical identity. Berigan’s solo trumpet, of course, was the centerpiece of all of the band’s music. But the arrangements that were written by various members of the band (mainly Gene Kutch with a few by Red Lange), gradually provided an identifiable ensemble musical personality that complemented Bunny’s solos. He welcomed this, and in fact encouraged it. Gene Kutch’s arrangements came to identify much of the music of the last Berigan band. Working with the five brass four reeds three rhythm instrumentation that formed the basic big band setup during the swing era, Kutch crafted a number of very effective showcases for Bunny Berigan’s trumpet playing. None of those arrangements is better than the one he wrote on the standard “I’m Confessin’ (That I Love You).” It is a simple framework taken at a ballad tempo that was intended to get people onto the dance floor.
There is a brief introduction, followed by a simple exposition of the main melody of the song in chorus one by the muted trumpets, with asides from the reeds (sometimes abetted by open trombones), through the first sixteen bars. The saxophone quartet takes over on the bridge, alone at first, and then with some brass asides provided by the muted trumpets and open trombones. There follows a brief ensemble interlude which leads to last eight bars of the first chorus, which presents all of the brass playing the melody with open horns, complemented by the reeds, creating a bit more intensity.
There is an interlude between the first two choruses which starts with a crisp snare drum shot played by Jack Sperling. This launches Bunny on open trumpet, playing brief, dramatic phrases atop shifting harmonies, much like he did right after his vocal on his classic recording of “I Can’t Get Started,” as he works his way into a magnificent upward arching series of high notes.
Berigan follows this with an improvised solo as the second chorus begins, playing simply against organ chords by the saxophones. This solo covers two eight-bar segments, separated by a bright burst of sound from the entire ensemble. The entire brass choir play open horns on the bridge. Bunny returns for the last eight bar segment lobbing out huge, fat notes in his lower middle register.
There is another brief interlude (including an upward modulation) between choruses two and three, this one including everyone in the band playing strongly. Kutch is moving the music toward a climax as the ensemble plays through the first eight bars of the third chorus. And what a climax it is! Berigan, now in his instrument’s high register, works his way up to a room-shaking high note, downward glissando, and a quiet denouement. Magic cannot be taught. Bunny Berigan had that gift.
This is an incredible performance that would be challenging for any trumpet virtuoso to play. But for Berigan to have played it while his esophagus was bleeding, and he was aspirating blood, is nothing short of miraculous.
Nine days after this recording was made, Berigan was hospitalized in Pittsburgh. Bunny was in the hospital from April 21 to May 7. It was clear to all of the doctors that treated him while he was hospitalized that the bleeding that was occurring internally was seeping into his esophagus and then being aspirated. That is what caused the pneumonia. Bunny’s swollen liver, ravaged by cirrhosis, was the cause of the bleeding. The prognosis was dire: Bunny Berigan was dying. All of this was explained to him. He was not surprised.
As soon as the symptoms of the pneumonia lessened to the point where he thought he could play his trumpet, Bunny left the hospital against all medical advice. He rejoined his band at the Summit Club near Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore on May 8. He knew from prior experience that when he was away from his band for any period of time, his sidemen would start looking for other jobs. That process had in fact begun while Bunny was in the hospital. Several musicians gave notice and left. New ones were hired. Berigan was dying, but he was nevertheless trying to keep his band together. This had to be a surreal time for the people who were working with Bunny through the balance of the month of May.
The Summit Club gig had been extended for six days after Bunny returned to the band. His band members had memories of him playing poorly and superbly at that time.
Trombonist Max Smith, who had spent most of the previous two years working with Berigan, recalled the general attitude around the Berigan band then about Bunny’s health: “None of us in the band had any idea of how ill Bunny was. Some nights he was very weak and would just stand and lean against the piano, not playing much at all. But we’d seen him ‘sick’ before and when he’d stop drinking for a few days, he’d start to look like a new man. No drinks for a week and the yellow color in his skin would change and his eyes would also clear up. So we assumed it would happen this time.”(7)
The vicissitudes of leading a band on the road did not stop just because Bunny Berigan was dying. After playing an end of term prom at Milford College in Milford, Connecticut on May 28, Berigan and his band drove to Scranton, Pennsylvania, for a dance date at the University of Scranton, on May 29. At this gig, Bunny headed a student committee to pick the University May Queen.(7) This job was a warm-up for a really good gig the next night, Saturday May 30, at one of the best venues for a swing era big band, the Sunnybrook Ballroom in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
The distance from Scranton to Pottstown, Pennsylvania is approximately 110 miles. Compared with many jumps MCA had required the Berigan band to make between one-nighters, this one was rather short. No one had the slightest concern about making the trip from Scranton to Pottstown, and arriving at the gig early. After the Scranton dance, the band probably checked into a hotel and got some much needed sleep. They likely spent a good part of the next day relaxing, assuming the bus ride to Pottstown would easily be accomplished in a couple of hours, at most. Some time during the day, Bunny and trumpeter Charlie Mitchell drove to Pottstown in Mitchell’s car, with a couple of other band members. They had encountered no problems. It had been an easy drive. George Quinty filled in the details:
“Bunny decided to ride in Charlie Mitchell’s Lincoln instead of the bus, which was driven by a Hungarian guy from Jersey City. The weather was terrible and somewhere along the way we got diverted by a traffic cop, because of an accident up ahead. We’d left (Scranton) in the early afternoon, and when it was getting dark, someone asked Don Palmer if we ought to be near our destination. He got our driver to stop at the next traffic light and get directions from a policeman. It turned out that we were going in the wrong direction! Don attempted to charter an airplane at a nearby airfield, but had no luck as everything was grounded due to the bad weather. He told the driver to step on it and arranged for a police escort with flashing red lights and screaming sirens! But it was around 11.30 p.m. when we finally got to Pottstown and the place was closed and deserted. Charlie Mitchell was waiting for us, but Bunny had gone on to New York. Charlie said Bunny was broken-hearted and had sat in the car, killing two fifths of whiskey, while he waited for us to turn up. The guys in the band were all upset about missing the job, especially as we were due on the air for a half-hour broadcast over CBS. I believe that more than two thousand people were given their money back. It was a terrible blow for Bunny, possibly the last straw, I guess.”(8)
Berigan had attempted to mollify the large crowd at the Sunnybrook by staging an impromptu jam session with the few musicians who were there with him, but it did not work. Don Palmer learned from Charlie Mitchell that after this, Bunny went outside and started to vomit blood. Once again, he had been the innocent victim of the vicissitudes of being the leader of a touring dance band. When this type of situation had happened previously, it had cost him dearly. As he rode back to New York that night, he undoubtedly wondered and worried about how this latest fiasco would play out. He also had to be worried about his physical condition. No amount of denial could alter the fact that from somewhere inside his body, he was now bleeding profusely. This could not go on much longer. It didn’t: two days later he was dead. He had lived thirty-three years and seven months.
The abortive engagement at the Sunnybrook Ballroom was the last time that Bunny Berigan ever played his trumpet.
The recording that is presented with this post was transferred rather haphazardly from an acetate disk in the late 1970s. I have done a lot of digital clean-up to get it into the condition you hear, which is not ideal. Nevertheless, this is a unique and significant recording, and that is why I have posted it.
(*) I have borrowed this thoughtful and profound title from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1943 essay/book.
(1) White materials: September 8, 1941.
(1A) The Victor recording session Bunny Berigan made on November 28, 1939 was, according to available evidence, a one-off, not produced pursuant to any ongoing contract Berigan had with Victor then.
(2) White materials: April 8, 1942.
(3) White materials: April 11, 1942.
(3A) The Elms or Nu-Elms Ballroom, built in 1922, was known as a top venue during the swing era. It was located at 529 Elm St. in Youngstown, Ohio on what is now the campus of Youngstown State University. The building was razed in 1965.
(4) White materials: April 19, 1942. By 1942, Donna Berigan rarely traveled with Bunny and his band. The last time she was with the band for a period of time was probably their lengthy gig at the Roosevelt Hotel in Jacksonville, Florida in September of 1941. There is evidence however that Donna joined Bunny on the road for at least a part of the time between his release from the hospital on May 7 or 8, and his last day of work, the abortive Sunnybrook Ballroom gig on May 30. Her presence was not salutary for Bunny.
(5) Jazz and Death: Medical Profiles of Jazz Greats by Frederick J. Spencer, M.D. (2002); 106–107.
(6) Variety: April 29, 1942, cited in the White materials.
(7) White materials, May 28, 1942.
(8) White materials may 30, 1934.