“Let This Be a Warning to You, Baby” (1938)

Composed by Benny Davis and Lou Handman; arranged by Andy Phillips.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Victor on September 13, 1938 in New York.

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Steve Lipkins and Irving Goodman, trumpets; Ray Conniff and Nat Lobovsky, trombones; George “Gigi” Bohn, first alto saxophone; Arcuiso “Gus” Bivona, alto saxophone and clarinet; Georgie Auld and Clyde Rounds, tenor saxophones; Joe Bushkin, piano; Dick Wharton, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; Buddy Rich, drums. Vocal by Jayne Dover.

The story:

Since my book Mr. Trumpet …The Trials, Tribulations and Triumph of Bunny Berigan was published, a number of people have asked me why Berigan was not able to deal more successfully with the alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver that killed him at age 33. The reasons are numerous. When explored and examined, those reasons boil down to the fact that after Bunny had worked as hard as possible to build his name with the public and establish a successful band in the years 1936-1938, he found that playing his trumpet before large and appreciative audiences with his own band was far more addictive than alcohol. When serious warnings about the damage drinking was doing to his liver were first explained to him in 1938, he rationalized ways and means to continuing his drinking while continuing to play his trumpet and lead his band. He denied that every drink he took moved him a step closer to his death. Of course, as is the case in all human stories, it was much more complicated that that.

In retrospect, the time when the recording presented with this post was made was at the beginning of a series of events that would take Bunny Berigan and his band from a place of commercial success in the world of swing, into a gradual decline. Musically, the Berigan band that made this recording was possibly the best he ever led. Among the sidemen with Berigan then were a number of very talented performers who would go on to major careers in music: Ray Conniff, Buddy Rich, Georgie Auld, Joe Bushkin, and Gus Bivona. Berigan himself was playing magnificently. The Berigan band in the second half of 1938 rocked and swung with the best.

The cover of Volume One of Bozy White’s monumental bio-discography of Bunny Berigan.

But dark clouds were gathering over the business side of the Berigan band. Bunny’s career, from the time he began entertaining ideas of leading his own band in 1936, had been guided by his personal manager, Arthur Michaud. The business side was further strengthened when Bunny signed with Music Corporation of America (MCA), the powerful band booking agency, in March of 1937. Berigan piled success on success through 1937 and well into 1938. But in the summer of 1938, problems began to manifest themselves on the business side of the Berigan band. These problems were not Bunny’s fault, nevertheless he bore the costly financial consequences of the mistakes of others, including Michaud and MCA. He was also a victim of bad luck then. The great hurricane of 1938 blew the Berigan band out of a prime two-weeks long booking in Boston, that was to include many radio broadcasts. The resulting losses in revenue and publicity hampered the band’s employment for several months thereafter.

Through the time of Berigan’s ever-increasing success, Bunny’s personal life, which included a wife and two small daughters, began to suffer. There were many reasons for this including that he was constantly on the go, often traveling away from his home in New York for weeks and months at a time. MCA was billing him as “The Miracle Man of Swing,” and whenever he appeared with his band, audiences expected him to perform miracles with his trumpet. He often did. But he also had his share of musical mishaps along the way. The pressures of leading a popular band day-to-day, and trying to be the Superman of the Trumpet were great, and increased with his success. His drinking, which had advanced to a level of alcohol abuse in 1934, also increased as he used alcohol to help him cope with the ever-increasing problems and pressures in his life. As one would expect, this sometimes had precisely the opposite effect.

An additional large factor in the turbulence in Berigan’s personal life was his spasmodic liaison with the sultry chanteuse Lee Wiley, which lasted from probably the summer of 1935 until the spring of 1940. To say that Ms. Wiley was a high-maintenance diva would be an understatement. She pursued Berigan relentlessly, at gigs, at rehearsals, and indeed even when he was on the road. In time, Bunny’s wife Donna learned of this affair, which Bunny and Lee did not hide, and there were several emotional blow-ups and separations between them as a result. But they never divorced.

For her part, Donna was quite immature, was something of a spendthrift, was not an attentive mother, and by 1936 had developed her own problem with alcohol. The deeply troubled Berigan marriage affected Bunny negatively, as did the often inadequate care Donna provided for the Berigan daughters. Despite Bunny’s efforts to create a more stable home environment for his daughters, which included having his mother, Mayme, move into the Berigan home in New York in early 1939 for a period of months, and then for the girls and Donna to spend that summer with Mayme at the Berigan family home in Fox Lake, Wisconsin, his efforts were only marginally successful. Many baby-sitters were employed by Donna to watch the girls from the last months of 1939 until Bunny’s death in June of 1942. After that, the girls went to live with Donna’s brother and sister-in-law, Darrell and Joyce McArthur/MacArthur, and remained with them until they became adults and married.

Very little has been written about a major part of Bunny Berigan’s personality, his stubbornness. The concept of stubbornness has two sides. The one most people relate to is irrational mulishness, where the stubborn person disregards all rational evidence and maintains his/her position seemingly just to maintain it. But there is a second side to stubbornness. That the stubborn person will continue to do something, tenaciously and seemingly obsessively, when less stubborn people will not. That part of Bunny Berigan’s stubbornness is what enabled him to become a virtuoso trumpeter, to build a great band and to continue leading a band through a fatal illness until literally a day or two before he died.

If one considers the very strong stubborn streak in Bunny Berigan’s personality, along with the many negative traits related to his addiction to alcohol, particularly the pernicious denial that is such a big part of that disease, much of his behavior becomes more understandable. Nevertheless, it still leads inevitably to the same sad result: his death at age 33.

I have been struck by the similarities between Berigan’s last days and those of the great jazz pianist Bill Evans. Although Evans’s addiction was to hard drugs, how he behaved and how he interacted with the people around him who cared about him as he approached death was remarkably similar to what had happened with Berigan. Here is how Evans’s widow, Nenette, described Bill’s addiction: “…he’d been self-medicating for decades, and while his struggle with drug abuse experienced peaks and valleys, in many instances he surrounded himself with the wrong people. He should have been hospitalized for drug dependency many times, but he was unable to look at the causes, and when he did seek help in that direction, it was too ineffectual and his illness was too severe.” (1)

In both cases, the musicians involved were preeminent in their field, and they took seriously what was involved to maintain that position. What is primarily required is to play. It is very difficult for any musician at the top of his/her skills to simply stop playing, no matter how dire the situation they find themselves in, in order to deal with health issues. Indeed, the list of famous bandleaders who continued to work and tour long after their health had disintegrated, includes Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Woody Herman, Harry James and Stan Kenton, to name only the most obvious ones. Buddy Morrow was still on the road with a band at age 90. As this is written, Sir Paul McCartney, working in another musical idiom, is on tour at age 80. My opinion given these facts is that when a successful musician is faced with the choice of continuing to perform, or seeking medical treatment that will probably disrupt their musical careers, in most instances they will choose to continue playing, and ignore/deny their health problems.

Bunny Berigan and Tommy Dorsey in March of 1940. Berigan’s swollen appearance is evidence of the progressive damage he was doing to his liver by drinking.

In the case of Bunny Berigan, he did not totally ignore or deny his problem. Although he was informed by a physician in 1938 that he had cirrhosis of the liver, his response to that was to cut down on his drinking, which he did periodically. But inevitably, he would resume drinking, and the assault on his liver that had begun continued and increased. This on and off again (mostly on again) drinking caused Berigan to suffer the first major health crisis of his life, which occurred at the end of 1939. That crisis was a result of his liver beginning to malfunction to the degree that it was making him physically ill and causing him to retain water, further causing noticeable swelling throughout his body. He was hospitalized for about two weeks at that time. Shortly after that, he gave up his first band and joined Tommy Dorsey’s band, basically to get off the road for awhile and try to restore his health. His drinking was greatly reduced during much of the 1940 Dorsey interlude. But inevitably, he fell off the wagon while working for Dorsey. When that happened (in July of 1940), it is possible that Tommy Dorsey insisted that he take time off to dry out, and that he did do that. Whatever happened then, Berigan soon resumed leading his own band, and whatever external controls to his drinking that had existed during the Dorsey interlude were no longer in place.

Another health crisis caused by Berigan’s resumed drinking and/or stopping drinking and suffering from alcohol withdrawal (the DTs), occurred in October of 1940, while he and his new band were playing a longish engagement at The Chatterbox in Mountainside, New Jersey. One of his former employers, Paul Whiteman, learned of this and invited Bunny to stay at his home nearby while he was dealing with these problems. Whiteman later recalled that “…he had awful nightmares.” Whiteman was repeatedly awakened in the early morning hours by Berigan shouting in his sleep. This was a difficult time for Bunny because in addition to dealing with his alcohol-related problems, he was trying to get his new band off to a solid start. Somehow, he managed to do that.

This sort of zig-zag continued until Bunny died on June 2, 1942. When he did seek help, …it was too ineffectual and his illness was too severe.”

The music:

Gus Bivona and Georgie Auld.

The Berigan band played a private party on Long Island on the night of September 12, 1938. It was at this gig that clarinetist–alto saxophonist Arcuiso “Gus” Bivona became a member of the Berigan band. “I joined Bunny for that date, replacing Joe Dixon. There was another band at the affair, one of those society orchestras organized by Meyer Davis. We played alternating sets and there was quite a difference in the types of music!  I’d never met Bunny before that day, but he had contacted me at the Forrest Hotel in New York previously. Jayne Dover, who had worked with (lead alto saxophonist) ‘Gigi’ Bohn and me in the Hudson-DeLange orchestra, joined Bunny about the same time.”(2)  The Berigan band had spent almost all of the previous three months on the road.

The very next day, Bunny was scheduled to make some records for Victor in New York. Gus Bivona later remembered that Bunny used the private party the night before to get the pop tunes the band was to record under their fingers. One of them was “Let This Be a Warning to You, Baby.”

Andy Phillips shown at Kennywood Park near Pittsburgh in May of 1939.

This arrangement was written by Andy Phillips, who came upon the Berigan scene in the spring of 1938 as Joe Lippman was phasing out as Bunny’s chief arranger. His approach to arranging for the Berigan band was quite different from the way Lippman wrote. Phillips tried different blends of instruments, as we hear in the brassy four bar introduction (led with gusto by first trumpeter Steve Lipkins) in which Georgie Auld plays a counterline on his tenor saxophone.

Jayne Dover.

The first chorus has the four-man brass team playing the main melody on open instruments for sixteen bars, answered by the saxophones. Bunny plays the secondary melody on the bridge, muting his trumpet in some fashion to contrast somewhat with the open brass and surging saxophones. As the band returns for the last eight bars of the first chorus, Berigan, now with an open trumpet, soars brilliantly above the ensemble.

There follows a transition and modulation into the vocal chorus which is sung by Jayne Dover. Ms. Dover was an experienced singer, having worked previously with Joe Haymes and the Hudson-Delange band. After her brief tenure with the Berigan band, she went on to work with Van Alexander and Claude Thornhill. Her contralto voice was attractive. She sang on pitch, used clear enunciation and knew how to swing. She did a good job of delivering the lyric to this 1938 pop tune which would be forgotten were in not for this exuberant Berigan recording of it.

The next chorus contains some very tasty jazz, first sixteen bars by Ray Conniff on open trombone, and then a climactic eight bars by Berigan on his blazing open trumpet. Bunny then stepped back to lead the brass through the final sequence.

Ray Conniff takes a solo on the stage of the Fox Theater in Detroit during the summer of 1938; Berigan is at left. Saxophonists L-R visible are: Georgie Auld, Joe Dixon, Mike Doty and Clyde Rounds.
Young Buddy Rich.

Note should be taken of the drumming of Buddy Rich throughout this recording. He was just shy of his 21st birthday, and though very talented, was still learning how to drive a big band. He was fortunate to have started working in big bands with Berigan, who was an encouraging and supportive boss. He learned from Berigan what swing was, and that lesson stayed with him through a career as a nonpareil big band drummer that lasted 50 years.

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


Notes:

(1) Times Remembered …The Final Years of the Bill Evans Trio (2021)m by Joe LaBarbera and Charles Levin, (160). Joe LaBarbera was the drummer in Evans’s Trio at the time of Bill’s death and for some time before that.

(2) White materials: September 12, 1938.

3 thoughts on ““Let This Be a Warning to You, Baby” (1938)

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  1. I recall that when I first encountered the excellent session that produced this record, I took immediate notice of the fact that it took place exactly twenty-eight years before I was born. That six sides, including the majestic “Livery Stable Blues,” were waxed that day, when four was the standard, attests to the Berigan band’s ability to get down to business with the best of them — e.g. , the well-drilled Goodman and T. Dorsey orchestras. I’ve always been fairly hard on those who took vocal choruses on Berigan records — except, of course, Bunny himself as well as Sue Mitchell, Ford Leary and Bernie Mackey. I still maintain that the vocal department was the aggregation’s only weakness: Dick Wharton, with his piercing tenor and old-fashioned style, was a lousy fit for this swinging outfit, and I must assume that Arthur Michaud was in favour of him only because Wharton was a two-for-one, in also replacing Tom Morgan on guitar. The female singers were merely adequate and did nothing to add to the character of the band. Then again, I feel that even if Bunny had been able to secure the services of a first-rate vocalist, either established or an extraordinary unknown, it would have been at least an artistic mistake to build the band around the warbler of romantic (or otherwise) material. Who knows if Victor would have turned magnanimous and awarded the orchestra better pop tunes as a result of a hit record. As it is, I think entirely too much of the band’s output was devoted to vocal records — which was made worse by the fact that in most cases neither the song nor the singer was anything special. What we remember now about the vocal sides is not the 32 bars of singing, but Bunny’s beautifully phrased solos, which many of us can sing note-for-note. As the Swing Era progressed, more and more space was devoted to vocals, so why in, say, ’38 did Bunny’s band have to conform to that trend? In any case, the 9/13/38 date stands out as a varied and superior session, despite the silly pop numbers and the fact that storm clouds were beginning to gather for Bunny and the band he had so carefully nurtured. There are two splendid instrumentals, taken from Bunny’s beloved trad field; the fun and swinging “Father, Dear Father” and three Jayne Dover sides, whose arrangements and instrumental input elevate the material several notches. “When a Prince of a Fella Meets a Cinderella” never seems to get love from anyone but me. The arrangement is strong and the band is at once swinging and tight, presenting as impressive a use of dynamics as it ever did. Bunny’s opening statement brings spontaneity to the the rather sing-song melody and he swaggers and soars in his later improvised bridge. Enough about that, though. Though fashioned as a mock cautionary tale, “Let This Be a Warning to You, Baby” here becomes a romp, with the rhythm swinging loosely and Bunny and Ray blowing fine jazz. The high quality of Conniff’s playing here and on other Berigan band sides in fact makes his later work all the more mystifying to me. I’m thinking of Bobby Hackett’s ’43 transcription date and a ’44 Cozy Cole session for Savoy, on which Ray, despite having gotten his start with a brilliant and expressive improvisor, produces solos that have no real content and only take up space. In fairness, Ray’s writing in the ’40s, on the other hand, was superb. How he went from that to the fogey tripe he produced in the ’50s and beyond is … beyond me.

    As always, Bunny’s playing on “Warning” has immediacy, as if he’s feeling the emotions in the lyrics — while displaying his unrivaled compositional sense. He sounds free, entirely uninhibited and fearless. The whole rhythm section is wonderful, but Buddy is of course the star, making this warning both lighthearted and powerful.

    Mike, I like the way you tied the opening story to the song title — all the warnings that stubborn Bunny ignored or downplayed. He was every bit the all-around virtuoso that either Goodman or TD was, and certainly a more compelling improvisor, but he lacked something that those two had — a burning drive for not just artistic but also great monetary success. The pressure-drinking vicious circle only got worse as ’38 unfolded and the commercial promise the band had shown in the previous year began to dim, despite the fact that all the while the crew was improving musically.

    … And of course Donna and Lee were part of the vicious circle. One can understand Bunny’s wanting to escape Donna with Lee, but Lee, a sophisticated person who should have known better, was of no help, except perhaps in the immediate sense. She, as someone who was also in the business and understood its pressures, should have treated Bunny better and not been so selfish.

    1. Elizabeth, thanks for your thoughtful and insightful comments.

      While I agree with almost everything you have said, I must add three names to the list of Berigan singers who to my ears always sounded very good: Ruth Bradley, Kathleen Lane and Danny Richards. The vocal choruses that occupy so many recordings from the swing era were almost exclusively commercial imperatives. But on occasion, something wonderful would happed in that chorus.

      1. Danny Richards was a huge oversight on my part. I absolutely agree there. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t find any of the several Berigan vocalists unlistenable — just not in a class with a, say, Stafford, Forrest, Ward, Bea Wain, Peggy Lee. … And, yes, of course, because most listeners, the majority of whom aren’t musicians, relate more readily to lyrical content than to instrumental passages, a high percentage of vocals has always been a commercial necessity in pop music. I was just being idealistic.

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