“Black Bottom” (1937)

Composed by Ray Henderson; arranged by Dick Rose.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Victor on December 23, 1937 in New York.(*)

Bunny Berigan, first and solo trumpet, directing: Steve Lipkins and Irving Goodman, trumpets; Sonny Lee and Al George, trombones; Mike Doty and Joe Dixon, alto saxophones (Dixon doubles on B-flat clarinet); Georgie Auld and Clyde Rounds, tenor saxophones; Joe Lippman, piano, Tommy Morganelli, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; George Wettling, drums.

The story:

Starting on October 12, 1937, Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra began their first tour of ballrooms and theaters in the Eastern U.S. The previous six months had been spent by Berigan and his bandsmen working in and around New York City. Their principal source of income during that time had been the sponsored Mutual network radio show called Fun in Swingtime. That allowed Bunny the luxury of building his new band and receiving widespread publicity while remaining off the road. After six months on that show, it was decided by Bunny’s management team (MCA – booking agency; Arthur Michaud – personal manager), that there had been a sufficient build-up of the Berigan name to undertake a tour.

Arthur Michaud and Bunny Berigan – their relationship was successful for about a year and a half. Then trouble began, and they had an acrimonious parting which was very costly for Bunny.

The lengthy build-up period for the Berigan band was at best a break-even proposition financially for Bunny. He had exhausted his personal savings in the early months of his band’s existence, basically January through March of 1937, before he secured the sponsored radio show. In order to keep his band operating during that period, Bunny had had to borrow money. The available evidence suggests that this money came from MCA, Michaud, band investor John Gluskin, and probably Tommy Dorsey. The amount of debt Bunny had accrued through the first nine months of 1937 was approximately $10,000.00. (Multiply by 15 to get the value in today’s dollars.) So putting the Berigan band out on the road was a matter of economic imperative, as well as good talent management.

The tour, which ended with a very successful three-week engagement at the Paramount Theater in Manhattan was very profitable. Bunny was able to pay off all of his debts, and retain a substantial amount of money to carry his band’s operations into the new year. As he approached the December 23, 1937 Victor recording session that produced “Black Bottom,” and four other instrumentals(1), Bunny and his band were in very good condition both musically and financially. Unfortunately, this brief moment of glory marked the high-water mark in his band’s financial success, not that Bunny or anyone else could ever have suspected that to be the case.

The music:

On December 23, Bunny led his bandsmen into Victor’s Twenty-fourth Street studios in Manhattan. The last time they had been there was on October 7, before they went on tour, when they had recorded four forgettable pop tunes with vocals. This session began at 1:00 p.m., ran until 5:30, and produced five instrumentals, something that was virtually unheard of in the swing era. Bunny and his sidemen, after more than two months of performing together every day, ending with three weeks at Manhattan’s Paramount Theater (four shows a day), had built up major road chops. All of the performances are good, and a couple of them are more than that.

Dick Rose’s swinging arrangement of “Black Bottom”had proved to be a real audience-pleaser when the band played it on the road. Bunny was thus able to persuade the Victor people that it would be successful on record as well. He was right! The uncomplicated riff-based backgrounds really help the band and soloists to build up a head of steam.

Bunny Berigan and his band on the stage of Manhattan’s Paramount Theater – December 1937. Visible L-R: front – Clyde Rounds, Mike Doty, Joe Dixon, Georgie Auld, Irving Goodman, Steve Lipkins, Al George, Sonny Lee; back – Tommy Morganelli, George Wettling, Hank Wayland. Berigan is in front.

Jazz cornetist Dick Sudhalter elucidated the goings-on in this performance splendidly: “Nowhere is Berigan’s affinity for Louis Armstrong so explicit as in his solo on this recording. (It) is practically a quodlibet, a collection of fond memories of his mentor, but delivered in the inimitable Berigan style. In his first two-bar breaks he offers a taste first of Armstrong’s solo on ‘Sugar Foot Strut’ and then a taste of ‘Cornet Chop Suey.’ Four bars of his own then send him rolling into a 16-bar solo that combines a whiff of ‘Weather Bird,’ a hint of ‘Put ‘Em Down Blues’ and an oblique nod to ‘Potato Head Blues.’ Georgie Auld bounces through the bridge, and Berigan returns up high with a quote from the old barn-dance favorite ‘Arkansas Traveler,’ working that into an attractive figure that is pure Berigan: a descending chromatic scale, each step of which is ‘sprung’ from two lower notes for strong rhythmic push.”(2) 

Auld then returns, for his own solo, which shows that he had grown considerably as a jazz player since the previous spring. Pianist Joe Lippman comps him nicely. Clarinetist Joe Dixon also has a solid solo, (hear Bunny’s sizzling lead trumpet in the background) followed by a bit of Hank Wayland’s slapped bass, George Wettling’s drums, and a fine improvised solo by trombonist Sonny Lee that is delivered with an unusually velvety tone. Bunny adds the high-note capper at the very end. Berigan’s various bands would play this arrangement with great swing for the remainder of his life.

The recording presented with this post was transferred and digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo. (See (*) note below.)

Notes and links:

(*) The recording presented with this post is the result of various experiments with sound I have done on Bunny Berigan’s Victor recording of “Black Bottom” over many years. The source I used was a good transfer of the original Victor 78 rpm disk that contained that recording. I concluded, after literally decades of trying unsuccessfully to work with later LP and CD reissues of this recording, that I would have to return to the original, because all of the reissues had unfortunately acquired unacceptable amounts of both reverb and hum through many haphazard and/or misguided RCA Victor reproduction processes. When I use the word “unacceptable,” I mean that these non-musical distractions were so excessive as to obtrude on the music. The result I obtained, though not perfect, is nevertheless a very good digitally remastered presentation of a classic Berigan performance.

(1) The other instrumentals Berigan recorded that day were: “In a Little Spanish Town,” “Trees,” “Russian Lullaby,” and “I Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.”

(2) Giants of Jazz …Bunny Berigan (1982), notes on the music by Richard M. Sudhalter, 44–45.

The image of Bunny Berigan on the cover of the December 1937 issue of Metronome magazine was provided by Vince Giordano.

One thought on ““Black Bottom” (1937)

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  1. I’ve found that thinking about the history of Berigan band can be a little like watching a familiar film noir, viewed many times: High points, such as the excellent all-instrumental date from which the torrid “Black Bottom” comes, are like early scenes during which you root, against reason, for the anti-hero to triumph … but you know things are not going to end well.

    Though the band’s increased cohesion and improvement from its beginning is highly apparent in the 12/23/37 session, I don’t feel it was at its artistic peak at this point; that would come in ’38, with the addition of the brilliant Joe Bushkin. Still, I have a great affection for the Berigan orchestra’s ’37 output, particularly that wonderful last recording date of the year. We can believe that Bunny, though always thinking about ways in which he could improve his orchestra, was tremendously proud of the progress that his young crew had made in less than a year. I’m sure that, with the success of the Paramount Theater engagement and the apparent clout to be awarded by Victor an all-instrumental, pop-free session, Bunny imagined that his band, into which he had poured so much energy and love, had nowhere to go but up.

    This session, I feel, is the one up to that date that best represents the essence of the Berigan band. Despite the fact that Bunny’s orchestra, like all others of the day, was required to record pop tunes with vocals, the band’s sound was never defined by its singers. These undistinguished vocalists who took their choruses — Gail Reese, Ruth Gaylor, Dick Wharton, etc. … even the talented Danny Richards — weren’t of the calibre of a, say, Helen Ward or Sinatra, and thus had no meaningful influence on the aggregation’s identity. Bunny’s horn was the his orchestra’s greatest singer — and, of course, no genuine vocal equaled his own warbling on his theme. I’m sure the band would have been more successful commercially if it had included a really spectacular vocalist — because record buyers are composed not just of knowledgeable music lovers but also casual listeners, and this latter group tends to favor vocals, lyrics being easier for the average person to assimilate than a jazz trumpet or tenor solo.

    The whole session is marvelous — I particularly love “Russian Lullaby” and “Trees” — but I’d have to give top honors to “Black Bottom,” because its happy energy is so suggestive of the arrangement’s on-the-road origins; we can experience some of the excitement of hearing the band in person! Dick Sudhalter’s comments on Bunny’s part in the proceedings are a real delight. I discovered Louis’ early (pre-inescapable “Hello, Dolly!”) work through my interest in Bunny, and now, well-acquainted with his historic and revolutionary ’20s sides, I too can spot all the Berigan allusions in “Black Bottom” to the various Louis Hot Five and Seven solos. Given that Bunny’s solos on both the Thesaurus transcription Paradise Restaurant take contain, perhaps surprisingly, much of the same Armstrong references as on the Victor record, we must assume that he conceived his work in this arrangement of the song from the beginning as an Louis homage. … Too, the nod to to “Arkansas Traveler,” though a fantastic departure from the majesty of Armstrong, has always amused me.

    Both Georgie’s and Joe’s garrulous choruses keep the vitality high — Sudhalter’s “bounces” was certainly the word for what the former’s solos did in those early days — but, for me, it’s veterans Wayland, Wettling and Lee, whose contributions I find most compelling, after those from the indefatigable leader, of course. The muscular, riffing section work, we can imagine, drew the dancers to the floor — though perhaps not to Black Bottom, but to do the steps of the day. The power and supremely swinging phrasing of the trumpets remind us of all the weight Bunny, this most musically attentive of leaders, had on his shoulders.

    The joyous Victor “Black Bottom,” contrary to the title of Bunny’s theme, has the sound of a band that had indeed gotten started and was on its way to the top. We can only wish that things really did pan out that way.

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