“Get Rhythm in Your Feet”(1935) with Benny Goodman and Helen Ward

Composed by J. Russell Robinson and Bill Livingston; arranged by Fletcher Henderson.

Recorded by Benny Goodman and His Orchestra for Victor on June 25, 1935 in New York.

Benny Goodman, clarinet, directing: Bunny Berigan, first and solo trumpet; Nate Kazebier and Jerry Neary, trumpets; Jack Lacey and Sterling “Red” Ballard, trombones; Nuncio “Toots” Mondello, first alto saxophone; Hymie Shertzer, alto saxophone; Arthur Rollini and Dick Clark, tenor saxophones; Frank Froeba, piano; George Van Eps, guitar; Harry Goodman, bass; Gene Krupa, drums; Helen Ward, vocal.

The story:

By January of 1935, Bunny Berigan had completed another full year as a CBS staff musician since returning to the network the previous year. Although he was superbly equipped to be a studio musician from the technical standpoint, he was far less well suited temperamentally to do this kind of work. He was first and foremost a jazz musician, and his duties at CBS gave him almost no opportunity to play jazz there. He chafed at the constant restrictions and confinement his employment at CBS imposed on him. His increased reliance upon alcohol and chronic overwork away from CBS were direct results of the ongoing frustration within him caused by this situation.

There were run-ins with the authorities at CBS. Trumpeter Ruby Weinstein recalled one of them: 

“I first met Bunny Berigan when I was working with Victor Young on the Ponds radio show and we also did the Lucky Strike program with Lennie Hayton’s forty-piece orchestra, when Mr. Hill, president of the tobacco company, was alive. He gave strict orders not to deviate from the melody, so when Bunny was given a chorus, he obeyed the instruction at rehearsal. But when we went on the air, he took such liberties with the tune that Mr. Hill nearly had a fit and fired the entire orchestra! Hayton had a thirteen weeks contract and as we’d only worked for three, they had to pay him for the remaining ten weeks. Naturally, we, the musicians, didn’t get paid!”(1)

Berigan solos on one of the many CBS radio shows where he performed in the mid-1930s.

Yet there were other aspects of Bunny’s CBS employment that were extremely positive and enjoyable. CBS, in the mid-1930s, was a haven for some of the most creative people on the entertainment and broadcasting scene at that time. The musical fare at CBS then was so widely varied that it boggles the mind, especially when compared with the generally homogeneous and unimaginative offerings found on radio today. At CBS, one could within one broadcast day, run the gamut from outright concert music (The Ford Sunday Evening Hour), to the light classics, with André Kostelanetz, to Kate Smith to Raymond Scott to The Saturday Night Swing Club (which had a great deal to do with establishing jazz as a part of the American cultural landscape). In addition, there was a wide variety of what are now called “scripted shows,” from soap operas to dramas to comedies. The Mercury Theater of the Air, under the wildly unconventional leadership of the prodigious Orson Welles, was allowed to appear and thrive on CBS radio. The music for Welles’s radio dramas was provided by CBS staffer Bernard Herrmann, who followed Welles to Hollywood, and composed the music for Welles’s classic film Citizen Kane. Herrmann later went on to a now legendary collaboration with film director Alfred Hitchcock, composing the music for such memorable films as Vertigo, North by Northwest, The Birds, and Psycho.(2)

Columbia Broadcasting Building (CBS headquarters) 485 Madison Avenue at 50th, New York City – late 1930s.

The mid-1930s also marked the beginnings of the renowned news division at CBS, which ultimately produced the first superstar news person: Edward R. Murrow.(3A) By 1938, CBS was broadcasting, via live relay from WGAR in Cleveland on Sunday afternoons, the first network radio program that was dedicated to Afro-Americans: Wings over Jordan. It came to be recognized as the first radio program of the American civil rights movement. CBS was not the largest radio network in America, but it could certainly claim to be the most creative and inclusive. Bunny Berigan was at CBS in the midst of this heady atmosphere, and he encountered many people there whose creative outlook must have been a healthy antidote for the very often grueling and stultifying work he had to do in the music department.

For whatever reason, various people at CBS began to recognized the small ripples of interest among their listeners in jazz-based music as 1935 progressed. Consequently, a few 15 minute sustaining radio shows presenting jazz began to be presented over CBS. Audience response, though far from overwhelming, was positive, especially among younger listeners. This modest trend eventually led in late 1935 to Berigan having his own show over CBS. “Bunny’s Blue Boys on Tuesdays, 12:15 a.m. over Columbia, put on a few of the old jam numbers with the genuine swing. This outfit is led by Bunny Berigan, lately of Benny Goodman’s orchestra, and play right up to the minute.”(3B) This in turn led to the production by CBS of a far more ambitious program that presented a wide array of jazz artists, The Saturday Night Swing Club, which began broadcasting in June of 1936, and remained a very popular feature on CBS radio for the next three years, and had a lot to do with creating strong interest in jazz and swing among the so-called Greatest Generation.

The nation was deeply mired in an economic depression in the mid-1930s. Berigan’s work at CBS, tedious and exhausting as it was, paid very well, and due to his schedule there, he was free most evenings to take outside jobs. Some of these, like the ones with Joe Moss at the Meyer Davis office, were hardly satisfying in the musical sense, but they paid well. Financially speaking, Bunny was (or should have been) doing very well. There were few musicians in New York or anywhere who were making more money in 1934–1935 than he was. His wife reported that he was often earning $500 weekly,(4) and if this amount is multiplied by fifteen, we can approximate the value of those Depression era dollars today. It appears that by 1935, Bunny had his own car, and he and his family resided in the comfortable house at 83-28 Sixty-third Ave. Rego Park, in Queens that he had purchased upon his return to CBS in early 1934 after spending a year as a member of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra.(5) This residence is located near Juniper Valley Park and St. John’s Cemetery, and was not far from the Forest Hills home of Mildred Bailey and Red Norvo.(6)

The home Bunny Berigan had in Queens, New York in the mid-1930s at 83-28 Sixty-third Ave., Rego Park.

Nevertheless, ominous signs started to appear in Berigan’s financial life at about this time. His Ford automobile was repossessed.(7) Trumpeter Dave Wade, a colleague of Bunny’s at CBS recalled:

“Raymond Scott’s group also recorded backing singers Red McKenzie and Midge Williams. My solo on ‘Wanted’ (with Red McKenzie) fooled some people into thinking it was Bunny. I did my best to sound like him, as Ray Scott told me I had to sound like Bunny to get the CBS job. While Bunny was still on staff at CBS I recall that Nat Natalie was in the ‘night band’ at that same time and was a good friend of Bunny’s. Bunny and I were in the so-called ‘morning band.’ Nat and I went out to visit Bunny for some reason, it was mid-winter and cold, and when we arrived we found the house with no heat; the kids were on the floor with their coats on. Nat was so mad!  He wanted to fracture Bunny! While Bunny was still on staff, but before I had joined, I used to do a lot of sub work in his place; he was always so busy.” (8)

Donna Berigan -1939.

If Bunny was irresponsible with money, and he certainly was, Donna, his wife, was too. Bunny provided large sums of money for Donna to run the Berigan household, and she used that money as she saw fit. He was not one to bother with things like a family budget, and he was not around enough to monitor the family’s finances in any event. It appears that Donna’s overall immaturity extended into the area of family finance. Consequently, there was never enough money to keep things running smoothly at the Berigan home no matter how much Bunny earned. As a result of both Bunny’s and Donna’s spendthrift ways, he and Donna were always short of funds. Although he was clearly the dominant partner in their marriage, he was not domineering or cruel. Donna was undoubtedly aware of the fact that her husband was capable of making a lot of money, and she seemed to defer to him in most, if not all matters. It appears that she was along for the ride, and for a long time, that ride included a lot of laughs, a lot of fun, and a lot of goodies. She seems to have come to the conclusion that whatever Bunny did, and his conduct was becoming more damaging to their marriage, that conduct was necessary for him to continue his very successful career. Donna was using denial to deal with Bunny’s behavior, especially his deepening dependence on alcohol. Her way of dealing with Bunny’s drinking, more and more, involved her having a few with him, whenever he was around, which was less and less. Nevertheless, Donna was by this time also developing her own problem with alcohol.

The repeal of Prohibition was certainly not a factor in Berigan’s advancing alcoholism. He was well on his way in that direction long before repeal. However, the repeal was a substantial factor in the economic revival of the dance band business in the mid-1930s.

The long awaited repeal of Prohibition finally became a reality shortly after President Roosevelt took office. Light wines and beer were made legal first, with hard liquor available on a legal basis early in 1934. The former speakeasies now became respectable nightclubs. Hotels, which had previously experienced difficulty in underwriting top talent, suddenly had a profitable revenue source, which permitted them to do so. Every phase of the entertainment business was given a healthy shot in the arm and the band business was the first to benefit since it was the backbone around which every show was built.(9) 

One of many remarkable things about Bunny Berigan was his ability to bounce back from the most humiliating, ego-crushing experiences, like falling off the bandstand on Benny Goodman’s portion of the NBC Let’s Dance radio broadcast in a drunken stupor, and then somehow pulling himself together and playing well (sometimes magnificently) within a short time thereafter.(10) There is no doubt that after that sad incident with Goodman, Bunny returned to CBS (probably the next day) to once again resume his demanding and exacting duties, which likely included playing in the band on the Kate Smith show (where Bunny had yet another run-in with CBS authorities), appearing with the Instrumentalists, a forerunner of the Raymond Scott Quintet, and working with various bands under the direction of Mark Warnow.

The music:

The arrangement Benny Goodman used on “Get Rhythm in Your Feet” was written in early 1935 by Fletcher Henderson. It is an early example of Henderson’s great ability to create musical excitement in his refashioning of a then-current pop tune. The song was composed for the obscure 1935 Biograph film entitled Frankie. The first recording of it was made by Henry “Red” Allen for Vocalion on April 25, 1935. The Goodman recording, made two months later, is a great demonstration of the utterly fresh and exhilarating approach to pop music that Goodman was taking with his new band. The charmed mixture of a good rhythm song, a great arrangement on it, a virtuoso bandleader/soloist, a very personal and swinging vocalist, and a crack band of like-minded musicians firing on all cylinders, results in a swing masterwork.

This arrangement is rhythmically taut, syncopated in the Henderson manner, and economical. It is performed at a bright tempo. The attention-getting four-bar full band introduction is a Hendersonian fanfare: it raises the curtain for what is to follow. The saxophone quartet, led by the aggressive and full-toned alto of Toots Mondello, sets forth the melody for sixteen bars, with bright brass punctuations. Berigan, playing the first trumpet part with great panache, leads the brass, who carry the ball through the song’s secondary melody (bridge), and then follow-through with the lead in the final eight bars of the first chorus.

A brief transitional sequence leads to the vocal chorus handled with warmth, joy and humor by Helen Ward. The lyric, a witty send-up of tent-show religiosity, is wonderful. It contains the perfect prescription to cure the blues:

Helen Ward – late 1930s.

When evil clouds surround you
Don’t lose your self control…
Get rhythm in your feet
And music in your soul.

If Satan starts to hound you
Commence to rock and roll…
Get rhythm in your feet
And music in your soul.

You all want golden slippers, yeah
Lose your weary blues!
Watch the road you’re choosing, yeah…
One leads up to heaven!

If you don’t start repentin’
You’ll never reach your goal…
Get rhythm in your feet
And music in your soul.

The background Ms. Ward sings against is provided by the saxophones and rhythm section in the first half of her chorus. The piano accompaniment by Frankie Froeba is a bit eccentric, but somehow it works. Notice Henderson’s masterful use of the syncopated open brass during the bridge of this vocal chorus.

There is an ascending tutti separating the vocal from the final chorus, where the ensemble, brilliantly led by Berigan’s swaggering first trumpet (and a brief solo), and egged-on by BG’s bright and agile clarinet, move this terrific performance to its close.

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

Notes and links:

(1) White materials: April 20, 1935.

(2) A vivid summary of so-called serious music at CBS in the 1930s is to be found in A Heart at Fire’s Center, The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann, by Steven C. Smith, University of California Press (1991).

(3A) Edward R. Murrow gathered around him at CBS a great number of exceptional broadcast journalists including: Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Howard K. Smith, and Daniel Schorr. Mr. Schorr was the last survivor of that illustrious group, working as a senior news analyst on National Public Radio until his death in 2010.

(3B) Variety: November 20, 1935.

(4) Bunny Berigan …Elusive Legend of Jazz by Robert Dupuis (1993): 127.

(5) White materials: April 20, 1935. One recollection has the Berigan family living in a house. Another has them living in an apartment. Currently, 83-28 Sixty-third Avenue, Rego Park, Queens is in a residential neighborhood block that contains spacious brick homes that are contiguous, so I guess both characterizations are correct.

(6) Kenneth Norville was born on March 31, 1908, in Beardstown, Illinois. As Red Norvo, he was a part of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra in the late 1920s, where he met Mildred Bailey. In the early years of his career, Norvo played the xylophone, and also piano. His approach to jazz from the beginning was harmonically rich and rhythmically supple, making him a pioneer in many respects, albeit a largely unappreciated one. He began to record in the early 1930s, and began leading his own band in the mid-1930s. Though Norvo tried again and again to make it commercially acceptable, his big band was a failure. By the mid-1940s, he was playing the vibraphone and appearing as a featured artist with the Benny Goodman and Woody Herman bands. Late in the 1940s, he began to lead a series of small jazz groups, all of which were musically inventive. He achieved some success in these ventures, appearing with them in a number of films during the 1950s. Norvo continued to work well into his later years. He died in Santa Monica, California, on April 6, 1999.

(7) White materials: December 4, 1935.

(8) White materials: February 20, 1937. The incident referred to by Dave Wade probably took place in late 1936 or early 1937. By then, baby Joyce would have been able to crawl.

(9) The Wonderful Era of the Great Dance Bands, by Leo Walker, Da Capo Press, Inc. (original copyright 1964), 62.

(10) Within a few days of the incident described above, when Bunny fell off the riser at the Benny Goodman Let’s Dance show at NBC, he was called back by Goodman to play on the very next Let’s Dance show. Here is a link to a great performance of “Honeysuckle Rose” from the January 5, 1935 Let’s Dance show where Bunny Berigan goes toe-to-toe with Benny Goodman. To say there was electricity in the air between those two on that broadcast would be an understatement:

One thought on ““Get Rhythm in Your Feet”(1935) with Benny Goodman and Helen Ward

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  1. As we know the word “swing” was actively present as a verb in pop music well before it became a noun to define an era. However, if we’re going to acknowledge the Goodman band’s August 21, 1935 appearance at Los Angeles’ Palomar Ballroom as the official kickoff of this roughly ten-year period, I believe that Bunny deserves as much credit for launching the Swing Era as the then soon-to-be coronated “King of Swing,” Benjamin David Goodman.

    Even considering the legit talents that put him in great demand in the high pressure radio environment, Bunny almost didn’t know how not to swing. Driving a band and whipping up enthusiasm in an audience came effortlessly to him. In musical terms, he had everything that more commercially successful leaders such as BG, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller had, and it could easily be asserted that he was the finest jazz soloist of the lot. The one quality (well … besides sternness) that these examples of top tier swing band captains had that Bunny lacked was business-financial acumen. Thus, we can make … some kind of sense out the repossessed Berigan automobile and no heat in the family home in the same period in which the breadwinner was making the best salary of his career, fantastically beyond the weekly average of the times.

    The trim and briskly-paced “Get Rhythm in Your Feet” has always been one of my favourite early sides of the Goodman band. Waxed before the Palomar breakthrough, when Benny was still uncertain about what might come of his orchestra-leading venture, the side exudes supreme confidence, even recklessness, as well as joyousness: Twenty-six year-old Goodman had an artistic vision and his talented and well-rehearsed band members generally shared it, we may believe.

    Just as Bunny knew how to make the perfect solo entrance, the great Fletcher Henderson, the arranger whose writing most closely aligns, many of us feel, with Goodman’s musical ideas, knew how to open a chart with a bang. Here, Smack both calls the flock to order and provides a humourous hint of the subject of the sermon with the brass’ “I Got Rhythm” quote (reprised after Helen’s chorus). Trifle though this amusing and timely number may be, the crew gives it their all: The reeds are beautiful and levitational in the melody statement; the ever-rarin’ and reactive Krupa works relentlessly to get — and keep — the feet moving and the leader wows with his facility and piping hot horn.

    Helen’s vocal is spectacular, displaying all the qualities that made the Goodman orch’s first vocalist its best. For purposes of comparison, we may concede, for example, that Helen Forrest had the more impressive vocal instrument, but no subsequent thrush swung so hard nor fit the band so well as Ms Ward. She’s just flying in this chorus! Listen to Van Eps behind her — generally more polite than his star pupil and successor in the band, Allan Reuss, George strums with uncharacteristic vigor that suits the song and Helen’s interpretation.

    The electric current running throughout the performance, though, is the Berigan horn. We must imagine that Fletcher had a big grin on his face when he heard how Bunny led the section through those syncopated lines. Even as we can pick out his distinctive tone leading the trumpets, we may marvel at the way in which those three horns crackle and sizzle with flawless precision — I love that first chorus bridge! His lead-playing is of course the star here but sparkling, too, is his concise solo turn, a mere four bars in which he comes in on the sixth of the V chord full of “Miracle Man” self-assuredness; he’s casual and yet so compelling.

    I have to believe that it was Bunny’s ability to live in the moment that allowed him to proceed after various highly public embarrassing incidents as if nothing had happened. This same day-by-day mode of living, after all, enabled him to go on drinking after receiving dire warnings from doctors that if he didn’t change his ways he’d soon be dead. Look, for example, at his last public “performance”: He was dying and he knew it, most of his band hadn’t made it to the gig — but he was trying to put on a show; that was what was on the schedule for that day in Bunny’s soon-to-be extinguished life. … One day you’re falling off the bandstand — the next, you’re slaying audiences and peers alike with your brilliant trumpet.

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