“Never Felt Better, Never Had Less” (1938)

Composed by Abel Baer and Cliff Heff; arranged by Abe Osser or Andy Phillips.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Victor on April 21, 1938 in New York.

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing Steve Lipkins and Irving Goodman, trumpets; Nat Lobovsky and Ray Conniff, trombones; Mike Doty, first alto saxophone; Joe Dixon, alto saxophone and B-flat clarinet; Georgie Auld and Clyde Rounds, tenor saxophones; Joe Lippman, piano; Dick Wharton, guitar; Hank Wayland, bass; Johnny Blowers, drums; Ruth Gaylor, vocal.

The story:

Arranger Andy Phillips came on the scene in April of 1938 while the Berigan band was ensconced at the Paradise Restaurant in the Brill Building on 49th and Broadway. Here are some of his recollections about that time:

Arranger Andy Phillips – 1939.

“I graduated from high school in Cortland, New York in 1934. Went to North Carolina State College; played guitar, violin and sang and arranged with the big school dance band there. Then I got a job with Frank Daily’s band. Joe Mooney was their arranger and as he was blind I took down the stuff he picked out on the piano. He was a great talent and I learned a lot from him. I then went to NYC and studied with Joseph Schillinger. I’d done an arrangement of ‘Lullaby of Rhythm’ (sic “Lullaby in Rhythm”) was a then current jazz tune composed by Edgar Sampson) and a publisher told me Bunny Berigan was looking for an arranger. He was at the Paradise Restaurant, and after the job one night, I went up to him and asked him to try out my arrangement. Bunny said, ‘Look, stick around and we’ll try it after everybody has gone home.’ Anyway, he liked it and offered me a job at $85 a week to supply two arrangements a week, mainly of ballads and pop tunes. The band was on the air over the Mutual network from the Paradise which had three bands at that time. Lionel Rand had the house band that played all the floor shows and, there was a rumba band that alternated with Bunny, who I found to be a nice guy to work for.”

Chief Berigan arranger Joe Lippman.

“He and Donna, his wife, were living with their two kids in an apartment house around Eightieth Street(1) where he use to invite me over for dinner now and again. We’d listen to records of classical music, one of his favorites being Rachmaninoff’s Second piano concerto. He always maintained that the slow movement would have made a good pop song!

I only traveled occasionally with the band. Normally I mailed my arrangements to them. Bunny didn’t interfere much, just indicating where he wanted a vocal, etc. But there were always song-pluggers trying to persuade him to play their stuff in return for some financial handout. This ‘payola,’ as it was (later) called involved music publishers and disc jockeys as well as singers and leaders. Bunny would often choose a number that wasn’t too well-known and get it scored just because he liked it and thought he could do something original with it. He was very selective, except with his records, when he often did not have any choice, being given some real ‘dogs’ to record. That really burned him up, because he knew leaders like Dorsey and Goodman were getting the best material and he was getting the dross. He wasn’t very critical of any of his arrangers, but he always knew exactly what he wanted and always played the same chart in the same tempo. He was quite adamant about that. Although other leaders might vary their tempos, his metronomic mind wouldn’t allow that.

Jack Maisel.

Joe Lippman was the principal arranger and the copyist was Jack Maisel, an old friend of Bunny’s, who always made an extra copy of each chart for his own library!(1A) Once, we were doing a college dance and the students’ band played an arrangement that I had done not too long before! Bunny paid Maisel good money for some of the things he brought in, but I’m sure he knew that other bands were using the same charts.

Arthur Michaud was the ‘man behind the scenes’—the manipulator as far as schedules and personnel were concerned, and lawyer John Gluskin was the money-man. He was a professional band backer, treating it as an investment which he hoped would bring him a profitable return, just like someone backing a Broadway show.”(2)

Bunny’s first trumpeter Steve Lipkins now encountered a situation that would eventually take him out of the Berigan band: “My father took ill around that time and as it sounded pretty serious, I asked Bunny for a few days off so I could go home and see him and assess the situation. Bunny wasn’t too keen and I guess we had a slight argument, but I went home anyway and he got Max Herman to sub for me.”

Lipkins however returned to the band after a few days, in time for the next Berigan record date. The somewhat revamped Berigan band (new trombone section, guitarist, drummer and vocalist), entered the Victor recording studios on April 21(3) for an almost six-hour (1:00 to 6:45 p.m.) recording session. The tunes were; “Never Felt Better, Never Had Less,” “I’ve Got a Guy,” “Moonshine over Kentucky,” “‘Round My Old Deserted Farm,” and “Azure.” The new personnel were: Berigan, Lipkins, Goodman, trumpets; Nat Lobovsky, first trombone; Ray Conniff, jazz trombone; Doty, Dixon, Auld, and Rounds in the reed section; Lippman on piano; Dick Wharton, guitar; Wayland, bass; and Johnny Blowers, drums. The new girl singer was Ruth Gaylor. Once again, most of the charts were done by Joe Lippman, with possibly one by Abe Osser or Andy Phillips. Personnel changes or not, the band sounded fine.

The music:

Ruth Gaylor in 1938.

I think that the arrangement on “Never Felt Better, Never Had Less” could have been written by Abe Osser based on the reed voicings, which are similar to the ones Osser had used on his arrangement on “Trees,” which the Berigan band recorded the previous December. It could also have been written by Andy Phillips as one of his first charts for the Berigan band. The new vocalist, a very beautiful young woman, Ruthie Gaylor, had a deeper, more resonant voice than her predecessor Gail Reese. Although she sometimes had pitch and enunciation issues, she sang with a beat and some enthusiasm. She transferred to Berigan from the Hudson-DeLange band, with whom she had made some good recordings. The overall impression is that she sings a little better and with more feeling than Ms. Reese. The rhythm guitar of Dick Wharton is also more prominent, and is excellent. Joe Lippman was a fine accompanist on piano—unlike Graham Forbes and Fulton McGrath (who sometimes subbed), who tended to be a little too fussy behind soloists, and especially behind the singers. Johnny Blowers’s drumming is definitely heavier than Dave Tough’s had been, but this is something Bunny seemed to encourage.

Bunny Berigan and his band at a rehearsal in early 1938, a couple of months before they recorded “Never Felt Better, Never Had Less.” Musicians visible are front L-R: Georgie Auld, Joe Dixon, Mike Doty (behind Bunny’s left elbow), Clyde Rounds; middle: Al George, Irving Goodman, Steve Lipkins Tommy Morganelli; back: Dave Tough and Hank Wayland.

The four bar introduction is lovely. It features mixed reeds (including Joe Dixon’s clarinet) playing a melodic fragment against open brass chords. Berigan plays the main melody, his trumpet muted in some fashion. He is backed by pulsing dance rhythm and the reeds, who briefly reprise the introductory melody in the space between the first and second eight bars of Bunny’s melody paraphrase. In that second eight, we hear why Berigan was uniquely Berigan: his sound and phrasing were identifiable after a couple of notes. His subtle use of use of glissandi in this tract to shape notes is yet more evidence of his very personal approach to playing the trumpet.

The four saxophones start the secondary bridge melody, soon joined by the brass. The entire ensemble then plays the last eights bar main melody paraphrase most relaxedly. The small transition/modulation/fanfare spots the powerful brass (led by Berigan) and sets up the vocal perfectly. Whoever arranged this tune clearly knew what he was doing within the swing idiom.

The lyric for this evanescent pop tune, an ode to making due in the Depression era USA, is upbeat, the reverse of that other Depression era anthem, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

New singer Ruth Gaylor had good voice quality and projected an easy swing. The first sixteen bars of her chorus has her backed by the four saxophones, pointed up at times by muted brass. This accompaniment continues through the bridge, with the brass appearing less, and then through the last eight bars of the chorus, where they do not play at all. Once again, the arranger clearly knew how to subtly pace an arrangement for maximum musical effect.

Another ensemble transition brings Georgie Auld (shown at left) forward to play some relaxed jazz. His accompaniment builds from just rhythm to bright, high-register open brass, to warm, low-register open brass. Bunny returns to play eight bars of sumptuous open horn jazz. His sound irradiates the music with warmth. The finale has the entire band taking things out with power. Bunny adds his trumpet during the short saxophone bit: listen for his powerful upward rip, strong upper-register lead and high note at the very end.

This is a good performance by an excellent band and unique soloist on a fine arrangement of a forgettable pop tune. It is one of many examples of Bunny Berigan and his band making the most out of rather meager raw musical materials.

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

(1) Numerous people have stated that Bunny’s apartment in Manhattan was on Central Park West, near Eightieth Street. The only “apartment house” located near that area then and now is the luxurious Beresford, located at 211 Central Park West, between West eighty-first and Eighty-second Streets. It became a co-op in 1962. South of Eighty-first extending to Seventy-seventh Street is the Museum of Natural History.

(1A) Jack Maisel was an interesting character. In addition to being a music copyist, a sometimes music contractor and quite capable drummer, Maisel was a hustler. Specifically, he sold the copies of arrangements he had copied out from an arranger’s score to any bandleader with cash. Many bandleaders were surprised to hear other bands playing arrangements they had previously bought from Maisel. Maisel’s hustling ways worked out in a positive way for Bunny Berigan when he reorganized his band in September of 1940. After Bunny broke up his first band in February of 1940, his library of music, several hundred arrangements, disappeared. Jack Maisel was Bunny’s drummer then, and likely collected all of those charts and held them for Bunny. When the new Berigan band began rehearsing, Maisel produced the old Berigan band book of arrangements. They provided the base for the repertoire Bunny played with that new band.

(2) White materials: April 17, 1938. Both Arthur Michaud, Bunny’s personal manager, and John Gluskin, who had some kind of financial interest in the Berigan band, would gradually become at-odds with Bunny through the second half of 1938. Without legal counsel of his own, Bunny came into full conflict with both of them, and this led directly to his bankruptcy filing in mid-1939.

(3) I think it fair to assume that Arthur Michaud had secured another one-year contract between Berigan and RCA Victor shortly after the March 15, 1938, recording session that marked the end of Bunny’s first one-year Victor recording contract.

One thought on ““Never Felt Better, Never Had Less” (1938)

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  1. This song has always struck me as at once apt and incongruous in connection with Maestro Berigan: Apart from his affinity for custom-tailored double-breasted suits, Bunny (unlike, say, TD) seems to have been a man of rather simple tastes — one who might appreciate “a dog on a roll” (that is, when he wasn’t drinking his dinner). The “austerity times” lyric, too, could be seen to presage the straitened circumstances that lay ahead for Bunny’s band, which showed considerable promise when it was launched in ’37. Conversely, “lucky in love” seems hardly to have applied to the handsome trumpeter, who was by then in a strained marriage and probably realised that lasting happiness with Lee Wiley would elude him. Though the Great Depression wasn’t entirely over in ’38, it had loosened its grip somewhat for many by that time, and this contemporary number fit neatly into a thematic category that arose in the early post-Crash years; Berlin’s “The Little Things in Life,” Rodgers & Hart’s amusing “I’ve Got Five Dollars” and the Harry Warren-Ira Gershwin-Billy Rose “In the Merry Month of Maybe” are prime examples of material whose seeming purpose was to encourage audiences to feel better about the tough times and indeed be grateful to have romantic love in their lives. “Never Felt Better, Never Had Less” in fact sounds like something out of a B-movie on the then-popular subject of love in financially difficult circumstances. Though merely a slight Tin Pan Alley affair, this little ditty evokes its times — and sounds positively symphonic in comparison with today’s three-chord drivel; the last four bars include a min7b5, a chord that, it’s sad to note, all but disappeared from the pop landscape decades ago.

    Whether penned by Abe Osser (yes, the writing here for the reeds is reminiscent of what we find in his “Trees” chart) or Andy Phillips, this arrangement sets a lighthearted mood with its introductory reed figures . It’s possible to picture Dick Powell suddenly breaking into song at a hot dog stand — with, needless to say, no band in sight. Poor Bunny, the newcomer at Victor, always got the duds, while Goodman and Dorsey were awarded the choice material. Still, his keen ear, musical sense, virtuosity and jazz sensibility enabled him to shape even the dreariest fare into something worthwhile. Based on the comments from Andy Phillips and other arrangers for the Berigan band, I have to believe that Bunny would have been a dream to work for. He appears to have had very definite basic structural ideas, which served as a guide, but allowed his staff to approach the details in their own personal ways. I consider “Never Felt Better, Never Had Less” to be the weakest song from the 4/21/38 session — but it actually comes off no worse than a couple of the other vocal sides. The gem of the date is of course the brilliant, atmospheric take on Ellington’s beautiful “Azure,” a towering recording in the Berigan discography. Being a great admirer of Willard Robison, I love the melancholy and nostalgic “‘Round My Old Deserted Farm,” but owing to the presence of Ruth Gaylor, I don’t feel this version (the first recorded, incidentally) comes off as successfully as it might have. Mildred Bailey delivered the definitive reading of the song; she, a Robison devotee, was a master in the the bucolic realm (as well as elsewhere) and brings to the song a tenderness and delicacy to which Ruth wasn’t equipped to come close. “Moonshine Over Kentucky,” from Twentieth Century-Fox’ otherwise forgettable KENTUCKY MOONSHINE, is what I consider to be a cute pop number; Bunny and the band sound wonderful, but Ruth’s vocal is the weak spot — once again, Mildred destroys her. In the case of “I’ve Got a Guy,” Ms Gaynor’s efforts are laid to waste by those of Ella Fitzgerald, on the superb Chick Webb band version. I maintain that Sue Mitchell, merely subbing in ’37 for Carol MacKay, is the most interesting of all the female vocalists to appear on a Berigan orch side. Ruth’s tone and delivery have just never thrilled me, I’m afraid. … And, I reiterate, Bunny’s trumpet, was the band’s true vocalist. He conveyed everything in the various lyrics through tone, phrasing, range, dynamics and melodic content — either written or extemporised. He’s the one who makes memorable the message in each song. The “happy-go-lucky” in the lyric here can be heard in his opening statement. Despite — or, maybe in some instances, because of — his own cares and woes, Bunny was always able to convey the mood of the material. Early in his second eight here, he employs a minimalism and a playful phrasing, also present in the Frank Froeba “Just To Be in Caroline” and the Berigan orch “It’s the Little Things That Count,” that are so well suited to this agreeable trifle. Georgie’s confident and relaxed spot, too, is perfectly aligned with the good cheer in the lyric. Returning for the bridge, Bunny doesn’t allow the positive energy to drop, even as he dips for a moment into his lower register; his notes, as always, have real dimension and substance — they’re almost visible! Pleasing writing — for the reeds, especially; solid, swinging drumming from Johnny Blowers and nice, chimey guitar from Dick Wharton behind Ruth’s chorus make of this modest pop tune something special. Bunny’s lead in the finale asks, “What Depression?!”

    Finally, Andy Phillips’ comments about his boss’ fondness for Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 made me think it’s a shame that Bunny didn’t jump on the idea of transforming the piece into a pop number. 1941’s Jack Elliott-Don Marcotte “I Think of You” is a beautiful song, but, with the right lyricist, who knows what Bunny could have done with that second theme of the first movement of Sergei’s opus? … And I have to wonder if 1945’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER would have resonated with him, for its inclusion of the piece as well as for other reasons. Such a shame that Bunny was gone by that time.

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