“All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” (1937)

Composed by Bronislau Kaper, Walter Jurmann and Gus Kahn; arranged by Joe Lippman.

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Victor on June 18, 1937 in New York.

Bunny Berigan, trumpet, directing: Steve Lipkins, Irving Goodman, trumpets; Thomas B. “Sonny” Lee, first trombone; Morey Samel, trombone; Sid Perlmutter, first also saxophone; Joe Dixon, alto saxophone and B-flat clarinet; Georgie Auld and Clyde Rounds, tenor saxophones; Joe Lippman, piano, Tom Morganelli, guitar; Arnold Fishkind, bass; George Wettling, drums; Ruth Bradley, vocal.

The story:

Berigan and George Wettling stroll on the sidewalk near Hotel Pennsylvania – June 1937.

Bunny Berigan and his new band were still in the process of getting settled as a performing unit when they made this recording of “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” on June 18, 1937. Their commercial success had advanced quickly through the spring of 1937. In March they secured a contract to make Victor records. In April, they landed a spot on a sponsored network radio show, Mutual’s Fun in Swingtime. This was an extremely rare coup for a new band. At the end of April, they began a lengthy engagement at Hotel Pennsylvania in Manhattan, following Benny Goodman. As the band earned money, largely from from their radio show, Bunny gradually upgraded the personnel of his band. One of his major moves in June of 1937 was acquiring the great trombonist Sonny Lee.

Bunny replaced trombonist/singer Ford Leary with the veteran jazz trombonist Thomas Ball “Sonny” Lee (1904–1975). Four years older than Berigan, he, along with George Wettling, was one of the few veteran musicians in the band. By 1937, he had been a professional for fifteen years. He had worked with Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, Pee Wee Russell, then moved into the commercial dance bands of Jean Goldkette, Red Nichols, Cass Hagen, Roger Wolf Kahn, and Isham Jones. In 1936, he became a New York freelance working, among other places, at CBS. He was an absolutely first-rate first chair trombonist in addition to being an excellent jazz improviser. Bunny’s concerns over his trombone section leader and jazz soloist were now at an end. Sonny Lee later recalled how he came to join the Berigan band:

Sonny Lee.

“Bunny had first talked to me about playing in his band when we both worked at CBS and it was more or less agreed that I would join when he’d gotten sufficient commercial deals going, with money guaranteed, so he could pay me a decent salary. Eventually, I got a call from his manager, guaranteeing me at least $100 a week. In all the time I was with the band I never drew less than $150 a week. From the minute I came on the band, I played both lead and all the jazz solos as Morey (Samel) had only slight ability as a ‘ride’ man, so the book was written accordingly. Cliff Natalie was on the band very briefly when I joined, but then Irv Goodman came in. Joe Dixon joined at almost the same time. He replaced Frank Langone, who went over to Jan Savitt.

Bunny gave definite instructions as to what he wanted on ensembles, but never on solos. On ‘The Lady From Fifth Avenue’ he used a cup mute reversed and did a ‘flutter-tongue’ growl on his solo, which really impressed the other trumpeters in the band. The band worked harder than any other band I ever was with, and Bunny worked harder than any other leader I ever knew, even when he was ill.

Sy Devore made the clothes for the Berigan band as well as Bunny’s own suits. He always favored a light brown or cream-colored, double-breasted style. We each had three sets of uniforms tailored by Devore, who was just getting started in men’s fashions then. He became very big later in Hollywood. I think he may also have made the Jimmy Dorsey band’s uniforms.” (1)  (After leaving Berigan, Lee spent many years in Jimmy Dorsey’s band.)

As Sonny Lee remembered, there were a few other changes in the personnel of the Berigan band at the time. Benny Goodman’s trumpet-playing kid brother Irving replaced Cliff Natalie, who had been in the band more or less on an interim basis. The second trombone chair also changed, with journeyman Morey Samel coming in, replacing Frankie D’Annolfo.

Ruth Bradley: mid 1930s.

Bunny also replaced singer Carol McKay (she would soon marry Benny and Irving Goodman’s brother Freddy) with a musicianly singer named Ruth Bradley. “My background included working with several all-girl bands such as Ina Ray Hutton’s, in which I played sax and clarinet. I was 22 when I joined Bunny at the Pennsylvania Roof. I had been working as a singer with Ruby Newman in the Rainbow Room when I heard that Bunny was auditioning singers and went down between shows. Joining him was my biggest break to-date. I never met Sue Mitchell who preceded me, or Gail Reese who replaced me, and I stayed with the band until toward the the end of the Pavilion Royal date. I didn’t really want to leave, and Bunny wanted me to stay. But the band was going on the road. I had been on the road with Ina Ray Hutton, and wanted no more of that. Bunny was a generous, relaxed person who liked his scotch.”(2)

By the time the Berigan band entered the Victor studios in Manhattan for their recording date on June 18, Bunny had almost completed the process of building his band. That process had stretched over a six-month period, and had involved about two dozen musicians. Bunny had been very particular about the composition of his band. The personnel now consisted of Steve Lipkins, first trumpet, Irving Goodman, Berigan, trumpets; (Bunny would very frequently play lead to “pick up” a part of an arrangement); Sonny Lee, first and jazz trombone; Morey Samel, trombone; Sid Perlmutter, first alto saxophone; Joe Dixon, alto sax and jazz clarinet; Georgie Auld, jazz tenor saxophone; Clyde Rounds, tenor  and baritone sax; Joe Lippman, piano and arranger; Tommy Morganelli, guitar; Arnold Fishkind, bass; George Wettling, drums; and Ruth Bradley, vocals. Despite Sid Perlmutter being a fine musician, he and Bunny had different ideas about how the lead alto saxophone parts should be played. Soon after this recording, Perlmutter was replaced by the veteran lead alto player Robert “Mike” Doty. Bunny also would soon replace Arnold Fishkind (later Fishkin), once again opting for someone with long experience, Frederick “Hank” Wayland. The personnel of the Berigan band then remained stable for many months. The primary arranger was Joe Lippman; however arrangements were also beginning to be commissioned from Abe Osser and a few others.

The music:

The first tune recorded on June 18 was “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm.” The music for “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm”was composed by the wonderful Bronislau Kaper (and Walter Jurmann) for the 1937 Marx Brothers M-G-M film A Day at the Races, with lyrics by Gus Kahn. It was introduced in that movie by Ivie Anderson and Duke Ellington’s band. Kaper composed at least two other themes that jazz musicians have long found attractive: “Invitation” and “On Green Dolphin Street.”

Arranger Joe Lippman.

The arrangement, by Joe Lippman, is his first truly distinctive work for the Berigan band. The eight-bar introduction is very ingenious: the trombones and Wettling’s tom-toms set up a low pedal point over which three clarinets come on wailing. Then the trumpets come in, low and growly. The reeds and brass then mass for a burst of sound out of which George Wettling’s tom-toms finish this dramatic opening sequence. From there on, the band romps on into the first chorus. Lippman later effectively recycled some of these musical devices in his arrangement on “Turn On That Red Hot Heat” for Bunny.

Lippman reprises the sonorities of the intro on the modulation leading into Ruth Bradley’s vocal chorus. This girl could sing and swing. She sang on pitch, had a good beat and excellent voice quality. She had worked for Ina Ray Hutton’s Melodears all-girl band, where she played saxophone and clarinet, in addition to singing. After that, she free-lanced in New York. She went on from Berigan’s band, which she left in early August, to other work as both a free-lance singer, and occasionally with bands, including a stint with Gray Gordon.

Bunny Berigan in June of 1937.

After the vocal, Steve Lipkins demonstrates that he learned a great deal from Berigan in the previous couple of months. He plays the eight-bar upward modulation on his ringing open trumpet in a way that undoubtedly had Bunny smiling. The maestro jumps in right behind him and plays a bit of jazz, then Joe Dixon takes a pungent solo on his clarinet as the band swings the performance to a close.

This recording clearly demonstrates that as a performing unit, the Berigan band by mid-June had arrived. They were now capable of doing full justice to a good jazz arrangement.

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


(1) White materials: June 10, 1937.

(2) White materials: June 13, 1937.

One thought on ““All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” (1937)

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  1. With full knowledge of the trajectory of the Berigan bandleading career, I often experience mixed feelings in listening to sides, such as this one, from the period in which the orchestra, so carefully cultivated by its idealistic captain, was starting to jell. Frequently, as the fledgling orchestra’s ensemble passages roll out, I think, “What a shame,” aware that the auspices of this heady time were to be replaced, in little more than a mere year, by a big gray cloud. And then Bunny’s spot comes up — and Bunny’s trumpet is always alive in the moment that it’s heard — and I’m instantly transported to ’37 and thinking, “This band is going to be huge!”

    “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm” was one of the first sides I heard, many years ago, from the Berigan aggregation. My attention having been seized by Joe Lippman’s atmospheric intro, which cleverly alludes to the “trouble” in the lyric, I was swept up in the joyousness of the performance. The orchestra seemed at once to be telling the song’s story and their own: Look out! — we’re a brand new band, and we’ve got the greatest leader in the world!

    In spite of dire prognostications, Bunny, only in his early 30s, managed to make it into the 1940s, creating some extraordinary music even as alcoholism ravaged his body — hell, he could still think and he could still play, so of course beautiful lines and sounds were still going to issue from that horn — but the 1930s, the time of the Great Depression, was his era, the period of his greatest productivity. His opening statement on AGCGR is all optimism. Before Ruth Bradley steps up to the mike, tunefully to remind us of how fortunate we are in being abundantly endowed (by a creator, lyricist Gus Kahn theorises) with swing and rhythm, the band’s young leader succinctly conveys the song’s message — in his first four bars, placing an exclamation point after each word in the song’s title, and then flying off in vivid illustration.

    The band’s cohesion and polish — as well as a highly appealing grit more in line with the great black swing outfits of the day than other white crews — is on sparkling display in this vital performance. With an awareness of the Berigan orch’s output from beginning to end, we may indulge in a little speculation about what, say, Buddy Rich might have brought to this arrangement, but still, I have a real affection for the contributions of George Wettling (whom many of us may associate most closely with the Condon Mob) in this nascent period for the band. Behind Ruth here, he betrays his trad leanings, but in a manner not disconsonant with swing in its early years, after the official kick-off. The drummer provides the thunder in Lippman’s intro and bashes most effectively in the wrap up, following Joe Dixon’s cogent statement.

    This cheery number, whose fetching harmonic structure was to captivate mid-’40s boppers, exemplifies the pop message of the Great Depression: Things aren’t so bad. We’ve got music — swing, jazz, rhythm! — “for to push away the blues.” I still recall first hearing Bunny’s solo, following the vocal chorus, and delighting to the assured fashion in which he climbs the scale and then takes a devil-may-care leap, only to land gracefully, trumpet in hand, for some agile weavings through Kaper’s changes. Once again, Bunny, the Swing Swashbuckler, evokes Fairbanks Sr.

    As the great Sonny Lee’s comments make clear, Bunny chose his sidemen with care and, in these early days, when the band showed so much promise, paid his musicians well. A hundred and fifty bucks a week is an incredible salary when there are others toiling for less than a third of that and also those who “maybe haven’t got money, maybe haven’t got shoes.” Listening to the sanguine “All God’s Chillun Got Rhythm,” we can alternate, if we choose to, between thinking, at a considerable distance, of how things ultimately played out for the Berigan band, which represented Bunny’s highest ambitions and dreams, and living in 1937, among all those who were just trying to be hopeful and positive in tough times — my dad was driving a cab, trying to provide for his first family; my mom was in junior high, trying to be a help to my grandmother, by then separated from my grandfather. Bunny — at once an icon of the 1930s and timeless — and his dazzling band encourage both pondering and toe-tapping with this side.

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