“The Prisoner’s Song” (1937)

Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra for Victor on August 7, 1937 in New York.

Composed by Guy Massey; arranged by Dick Rose, with adjustments by Berigan and his band in performance.

Bunny Berigan, first and solo trumpet, directing: Steve Lipkins, first trumpet in first part of performance; Irving Goodman, trumpet; Thomas “Sonny” Lee, first trombone; Al George, trombone; Robert “Mike” Doty, first alto saxophone; Giuseppi Ischia (Joe Dixon), alto saxophone; Clyde Rounds and Georgie Auld, tenor saxophones; Joe Lippman, piano; Tommy Morgan(elli), guitar; Frederick “Hank” Wayland, bass; George Wettling, drums.

The story:

“The Prisoner’s Song” was the last recording made on August 7, 1937, a date that is memorable for all Berigan fans because it is the date on which Bunny made his iconic recording of “I Can’t Get Started.” Clarinetist Joe Dixon recalled how “the Prisoner’s Song” entered the Berigan repertoire:

“(Arranger) Dick Rose came into Nola, or one of those studios on Broadway where we rehearsed, one day with this arrangement. I don’t know if he’d been invited in or just walked in. Anyway, Bunny said ‘Pass it out. ’Bunny would always said ‘Pass it out,’ and then he’d sit there and listen. So Dick Rose kicked it off and when we got through playing the thing Georgie Auld and I went over to Bunny and said, ‘This tune is a pig; we don’t want this.’ And Bunny said, ‘Aah, it isn’t that bad.’ Then Bunny got the idea for the introduction, with the tom-toms and his growling with the plunger. The funniest part of it is, it became a hit. So we were wrong!”(1) 

The Berigan band that recorded “The Prisoner’s Song”: L-R front: Joe Lippman, Georgie Auld, Joe Dixon, Mike Doty, Clyde Rounds, Berigan; back: Sonny Lee, Al George, George Wettling, Steve Lipkins, Hank Wayland, Irving Goodman, Tommy Morganelli

The Victor recording of “The Prisoner’s Song” hints at what Berigan would do with his band on theater and dance dates—he would extend arrangements to allow everybody plenty of room to blow. Once again, Bunny had the guys well prepared to record this tune—the band is tight, yet swinging. His own playing is superb, both as soloist and as leader of the brass. Then there are the jazz solos from Georgie Auld on tenor sax; Joe Dixon on clarinet; and Sonny Lee, on trombone. Pianist/arranger Joe Lippman lrecalled:

“‘The Prisoner’s Song’ was first spotted by Dick Rose, who used to be a copyist. He thought it would be a natural for the expressive Berigan trumpet. So it started out as his arrangement, but as extra choruses were added during performances on the stand, it went on to become more of a ‘head’ arrangement, incorporating ideas from the guys in the band. It was fashionable for all the bands to have a few so-called ‘killer-dillers’ in the book, which would be used to close out broadcasts or sets. They were real rabble-rousers like Benny Goodman’s ‘Roll ‘Em’ and Artie Shaw’s ‘The Chant’ and I guess Bunny used it in the same way. Thus ‘The Prisoner’s Song’ finished up about half Dick Rose and half the rest of the band, but it provided a really jumping finale to many a broadcast!”(2)

The Berigan band’s recordings of “I Can’t Get Started” and “The Prisoner’s Song”were issued in September of 1937 back-to-back on the twelve-inch Victor record 36208, and were a part of an album of four such records entitled A Symposium of Swing, Victor C-28. This was something of a coup for Bunny, as the critical comments below reveal:

“RCA Victor has given the wax cult something to really shout about. Spreading their stuff on 12 inches of wax and packeted in an album dressed up with concert notes by swing critic Warren Scholl, candid camera shots of the wand-wavers and personnel of the tooters, Victor Hall of Fame’s A Symposium of Swing (C-28) features Tommy Dorsey, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman & Bunny Berigan.”  (Billboard: September 18, 1937)

“Victor’s first swing album, Symposium of Swing, is a big hit. The public acceptance (and sales) was almost double the estimate by the company. The set was backed by a special advertising and display campaign.” (Billboard: October 23, 1937)

“Biggest record news of the month is Victor’s release of a Symposium in Swing (sic) album of four 12-inch records, which follows their recent Bix Beiderbecke memorial album. The four discs provide an opportunity to hear Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Waller and Berigan at their best. Only serious question that might be raised is the inclusion of Berigan, whose band is just rounding into shape. Other leaders naturally should occupy Berigan’s place in the Symposium but these leaders are not recording for Victor. Since this is strictly Victor’s Symposium and judged on its merits the album deserves a top notch spot in any record library. Here is a compilation of what swing really is, as played by the present Victor swing masters. For a swing banquet, don’t miss this sumptuous swing meal.” (Orchestra World: October 1937) (3)

I think the answer to the question posed above can be answered in this way: Yes, when Bunny Berigan and his Orchestra recorded “The Prisoner’s Song” and “I Can’t Get Started” in early August of 1937, they were still a relatively new band. Bunny had formed the band at the beginning of 1937, and had slowly over the following seven months assembled the personnel he thought would best be able to actualize his musical ideas. But the Berigan band worked continuously during those months, and as this recording shows, by August had achieved an ensemble unity and spirit that rivaled any swing band then on the scene. And in Berigan, the band had one of the premier trumpet soloists in the world of swing. And most importantly, those two recordings have stood the test of time: swing fans are still, almost 90 years after they were made, listening to them and enjoying, indeed savoring them, as great examples of music in the swing idiom. So the Victor executives who made the decision to include two recordings by the Berigan band in their A Symposium in Swing album definitely made the right decision.

The music:

For a great analysis of what is going on musically in Bunny Berigan’s recording of “The Prisoner’s Song,” I will cite to the excellent liner notes written by Richard M. Sudhalter for the 1982 set of LP records entitled: Giants of Jazz … Bunny Berigan:

(After “The Prisoner’s Song” came out in mid-September of 1937) …”it quickly became one of the band’s most requested numbers. It (had been) expanded to accommodate long jazz solos by Auld, Lee, Dixon and Berigan that allowed the band to work up rhythmic steam. ‘On charts like this,’ said Joe Dixon, ‘we’d set up sax section riffs behind Bunny’s (and other jazz players’ solos), kind of like they did in the Basie band; we’d just build and build; they weren’t doing that in many of the other bands, at least not in my experience.'”

“They certainly build here, from the moment they take off with unison brass snapping out a minor-key riff while Berigan moans and growls into his plunger (mute). The saxophones, led by Mike Doty, take over as Berigan carries on for another eight bars. Then the full band, phrasing tightly, announces the old melody (of ‘The Prisoner’s Song’) in crisp swing style. ‘Listen to the saxes in there,’ said Dixon,’ Mike played lead right on the beat. We were really a very rhythmic section.'”

“A brief brass interlude, trombones on top, sets up Berigan who unfolds an open, relaxed solo with the saxophones riffing strongly behind him. For eight bars, he circles and darts around the melody, then veers away with an intensely vocal figure built around two sharply bent concert Ds that sound like cries of protest. He follows it right up with an an astounding eight bars: one long sinuous phrase that first twists its way down chromatically from a concert F, tarries a bit with four little figures of eighth notes, the snakes its way back toward the heights to break off on an emphatic downbeat. He answers his own phrase with three more, each torn from a high C, each complementing the one it follows. An uncanny structural sense seems to attend such Berigan solos: all parts are related; phrases and sections forming beginnings, middles and ends.

“Berigan then hurtles into another chorus. This time however, he uses a shake on a high C as a springboard, first to an E above, then to a high F before roller-coastering down on a snapped off four bar phrase. A final episode, highlighted by one last crying note, brings this startling solo to a strong conclusion. This is Berigan leading his band in the best way he knows, by playing brilliantly with energy, eloquence, power and determination.” (4)

Often, I have read about the placement of solos in a given performance by a big band. Some leaders, especially if they were virtuoso instrumentalists, would have the other soloists in the band play before him so that there would be a build-up to the leader’s solo. This is certainly a valid way to approach building a performance. Berigan was a leader who often deviated from this pattern by playing his solo first. His objective when he did that, as here, was to set a high bar for the soloists who followed, and to inspire them to play at their best.

“Tenor saxophonist Georgie Auld solos strongly in the bouncing, excited style he used at that point in his career, sounding most attractive over the prominently recorded rhythm guitar of Tom Morganelli (later Morgan). He ends on a sequence of crying, repeated D flats, his fast vibrato increasing the effect of rhythmic propulsion.” (At right: Georgie Auld.)

“Joe Dixon’s clarinet solo keeps the intensity level high with its rhythmic attack and sharp tonal edge. ‘I had to change mouthpieces on clarinet to play in that band,’ he said. ‘Bunny’s idea of a clarinet player was to get out there and wail and scream, while the brass went doo-wah, doo-wah. You had to pierce through all of that like a piccolo in a marching band otherwise you wouldn’t be heard. I had to use a very open mouthpiece to get that kind of sound – and you can hear it on this solo.” (Joe Dixon is shown at left.)

“Trombonist Sonny Lee finishes the solo sequence with a warm. lazy-swinging contribution, backed by some agitated reed riffing. After the trumpets growl out the melody in a minor-key unison for 16 bars. Drummer George Wettling kicks off the final full-band chorus packed with lift and infectious enthusiasm. The sizzle, or inner excitement, that Joe Dixon recalled is on glorious display here as the ensemble winds down into a repetition of the opening minor-key episode. Berigan wails and cries out like some wounded, lonely wild creature as “The Prisoner’s Song” fades away, and this landmark performance comes to an end.” (5) (Sonny Lee, at right.)

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


(1) Bunny Berigan …Elusive Legend of Jazz, by Robert Dupuis: 169.

(2) White materials: August 7, 1937.

(3) All cited in the White materials: August 7, 1937.

(4) Giants of Jazz …Bunny Berigan (1982), notes on the music by Richard M. Sudhalter, 43-44.

(5) Ibid.

2 thoughts on ““The Prisoner’s Song” (1937)

Add yours

  1. That the Bunny Berigan orchestra will forever be best remembered by Victor 36208 is of course obvious, with the masterful, stops-you-in-your-tracks treatment of the band’s theme, featuring a virtuosic and essentially autobiographical performance from the leader, occupying the A-side. In my opinion, though, the B-side, “The Prisoner’s Song” is almost as representative of what the band was about. The record truly represents the two-sides, the quintessence, of Bunny’s carefully, painstakingly assembled aggregation. The ORCHESTRA WORLD reviewer’s questioning of the validity of the band’s inclusion in the SYMPOSIUM OF SWING album appears absurd now — and I must believe that to swing fans who were following the nascent outfit’s progress from the beginning of ’37 to September, the implied caveat was equally laughable. Perhaps the reviewer thought that either the well-established Lombardo or Kemp orchestra should have been in the Berigan band’s place in this set? Sheesh! Bunny, though the most recently signed Victor artist among these instrumental luminaries, had as much right to be included as the others — because he and his band swung!

    “The Prisoner’s Song” is, in raw form, simple, harmonically limited material, but Bunny’s inspired idea for the minor-based intro (and outro) adds interest and colour. With his plunger, Bunny evokes the hopeless inmate bleating to his fellow captives and an at best indifferent guard. We, as swing enthusiasts, however, can sympathise, or emphathise, deeply. Once his three choruses are underway, though, we hear that while he may be incarcerated, he’s free! Bunny the improvisor was absolutely unfettered, uncontained. I retain to this day the same profound wonder I felt when I first heard his extended solo on this side, decades ago.

    The two choruses a piece that he allots his star soloists reveal how Bunny wanted to run his band as well as where he wanted to place the musical focus. Inspired, we must believe, by Bunny’s miraculous flight, the young guys, Auld and Dixon, and the veteran, Sonny Lee, keep the momentum going. It sounds almost as if, instead of pacing in a cramped cell, they’ve made a break for it (they were innocent, framed — as in many a ’30s film) and though the hounds are on their trail, necessitating the brisk pace, the ensemble is urging them on. Morganelli, Wayland and Wettling are superb, providing the horn sections and soloists with strong, but not overpowering, support.

    We can only wish that there had been many more instrumentals along the lines of this one, “Swanee River”; “Frankie and Johnny”; “Mahogany Hall Stomp”; “Black Bottom” and, in a somewhat more artistic but no less swinging vein, “Caravan” and “A Study in Brown.”

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