Rowland Bernard “Bunny” Berigan (November 2, 1908 – June 2, 1942) was an Americanjazztrumpeter who rose to fame during the swing era, but whose virtuosity and influence were shortened by a losing battle with alcoholism that ended in his early death at age 33. He composed the jazz instrumentals “Chicken and Waffles” and “Blues” in 1935. His 1937 classic jazz recording “I Can’t Get Started” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1975.
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“I Can’t Get Started” Interestingly, this song was written by Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin, though George was alive and collaborating with Ira on most songs.
Berigan was born in Hilbert, Wisconsin, the son of William Berigan and Mamie Schlitzberg, and raised in Fox Lake, Wisconsin. A musical child prodigy, having learned the violin and trumpet at an early age, Berigan played in local orchestras by his late teens before auditioning for the successful Hal Kemp orchestra in 1928 or 1929.
Kemp first spurned the young trumpeter, reputedly because Berigan at the time had an uncertain tone, but any deficiencies were apparently resolved a year and a half later: this time, in mid-1930, Kemp hired Berigan. Berigan’s first recorded trumpet solos came with the Kemp orchestra, and he was with the unit when they toured England later in the year.
By the time the Kemp unit returned to the U.S. in 1931, Berigan, like fellow trumpeter Manny Klein, became a sought-after studio musician; Fred Rich, Freddy Martin and Ben Selvin were just some who sought his services for record dates. Berigan recorded his first vocal, “At Your Command”, with Rich that year. From late 1932 through 1933, Berigan was also employed by Paul Whiteman, before playing with Abe Lyman’s band in 1934.
“The Prisoner’s Song”
He continued freelancing in the recording and radio studios, most notably with the Dorsey Brothers and on Glenn Miller’s earliest recording date as a leader in 1935, playing on “Solo Hop”. At the same time, however, Berigan made the association that graduated him to fame in his own right: he joined Benny Goodman’s re-forming band. Legendary jazz talent scout and producer John Hammond, who also became Goodman’s brother-in-law in due course, later wrote that he helped persuade Gene Krupa to re-join Goodman, with whom he’d had an earlier falling-out, by mentioning that Berigan, whom Krupa admired, was already committed to the new ensemble. With Berigan and Krupa both on-board, the Goodman band made the legendary, often disheartening tour that ended with their unexpectedly headline-making stand at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles, the stand often credited with the “formal” launch of the swing era. Berigan left Goodman to spend some time with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra; his solo on the Dorsey hit “Marie” became considered one of his signature performances. Then, in 1937, Berigan assembled a band to record under his name, picking the then-little known Ira Gershwin/Vernon Duke composition, “I Can’t Get Started“. Berigan’s crisp trumpet work and passable vocal made the song the biggest hit of his career and his theme for the rest of his life. Berigan modeled his trumpet style in part on Louis Armstrong’s style, and often acknowledged Armstrong as his own idol. Armstrong, for his part, returned the compliment after Berigan’s death, saying the only thing wrong with Berigan was that he died too young.
“A Study In Brown”
Berigan got the itch to lead his own band full-time and did so for about three years. Some of their records were equal in standard to the sides he cut with Goodman and Dorsey, but they weren’t financially successful and Berigan was known to fret over a business sense that wasn’t quite equal to his musical talent. Bunny also began a torrid affair with singer Lee Wiley around this time. Already a heavy drinker, the business stress of bandleading drove Berigan to drink even more heavily. Nevertheless, musicians considered him an excellent bandleader; several notable players came into and out of the Berigan orchestra during its short life: Buddy Rich (a fellow Dorsey alumnus), Gus Bivona, Davie Tough, Danny Richards, Joe Bushkin, Ray Conniff, Ruth Bradley, Hank Wayland, Jack Sperling, Bama Warwick, Helen Ward, Sid Weiss, Morty Stuhlmaker, Hymie Shertzer, Bob Jenney, Al Jennings, Buddy Koss, Steve Lipkins, Kathleen Lane, Joe Dixon, Georgie Auld, Joe Lipman, George Wettling, Clyde Rounds, and Tommy Morgan.
Berigan was also a fixture on CBS Radio’s Saturday Night Swing Club broadcasts from 1937 to 1940, a coast-to-coast broadcast that helped further popularize jazz as the swing era climbed to its peak. Berigan’s business troubles drove him to declare bankruptcy in 1940 and re-join Tommy Dorsey for a brief period before leaving to form a new small group to play mostly one-night stands. By this time, however, the touring grind became too much: during one such tour, Berigan was hospitalized with pneumonia in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But his doctors discovered worse news: Berigan by now was stricken with cirrhosis of the liver. His doctors advised him to stop drinking and to stop playing the trumpet for an undetermined length of time. Berigan couldn’t do either. He returned to New York City and suffered a massive hemorrhage on May 30, 1942. He died two days later in the hospital at age 33. He was survived by his wife, Donna, and his two young daughters, Patricia and Joyce. He was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery south of Fox Lake. His 1937 recording of “I Can’t Get Started” was used in the film Save the Tiger (1973), the Roman Polanski film Chinatown (1974), and a Martin Scorsese short film,The Big Shave (1967). Fox Lake, Wisconsin has kept his memory and influence alive with an annual Bunny Berigan Jazz Jubilee since the early 1970s. At least one of Berigan’s Saturday Night Swing Club dates, a performance from Manhattan Center in New York on 26 September 1939, has survived to circulate among jazz and old-time radio collectors alike.
Sources: wikipedia, youtube,imdb.com
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