Composed by Bennie and Buster Moten; arranged by Ray Conniff.
Recorded by Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra live from a broadcast over WABC-New York from Roseland Ballroom in New York City in October of 1938.
Bunny Berigan, first trumpet, directing: Johnny Napton and Irving Goodman, trumpets; Ray Conniff and Andy Russo, trombones; Milton Schatz, lead alto saxophone; Arcuiso “Gus” Bivona, alto saxophone and clarinet; Georgie Auld, tenor saxophone; Clyde Rounds, tenor and baritone saxophones; Joe Bushkin, piano; Dick Wharton, guitar; Hank Wayland. bass; Bernard “Buddy” Rich, drums. Solos: Bunny Berigan, trumpet; Georgie Auld, tenor saxophone; Gus Bivona, clarinet; Ray Conniff, trombone.
This is the first of three posts that will appear at swingandbeyond.com celebrating the centenary of drum legend Buddy Rich’s birth. This post will focus on Rich’s first big-time jazz gig: his six months as the drummer in trumpeter Bunny Berigan’s band. For more information about Rich’s time with Bunny Berigan’s band, go to: https://bunnyberiganmrtrumpet.com/
The story: Bernard “Buddy” Rich, perhaps the most technically astonishing drummer in the history of jazz, was born on September 30, 1917, in Brooklyn, New York. His parents were vaudeville performers, and almost from infancy Buddy was onstage performing with them. His prodigious drumming talent manifested itself when Buddy was only eighteen months old. This led to a very successful vaudeville career for Rich, which lasted through his childhood years. By 1937, he began his career as a jazz drummer, first with Joe Marsala, then in 1938 with Bunny Berigan. Berigan’s swinging band provided Rich with an excellent laboratory to experiment with techniques of driving a big band that he later perfected. Rich’s big break came when he joined Artie Shaw’s band at the beginning of 1939. With Shaw, his stunning drumming technique was first put on display before a national radio and movie audience. From Shaw he went, in late 1939, to Tommy Dorsey, who featured him as a soloist almost as much as Gene Krupa was featured in his own band. His tenure with Dorsey lasted until 1945, although he did serve in the Marine Corps during World War II. After World War II he led his own big bands with modest success in the late 1940s. He worked for many bandleaders in the 1950s and into the 1960s, including Les Brown, Tommy Dorsey, and most notably, Harry James. He also worked extensively with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, and on his own with small groups. In 1966, Rich formed a big band, which he led with considerable success, until his death. Rich was helped immeasurably in this endeavor by television personality Johnny Carson, who was an amateur drummer, a personal friend, and an idolator. Rich appeared on Carson’s Tonight Show dozens of times from the 1960s to the 1980s. In addition to his virtuoso drumming, Rich would easily trade witticisms with Carson. Rich also had an explosive temper and the sidemen in his last bands took delight in surreptitiously recording his rages to band members within the confines of the band bus. Buddy Rich died on April 2, 1987, in Los Angeles, California.
Berigan’s tenor sax star Georgie Auld related how Rich got into the Berigan band:
“Y’know I met Buddy when I was 14 and he was 16, which means we knew each other for 54 years. I got him in Bunny Berigan’s band and I got him in Artie Shaw’s band. He and I both lived in Brooklyn. Bunny was looking for a drummer, he was upgrading the band at the time, and I said ‘there’s a buddy of mine that’s a genius behind the drums but he can’t read a note of music.’ Bunny said ‘well, that’s no good.’ In those days we played theaters and we usually had 5 acts of vaudeville. He said, ‘What’s gonna happen when we play a theater and we get a dance act or something and he can’t read music?’ I said, ‘He’ll do more without reading than any 30 drummers you get that can read.’ Then Bunny said, ‘All right let him sit in for a tune.’ The exact same thing happened with Artie Shaw.” [i]
Rich joined the Berigan band at Manhattan Beach in New York City in early July 1938. Dick Wharton, Berigan’s guitarist then, remembered the gig, and Rich’s impact on the Berigan band: “Manhattan Beach was an amusement park with an open-air bandstand next to Coney Island. Johnny Blowers had just left and Georgie Auld was Bunny’s contact for enticing the young Buddy Rich away from Joe Marsala and persuading him it was a great opportunity for him. Buddy was loud from the very start and Bunny would have to insist on his cutting down the volume. But Bunny apparently liked the rhythmic ‘figures’ Rich played and had Buddy’s ‘licks’ worked into some of the arrangements.”[ii] The Berigan band, with their new drummer, played at Manhattan Beach for one week, closing there on July 11. Buddy Rich began to slowly settle in.
After the Manhattan Beach stand, they played one-nighters west to Michigan, including one at the Queen’s Ball for the National Cherry Festival at Traverse City, Michigan on July 13.[iii] They opened on Friday July 15, at the Fox Theater in Detroit,[iv] for a one-week engagement. Here is the review of the show that the Berigan band was a part of:
“Berigan blows into the Fox with his trumpet and band to keep the jitterbugs happy and it’s a lively package of talent that Berigan has with him in the stage show. Bunny’s band is plenty smooth and keeping up the festivities are the Frazee Sisters, song stars of Billy Rose’s Casa Manana, returning by popular demand, three sophisticated ladies whose knockabout antics get plenty of laughs. Sharpe and Armstrong do a very clever satire on ballroom dancing, and Ruth Gaylor and Dick Wharton sing several popular lyrics. It is sixty minutes of lively stage fare to accompany the movie, We’re Going to Be Rich, starring Gracie Fields, Victor McLaglen and Brian Donlevy.” [v]
[i] Don Manning interview, cited in the White materials: July 5, 1938.
[ii] White materials: July 5, 1938.
[iii] Traverse City Record Eagle: Wednesday, June 29, 1938. Information provided by Carl A. Hallstrom.
[iv] The Fox Theater, located at 2211 Woodward Avenue, Detroit, was built in 1928 by Hollywood film pioneer William Fox. Its seating capacity of 5,048 makes it the second largest theater in the United States. (Only Radio City Music Hall in New York is larger.) Its twin is the Fox Theater in St. Louis, which has 500 fewer seats. The Fox Theater has remained a vital entertainment venue since its opening.
[v] Detroit Free Press: July 16, 1938, cited in the White materials: July 15, 1938.
Steubenville, Ohio, is located on the Ohio River about twenty-five miles due west of Pittsburgh. One of its most notable sons, Dino Crocetti, later to achieve fame as Dean Martin, who in the late 1930s was dealing blackjack and poker in one of the city’s many illegal gambling casinos, described it as: “a rough and tumble Ohio River town full of steel mills, speakeasies, and whorehouses.”[i] The Capitol Theater there had an agreement with the Stanley Theater in Pittsburgh, then one of the major stops on the big band and vaudeville circuit, that allowed the Stanley’s current attractions to play at the Capitol on Sundays when they could not perform in Pennsylvania because of that commonwealth’s “blue laws.” Almost every performer who played at the Stanley Theater, therefore, also played at the Capitol Theater. As noted above, Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra opened at the Stanley Theater on Thursday, August 25, 1938, for a one-week stand.[ii]
In order to give you some flavor of what the Berigan band was doing in the summer and fall of 1938, I am citing here some recollections of a young Berigan fan (my father). In 1938 he was 20 years old, and a devotee of swing music. He lived in rural eastern Ohio then, and saw as many bands as he could, given the fact that his finances were limited. Fortunately, his family had an automobile, so he was able to borrow the family car to go to a number of venues in Ohio to see and hear bands. The stories he told me over many years form the basis of what I have cited below.
By the time my father actually saw Bunny Berigan in person, on Sunday, August 28, 1938, he had known about him for probably three years, had purchased many of his Victor recordings, and had heard him many times on the Saturday Night Swing Club radio show. The band that Berigan led that night at the Capitol Theater consisted of the following: Steve Lipkins (lead), Irving Goodman, trumpets; Nat Lobovsky (lead), Ray Conniff, trombones; George Bohn (lead), Joe Dixon, Georgie Auld, and Clyde Rounds, reeds; Joe Bushkin, piano; Dick Wharton, guitar/vocals; Hank Wayland, bass; Buddy Rich, drums; and Ruth Gaylor, vocals. My father remembered the Andrews Sisters, who did appear at the Capitol with Berigan, only as “a corny vocal group,” and didn’t recall the dancers at all. He stated that there was no movie, but that the band played two one-hour shows, with the theater being cleared between them. His sole reason for going to the Capitol Theater that night was to see and hear Bunny Berigan. His expectations were high, and he was not disappointed.
The day had been “roasting hot, with stifling humidity.” The 2,000-seat Capitol “was filled to the rafters with a very wild audience.” My dad was seated somewhere in the first few rows, and was able to see Bunny and the band very clearly. Those there wanted hot music, and Berigan and his musicians made no apologies about swinging hard, and playing loud.
“As the curtain rose, Bunny was standing in front of the band; they came on playing his theme, ‘I Can’t Get Started,’ for a few bars, then segued quickly into a loud up-tempo swinger, which lasted for about five minutes. The audience responded with a roar of approval, and the show proceeded in like fashion for the next hour, with little letup. Berigan himself was a big guy, probably six feet one, with powerfully built arms and shoulders (the result no doubt of lifting a trumpet to his lips for anywhere from three to seven hours a day for the past ten years). He had magnificent reddish-blonde hair, and arresting blue-gray eyes. He was wearing an immaculate light colored suit, with blue necktie and kerchief in his breast pocket. He was a very good-looking guy. He looked like a movie star. He said very little to the audience between numbers and seldom flashed his teeth, like many other bandleaders, because his teeth looked crooked. His trumpet seemed to be extra long, and he would hold it so it was straight out and level when he played. But when he would play a high note, he would point the trumpet up, at about 45 degrees.”
My father recalled one or two vocals by the girl singer in each show, “to allow the band members to catch their breath between romping swingers. Bunny and all of the other soloists played much longer solos, completely different from those on the records, with the arrangements being extended by Bunny setting up spontaneous riffs in the various sections behind the soloists.” This was rarely done in white bands then, and not done too frequently even in black bands (with the exception of Basie’s). The Berigan band played both shows without any music stands or written music.
Berigan’s trumpet sound was awe inspiring: He had a huge sound. It was full and rich and ringing, but always very warm. He was not a blaster, like Ziggy Elman, or a screecher, like Cat Anderson and Maynard Ferguson, who came later. “His sound was just enormous, in all registers of the horn. I have no idea how he did it, but when he played, and that trumpet was pointed at you, my God, it was like being enveloped by that gorgeous sound. It completely filled the theater; it was like the walls were bulging. And his ideas were fantastic: he could play an entire improvised chorus without even the hint of repetition or cliché. The music just flowed out of his trumpet. He was clearly inspired when he was onstage in front of his band playing, and that was very contagious, to his musicians and to his audience. He put a lot into his playing, both physically and emotionally. I had never seen mist come out of the bell of a trumpet before. That night, I saw it frequently. It seemed that when Bunny played a solo he was able to communicate with his audience in a very immediate, powerful, magical way. His band gave him everything they had every second they were playing. That was one swinging band!”
As a result, the audience was stirred to frenzy, and remained at fever pitch throughout the evening.
“At the end of the first show, he let his drummer play, and he was fantastic. His arms were flying around the drum set and cymbals, and he was swinging. We had no idea who he or any of the others in the band were because Bunny didn’t introduce anybody. He just let them play.”
The drummer in question was Buddy Rich. Anyone who knows anything about Buddy Rich knows that he was not one to engage in exercises in nostalgia. He was, nevertheless, a very emotional man who was very proud of having played with many of the greatest musicians in the history of jazz, including Bunny Berigan. When he formed his big band in the 1960s, one of the first things he did was to commission from arranger Dave Bloomberg a lovely, evocative arrangement of “I Can’t Get Started.” I personally witnessed Rich and his band play this arrangement more than once. Buddy never made a big issue about dedicating it to Berigan, but he did clearly announce that this tune was “the theme song of Bunny Berigan.” When Rich decided to record this arrangement, his tenor saxophonist Jay Corre had a solo. Here is what Corre remembered: “I had begun playing my solo when I happened to glance over at Buddy. He was playing brushes and leaning over the snare drum crying his eyes out; teardrops were running down his face and falling on the snare. I knew right then that he was probably thinking about Bunny Berigan and the times they had spent together. I got caught up in Buddy’s emotions and it affected my playing as well. It’s a moment that I will always remember.”[iii]
Steubenville’s Capitol Theater was not air-conditioned.
“I had never seen a human being sweat like Bunny, and I had worked with guys in kilns in the brickyard. He perspired so heavily that by the end of the first show, he was completely soaked, with sweat coming through the lapels, arms, and back of his suit jacket, and indeed, the crotch of his trousers. During the show, he had a towel hidden inside the lid of the piano, and he would go over there while someone else was playing, and wipe his face.”[iv]
After the first show, the theater was cleared, and within about a half hour, the second show began. My dad and his friends, including some Steubenville “relatives,” had paid little kids to stand on the ticket line for them for the second show. “We gave them a dime when we went in for the first show, and then another dime when we came out. They knew if they took off with that first dime, we would go looking for them.” It was, if anything, more swinging and exciting than the first show. Berigan, who had changed suits (and probably everything else) during the intermission, “strode out from behind the curtain playing ‘I Can’t Get Started,’ but this time he played it all the way through, exactly as he had recorded it. The audience was quiet for the first and only time that night. At the climax of the performance, as Bunny went into the high register, his trumpet pointed skyward, a clap of thunder shook the building, and wild cheering erupted.” Once again, Berigan had immediately stirred the audience, and he then proceeded to play a completely different program of tunes, most of them up-tempo swingers, for the second show. “By the end of the second show, Bunny was again drenched. So were we. That theater smelled like a horse barn by then!” The audience departed and was able to cool off in a hurry as they walked out into a full-scale thunderstorm.
[i] Dean and Me, by Jerry Lewis and James Kaplan, Broadway Books, (2005), 16.
[ii] White materials: August 25, 1938.
[iii] Quote from Jay Corre is in the liner notes to Buddy Rich’s Pacific Jazz CDP-7243-4-94507-2-1 (1998) entitled The New One!
[iv] In order to deal with so much perspiration, Berigan used great quantities of talcum powder.
Within a few weeks of playing at the Capitol Theater in Steubenville, Ohio, the Berigan band, badly shaken by the great hurricane of 1938, which blew them out of a prime two-week engagement at the Roof Garden of the Ritz-Carleton Hotel in Boston, was scrambling for work. They secured a series of Wednesday night appearances at the Roseland Ballroom, 51st and Broadway in Manhattan beginning on October 5. These included all-important radio broadcasts. There were at least two Wednesday appearances at Roseland by Berigan, the one on October 5, and one a week later, on October 12. The performance presented here could have been recorded on either of those dates, or possibly on October 19.
This performance starts with no introduction. From the downbeat, the band is in a deeply swinging groove. Listen for Rich’s clever use of his tom-tom, and his bass drum offbeats. Berigan solos first. At the beginning, he plays his trumpet open for a few bars, then he grabs the kazoo he sometimes used as a mute, and holds it inside the bell of his trumpet loosely. The resulting sound is quite growly…it reminds me of some sort of large predatory cat roaming about a jungle. Rich supports Berigan’s improvisation with rock-solid back beats and bass drum offbeats. Auld follows, with a robust solo that shows him developing in the direction of fellow jazz tenor saxophonist Herschel Evans, then being featured with Count Basie. (So was Lester Young). A few bars into Auld’s solo, we hear a voice shouting Yes! That was none other than Bunny Berigan himself, greatly enjoying leading this terrific band. Gus Bivona has the bright clarinet solo. Trombonist Ray Conniff, who also wrote the tight, swinging arrangement the Berigan band plays in this performance, starts his solo by quoting from Basie’s 1938 cutting-edge swing opus “Every Tub.”
Due to the ongoing cross-pollination of musical influences going on in the late 1930s in many bands, the swing era was nearing an early apogee.
This unique recording exists on a ten-inch acetate disk that I unearthed in the Bunny Berigan archive at the University of Wisconsin -Madison. The interruption in Ray Conniff’s solo was caused by the recordist turning over the disk because side A was filled. The last thirty seconds of this performance was captured on side B of the disk.The digital transfer was done by Doug Pomeroy. The sonic restoration and digital remastering was done by Mike Zirpolo.