“Down by the Old Mill Stream”
Composed by Tell Taylor and Arthur Clough; unknown arranger.
Recorded live on October 31, 1936 from a broadcast of the Saturday Night Swing Club over the CBS radio network.
Bunny Berigan, trumpet, with the CBS house band directed by Johnny Augustine. Probable personnel: Lloyd Williams, Mike Miolla, unknown, possibly Dave Wade or Cliff Natoli, trumpets; Wilbur Schwichtenberg (Will Bradley), Joe Vargas and Jerry Colonna, trombones; Artie Manners and Pete Pumiglio, alto saxophones; Hank Ross and Irving “Babe” Russin, tenor saxophones; Walter Gross, piano; Vincent Maffei or Frank Worrell, guitar; Lou Shoobe, bass; Johnny Williams, drums.
This broadcast emanated from the main CBS studio location, 485 Madison Avenue, New York City. The CBS announcer was George Hogan.
Very little has been written over the years about the important role the CBS network radio show the Saturday Night Swing Club played in making America swing and jazz conscious. CBS inaugurated SNSC on June 13, 1936, and the show ran until mid-1939. At first, it emanated from the intimate confines of CBS Studio One, 485 Madison Avenue in Manhattan. (485 Madison as it appears -more or less- today is shown below at right.) The first show aired at 8:30 p.m. The next show aired at 8:00 p.m., and this time continued until October 3, 1936, when it changed to 6:45 p.m. The SNSC was a half hour in length, fast-paced, and packed with music. Sponsors and advertising agencies were not a part of the show because it was presented on a sustaining, that is, unsponsored basis. Therefore, the musical artists presented were chosen simply on the basis of whether they could play or perform well within the swing idiom. Issues of race and gender discrimination did not exist on this show. Consequently, many Afro-American musicians and singers, who otherwise would have found it difficult to appear on network radio, appeared on the Saturday Night Swing Club.
Frequently, at least ten different musical selections were played. The CBS house band on SNSC during this period was conducted by regular CBS conductors, including Leith Stevens, Mark Warnow, Fred Rich, and Johnny Augustine, who alternated in some fashion.
Bunny Berigan’s role in the successful launch of the SNSC was a large one. For the first eight months this show was on the air, Berigan was a featured performer on it almost every week. From June 13, 1936 to February 27, 1937, there were thirty-one SNSC shows, and Berigan (shown above left in 1936), appeared on twenty-eight of them. On one show that he missed (November 7, 1936), he was in Boston working in the musical production The Show Is On. On December 26, 1936, it was announced that he was ill, and he may have been; but he also worked with Tommy Dorsey’s band during Christmas week on one of the few gigs outside of Manhattan that he did with them. On the other date (February 20, 1937), he was on tour with his own new big band. Ultimately, his duties as leader of his band are what took him away from the Swing Club. Berigan’s presence on the SNSC ensured not only that the show would have some top-grade jazz content, but also that other jazz and swing performers would want to also appear on the show, which quickly proved to be a marvelous showcase for their talents.
Here is the story of the genesis and early months of the Saturday Night Swing Club.
In early June of 1936, Bunny Berigan returned again to CBS. Although the White materials are somewhat sketchy regarding this development, to me it is not likely that Berigan returned to CBS with the same duties he had had previously, working as a more or less on-call “pool musician.” The big difference was that now CBS was launching the weekly Saturday Night Swing Club program that at least in the beginning was built around Bunny Berigan. (1)
The first SNSC showfeatured, in addition to Berigan, Frank Trumbauer, Lee Wiley, Red Norvo, and “swing commentator” Paul Douglas. (2)
“On June 13 at 8:00 p.m. over station WABC (flagship station of the CBS radio network), a new and better swing program went on the air. The program is in the capable hands of Paul Douglas as announcer and commentator and Bunny Berigan with his band augmented by CBS staff musicians. The plan is to air the best swing musicians who understand it and who have always been its prophets. Therefore, guest artists are invited to sit in. On June 13 it was Red Norvo. On June 20 the guest was Red Nichols and his Five Pennies and again the program clicked. On June 27 the time was given to the Democratic convention, but for the first Saturday in July more good swing and more good swing artists are promised.” (3)
Here are the recollections of a number of people who were involved with creating and then successfully producing the Saturday Night Swing Club, starting with Phil Cohan, the head of CBS’s program department, and producer of the show:
“The ingredients of the Saturday Night Swing Club included a good house band, couple of good staff arrangers, producers, writers and announcers who are hot fans themselves. Big name guests, two hours of rehearsing, available radio time on a Saturday night. The first shows were not so hot; they needed to have ‘balance’ i.e.: variety. Rehearsals were not called before 4 p.m. which didn’t leave much time to do all things, and not too many hot soloists were in New York City in the summer. Assistant producer Ed Cashman had a lot of radio experience to bring to the show. Hot men were not only willing but eager to play the show for union scale. Frankie Trumbauer flew all the way from Maine to guest. Bob Smith worked on scripts. When Bunny Berigan left, Leith Stevens, a CBS staff conductor, took over.” (4)
Singer Lee Wiley, who was very much a part of the New York jazz scene then, (pictued below at left) recalled: “the Saturday Night Swing Club show was one I dearly loved. Bunny was playing so great at that time. The orchestra consisted mostly of regular studio men at CBS, with the addition of some famous guests each week. Leith Stevens used to conduct the band and Bunny did the playing. Later on (pianist) Walter Gross took over and Ray Scott played the piano.” (5)
Guitarist Frank Worrell had a more detailed recollection:
“I started at CBS in late 1932 after working for about a year with Freddy Martin’s first band and remained as staff guitarist for about eight years. I guess Bunny came in first around 1934 and returned a couple of years later. He really was without fear and would play anything that came into his head. As a result, he probably hit more clams than any of his contemporaries.
If you were to have a meal with him, he would talk very little and usually had to go somewhere right after. We all drank quite a bit and Bunny was no exception, but no worse than the rest of us. But he let it affect his life, indeed it took his life. Sometimes he might be late for a broadcast; sometimes he might not show at all. I vaguely knew about the Lee Wiley affair, but nobody talked about it much. She seemed to be doing very well, but after Bunny she suddenly disappeared back home and out of the limelight.
Bunny never prepared a solo, although many guys did, particularly for radio, even writing out little sketches. If Bunny was in any doubt as to a chord in the tune, he’d check the piano part during a ‘five’ (five minute recess) and when he came to that bar, he would have something ready that was damned nice.
One time, Nat Natoli was talking about the days when he and Bunny were playing together with Paul Whiteman. Bunny was making $300 a week, pretty good money for those days, and hating the whole thing. He was always bitching that if he could only get $200 together all at once, he’d leave the damn band and go into business for himself in radio or recording! But he was always in hock to somebody. He owed his paycheck often before he got it! His reputation was pretty bad as far as reliability and maturity went, but from my own experience, you didn’t have to be late very often to get that kind of reputation. And let’s face it, when he did show up, you had a pretty fair trumpet player!” (6)
Drummer Johnny Williams (shown below on the SNSC broadcast of March 20, 1937), father of legendary film composer John Williams, was also there, as was bassist Lou Shoobe:
Lou Shoobe (shown at left): (7) “I worked with Bunny on the Saturday Night Swing Club program and also on many other shows. The guests on that show included just about everybody with any rating in jazz or popular music. Everybody at CBS liked the show, including conductors, musicians and administrators. Freddy Rich, Leith Stevens, Ray Block and others all wanted to conduct the orchestra on that show.” (8)
While the Saturday Night Swing Club was taking shape, the trade press reported the goings-on at the Club 18 in Manhattan in the wake of Berigan’s departure from its cozy confines: “Bunny Berigan has left the 18 Club. CBS has asked him to come back and lead a swing unit for them. Bunny and his 14 Little Hares swing out regularly on Saturday evenings for that web. At the club Berigan left behind, Red McKenzie is carrying on with Stew Pletcher on trumpet, Herbie Haymer on tenor, Slats Long on clarinet, plus the original Famous Door rhythm section.” “Bunny Berigan has left Club 18, where he played with Red McKenzie, and now has rejoined CBS. On Saturday, June 13, he appeared on WABC’s first swing program at 8.00 p.m., leading his own combination and in future he will be a regular feature on this hour.” (9)
I must comment about the recollections of the musicians cited above, specifically Frank Worrell and Johnny Williams, who both worked with Bunny at CBS over a period of several years. This observation applies to the recollections of others made many years after the occurrence of a given event as well. It seems to me that peoples’ memories often jumble facts after a lengthy period of time separates them from the incidents they are recalling. Memories from 1933 are scrambled with those of 1936, for example, when being recalled in the 1950s, ‘60s, or later. Also, people very often superimpose on their incomplete remembrances after the fact information to “fill out the story.” The result may be an entertaining anecdote, but as history, it is of dubious value, and often outright misleading. I will therefore attempt to balance these anecdotes, as much as possible, with facts from other sources that contain information that was recorded almost contemporaneously with the events under discussion.
Teen-aged swing fan Bob Inman made meticulous notes concerning the first Saturday Night Swing Club broadcast (see note 2 below), but then seemed not to have listened to or made any notes about another Swing Club broadcast until August 1, 1936. From that date until February 27, 1937, when Berigan appeared for the last time on SNSC as a “regular,” Inman attended at least eleven shows within the intimate confines of CBS Studio One, 485 Madison Avenue, and he took detailed notes of these and all the other shows while listening to them over WABC–New York. As noted above, Berigan appeared and played on 28 of the 31 SNSC shows during that period of time, and was employed elsewhere on the three shows he missed.
Given these facts, I do not think much credence should be given to anecdotes recalled long after the fact about Berigan’s “irresponsibility” during this time. A more accurate assessment would be that Bunny Berigan continued to be a workaholic, sometimes working 80 or more hours a week at various times through 1936, but had also become an alcoholic. (There is evidence that this began in 1933-1934.) Nevertheless, through 1936, he almost always showed up where and when he was supposed to and functioned at a very high level as a trumpet virtuoso and inspired jazz performer.
Although there are reports that Bunny was rehearsing a big band and taking it out for occasional dates near New York City, it does not appear that whatever band he was leading in the summer of 1936 occupied a great deal of his time. He continued to make records at ARC as both a sideman and leader through much of 1936. I suspect that at that time, he chose the recording dates he made at ARC more carefully than he had in the past. On June 23, he worked a session as a part of what was billed as “Dick McDonough and His Orchestra,” which really was a small group used to back singer Buddy Clark. He was also present when Billie Holiday made her first records as a leader in the summer of 1936. There is also a possibility that on occasion in the summer of 1936, he worked with Mark Warnow’s “Blue Velvet” orchestra, which broadcast over CBS on Thursday evenings at 9:00. (10) My opinion is that if he worked on any CBS shows other than SNSC, it would have been infrequently if at all. Bunny’s managers were trying to build up his name, and that is best done by carefully managing how and when the name and the talent behind it are used. (Below – Berigan solos at CBS on a Saturday Night Swing Club broadcast – 1936.)
This performance was designed to basically illustrate the difference between playing a tune, even one as old-fashioned as “Down by the Old Mill Stream,” straight, and then playing jazz on it. Although this may seem rather obvious to us in 2020, we have to remember that this performance took place more than 80 years ago, that much of jazz itself had not yet developed, and that the understanding of the average person listening to the Saturday Night Swing Club about jazz was probably nearly non-existent.
In listening to this performance today, certain things are apparent about Berigan’s playing: His marvelously burnished and resonant trumpet sound is on full display here. His ability to play melodies straight is also well demonstrated. (That was an essential skill for his work at CBS when he was used there as a staff musician in the early 1930s.) What is so quintessentially Beriganesque about his unadorned melody exposition here is that by whatever alchemy, his playing evokes melancholy in the listener.That was a part of his musical persona.
I suspect that his use of the lower register in the melody part of this performance was Bunny’s idea – it would show off not only his uncommon command of his lower register, but it would also set up a contrast to the jazz in the second half of his performance, which is played in higher registers.There is also rhythmic contrast between the first part, which is played at a slow tempo, and with little or no syncopation, and the second part where the tempo moves up, and there is abundant syncopation.The cadenza at the end leads to a sequence that resembles what Berigan would do when he made his iconic Victor recording of “I Can’t Get Started” some eight months later.
“A Formal Night in Harlem”
As a special treat, I am presenting here for the first time a recording that has been lost since late 1936 when it was made – “A Formal Night in Harlem.” This was recorded from the CBS broadcast of the Saturday Night Swing Club on December 5, 1936, and certainly has not been heard publicly since that date. I must thank Karl Pearson, collector of vintage recordings par excellence, for rescuing this unique recording from oblivion, and sharing it with me when he learned that I was preparing a post featuring Bunny Berigan at the Saturday Night Swing Club. I know that you will pardon the hiss and crackle in this recording because it comes from a one-of-a-kind acetate disk that unfortunately was played quite a bit and damaged by whomever “owned” it starting in late 1936. The CBS announcer, whose voice is barely audible in the introduction, is Paul Douglas. The personnel for the CBS house band is similar to that set forth above.
The recordings presented in this post were digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo. “A Formal Night in Harlem” required a good bit of audio restoration as well.
(*) All photos marked with an asterisk were taken on March 20, 1937 at CBS Radio Theater No. 2 – 251 West 45th Street in Manhattan. Here is another photo of Fats Waller and Art(ie) Shaw taken at that same show. Please see the comments of Reinhard Scheer-Hennings below:
(1)There is much excellent Berigan playing on the extant recordings made of the Saturday Night Swing Club broadcasts on which he appeared. Presumably, all of the shows were recorded. Unfortunately, only a few of those recordings have been issued to date.
(2) Swing Era Scrapbook: The Teenage Diaries and Radio Logs of Bob Inman 1936-1938, edited by Ken Vail. 25
(3) The American Music Lover: July 1936, cited in the White materials: June 13, 1936. The American Music Lover was a monthly periodical published from 1935–1944 in New York City by Peter Hugh Reed. Reed was the editor, and the AML, which was subtitled “The Record Conoisseur’s Magazine,” consisted of record notes and reviews. After August 1944, it was known as Listener’s Record Guide. Information regarding this publication comes from big band historian Christopher Popa.
(4) Down Beat: April 1938, cited in the White materials: June 13, 1936.
(5) White materials: June 13, 1936.
(7) Lou Shoobe was a bass player who worked at CBS in the 1930s, and became known to the public as a result of his work as the bassist with the Raymond Scott Quintette. He later became a music contractor at CBS and independently, and as such was responsible for hiring musicians for literally thousands of radio and television shows and recording sessions in New York during a career that extended into the 1960s.
(8) White materials: June 13, 1936.
(9) Metronome: July 1936, and Tempo: July 1936; both cited in White materials: June 13, 1936.
(17) White materials: June 24, 1936; See also Swing Era Scrapbook: 37.
Here are some great recordings by Bunny Berigan with his own band, starting with his iconic theme song:
And here are a couple of classic recordings Bunny made with Benny Goodman:
Here is a sample of the work Bunny was doing in the early 1930s as a free-lance in Manhattan:
For a deep-dive into more music and history about Bunny Berigan, check out the sister blog to swingandbeyond.com that is dedicated to all things Berigan: