Considered one of the greatest trumpet players of the swing era, Bunny Berigan was a legend in his own time. Unfortunately, for all his achievements and promise, his life was cut short due to alcoholism, leaving us only to wonder at the true extent of his genius.
Born in Wisconsin, Berigan’s first musical instrument was a violin on which he doubled with the trumpet until 1927. He began playing with local bands at the age of thirteen, once sitting in with the New Orleans Rhythm Kings when they made a stop in his home state. He auditioned for Hal Kemp in 1928, only to be rejected for having too thin a tone. His playing soon improved, and in 1930 he ended up in New York with Frank Cornwall’s band, where Kemp heard him again and this time hired him. He made several recordings with Kemp and went on a European tour with his band before leaving to join Fred Rich’s CBS studio band the following year.
Berigan soon began to garner a reputation, playing for and recording with such artists as the Dorsey Brothers, Mildred Bailey, Abe Lyman, Smith Ballew, and the Boswell Sisters. He also spent a brief period with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra and had his own radio show, featuring Bunny’s Blue Boys. In 1935, he joined Benny Goodman, where he recorded solos on two of Goodman’s first big hits, “King Porter Stomp” and “Sometimes I’m Happy.” He left Goodman after only six months and returned to Fred Rich, with whom he made his only film appearance. He had short stints with Ray Noble, Red Norvo, and Red McKenzie, and in late 1936 he recorded for Okeh and Vocalion as Bunny Berigan and his Boys. One of those sessions produced his famous theme song, “I Can’t Get Started,” on which he sang vocals.
In January 1937, Berigan joined Tommy Dorsey, recording solos on two hits, “Marie” and “Song of India.” His contribution on those songs became so famous that in future years Dorsey had them written out and orchestrated for a full trumpet section. Berigan remained with Dorsey only one month before putting together his own outfit with help from Dorsey and Dorsey’s manager, Arthur Michaud. The band recorded for Brunswick in February but proved disappointing, with Down Beat proclaiming that Berigan had assembled “a group of musicians who are utterly incapable of even approaching their leader’s ability.” Berigan soon assembled a new nine-piece orchestra, with much greater success.
Recording for Victor, the new band was heard over the air on CBS. Berigan went through a succession of female vocalists, with Carol MacKay at the start, followed by Sue Mitchell in May and Ruth Bradley in June, who also played clarinet. Gail Reese then took the spot, staying until April 1938. Ruth Gaylor succeeded her, with Jayne Dover taking over by September. Kathleen Lane replaced Dover in November, staying until at least April 1939. Wendy Bishop had joined by June but stayed only briefly, with Ellen Kaye as vocalist by July. Berigan also sang, with trombone player Ford Leary handling novelty numbers in early 1937. Bernie Mackie took care of novelty songs in 1938. Guitarist Dick Wharton sang in 1938, with Danny Richards as male vocalist from at least April 1939 to July 1939.
Berigan’s health and family frequently interfered with his duties as a leader. He spent much of December 1937 and January 1938 out with the flu and dealing with his daughter’s critical illness. Berigan’s lack of personal discipline also spilled over into the way he handled his musicians, and the music began to suffer. In December 1938, Berigan cut ties with Michaud and revamped his band. The line-up for the new ten-piece orchestra featured several notable musicians, including trombone player Ray Coniff, sax player Gus Bivona, and drummer Buddy Rich. Georgie Auld was initially part of the revamp but stayed only briefly before joining Artie Shaw.
Financial troubles plagued Berigan. In August 1939, he filed for bankruptcy in Chicago, so broke that he was unable to afford the forty dollar filing fee. Berigan’s creditors weren’t named at that time, but his lawyer stated that they included his old manager, Michaud, his new manager, John Gluskin, and the Greyhound bus company. In September, Berigan filed a second bankruptcy petition in New York, this time listing assets of $100 versus liabilities of $11,353, which included $4,680 owed to his musicians. James Petrillo, then head of Chicago’s local musician’s union fined Berigan $1,000 for “conduct unbecoming a member of the AFM,” with the amount taken out of his earnings from the band’s stay at the Loew’s State Theater in New York. Rumors were that most of his musicians had walked out on him, which Berigan denied. Berigan called the loss of four key men a revamp. Dick Haymes briefly joined the band as male vocalist around this time, but seeing it in serious decline he stayed only a few days.
By mid-1939, Berigan’s recording output had basically ceased. He kept slugging away but finally gave up in March 1940, disbanding and joining Tommy Dorsey’s band again, where he stayed until August. A spokesman for the band said that Dorsey and Berigan “didn’t see eye to eye on certain things,” but the fact that Berigan also didn’t feel comfortable as a sideman again played a role in his departure as well. He soon formed a new orchestra, but his drinking had reached critical levels, and he was unable to handle the responsibility.
Financial problems quickly mounted. In April 1941, after some of Berigan’s sidemen threatened to quit, Berigan’s booking agency, Music Corporation of America, cracked down, putting him on a weekly allowance and using the rest of his earnings to pay off the band and his creditors, which included the American Federation of Musicians and the Internal Revenue Service. After only a few months, Berigan quit and turned his group over to Peewee Erwin.
Berigan formed another orchestra later in 1941. The new band recorded on the Elite label, with Lynne Richards as vocalist. Kay Little had replaced her by January 1942. Danny Richards was male vocalist in 1942. Bob Anthony sang as well, By that time, however, Berigan’s health had declined so far that he was constantly sick. Out of loyalty to his musicians and the responsibility of supporting his wife and two children he kept playing right up until the end, despite his dire need for help. On June 1, 1942, he was admitted to a hospital with a severe case of cirrhosis of the liver. He died the following day, only thirty-three years of age.
While with Dorsey, part of Berigan’s salary was garnished each week by the local musician’s union to help pay off his debts to his former musicians. ↩︎