Bunny Berigan

Photo of Bunny Berigan
  • Birth Name

    Rowland Bernart Berigan
  • Born

    November 2, 1908
    Fox Lake, Wisconsin
  • Died

    June 2, 1942 (age 33)
    New York, New York

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 him 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 Whitemans 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. 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 1937, Berigan joined Tommy Dorsey, record­ing fa­mous so­los on the two hits, Marie” and Song of India.” His con­tri­bu­tion on those two songs be­came so fa­mous that in fu­ture years Dorsey had them writ­ten out and or­ches­trated for a full trum­pet sec­tion.

Berigan re­mained with Dorsey for only a few months. He soon as­sem­bled his own eleven-piece out­fit, with help from Dorsey, and recorded sev­eral sides for Brunswick. He later de­buted a full or­ches­tra at the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York. In its short life, the group fea­tured such fu­ture stars as Georgie Auld, Ray Conniff, Joe Bushkin, and Buddy Rich. Joe Lipman arranged and Ruth Bradley both sang and played clar­inet. Vocalists in­cluded Kitty Lane, Ruth Gaylor, Gail Reese, Jayne Dover, and very briefly Dick Haymes. Berigan also sang again on a new record­ing of I Can’t Get Started.”

The group recorded for Victor, show­ing promise at first, but Berigan’s lack of per­sonal dis­ci­pline spilled over into the way he han­dled his mu­si­cians, and the mu­sic be­gan to suf­fer. In 1940, he called it quits. Tommy Dorsey re­hired him im­me­di­ately. He stayed for six months, leav­ing partly over dis­agree­ments with Dorsey and partly be­cause he did­n’t feel com­fort­able be­ing a side­man again. He formed a new or­ches­tra, but his drink­ing had reached crit­i­cal lev­els, and he was un­able to han­dle the re­spon­si­bil­ity. After only a few months he de­clared bank­ruptcy and turned his group over to Peewee Erwin.

He made an­other at­tempt to form an or­ches­tra later in 1941, which recorded on the Elite la­bel, with Lynne Richards and Bob Anthony as vo­cal­ists, but his 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, 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.

Music

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  • I Can't Get Started
    Bunny Berigan (Bunny Berigan), Okeh/Vocalion (1936)
  • 'Round the Old Deserted Farm
    Bunny Berigan (Ruth Gaylor), Victor (1938)
  • Never Felt Better, Never Had Less
    Bunny Berigan (Ruth Gaylor), Victor (1938)

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