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 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. 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.