Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra: From Manhattan Center, New York (NBC, 1939)
The only thing wrong with Bunny Berigan is that he died too young.—Louis Armstrong.
Most of the attempts to define swing have only confused those who’ve read the definitions.–Bunny Berigan.
The one-time CBS studio orchestra sideman (under the auspices of Freddie Rich) has become a jazz star. The sad part is that Bunny Berigan is also on the threshold of becoming a jazz tragedy.
After slogging through the rounds of studio, pit, and support work from 1931-35, Berigan found himself the feature attraction in bands who employed him, particularly those of Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Tommy Dorsey.
His calling card is a striking tone that stays clear, robust, and lyrical at once, even in the lowest register of his horn, not to mention a deep well of feeling even when playing more trite though commercially viable material. By the time Berigan decides to form his own band, he’s considered to be Louis Armstrong’s (his own idol) and Roy Eldridge’s only truly serious competition as the best jazz trumpeter in the business. His talent and pleasant personality were so formidable that skeptical Gene Krupa re-joined Benny Goodman in 1935 after scout and producer John Hammond mentioned Berigan was part of the new Goodman band.
Berigan would leave Dorsey to form his own band; he would turn a throwaway into a standard at once when he set down “I Can’t Get Started” and show himself a better than passable singer as well as a trumpet virtuoso. Haunted by insecurities, including those which hampered him on the business side of running his band (among other problems, Berigan was considered to be too nice to be a band disciplinarian, not to mention possibly being undermined by a shady manager), Berigan would find unfortunate refuge in the bottle, and he would first experience bankruptcy and an unhappy return to sideman status before forming a new band against doctors’ orders (overwork is practically a Berigan trademark) and dying of cirrhosis of the liver in June 1942—at 33.
There would be those who say Berigan looked almost twice his age by then.
Future generations might think of being grateful that Hollywood didn’t think to bowdlerise Berigan’s story, as it would those of the Dorsey brothers, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, Red Nichols, and Glenn Miller. (Actually, it would be pretty fair to say that Goodman’s, Krupa’s, and Nichols’s stories wouldn’t be bowdlerised, they’d be raped.) Even as they would be grateful that Berigan’s playing was such high quality that even future remasterings of his earlier sideman years would not diminish a single note of his musical power, while those covering his own music would always remain fresh, powerful, and lyrical.
Tonight: Berigan and his men put on a performance betraying none of the leader’s smothering insecurities and every drop of the talent—both as an instrumentalist and a band organiser—that invite the comparisons to Armstrong and Eldridge. The highlights: A bristling “Caravan,” in which Berigan rides that Ellington jewel into a display of his equal low- and high-register prowess; and, “Oh, Ya Ya,” whose theme and countermelody may have inseminated Ellington sideman Juan Tizol’s future standard “Perdido,” and which pumps at least as hard as the best of an Ellington or Basie band in the same period.
Other selections: “I Poured My Heart Into a Song” (vocal: Danny Richman), “Night Song,” “Swingin’ and Jumpin’,” “Little Gate Special.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
Escape: The Country of the Blind (CBS, 1947)—In the snows of the Andes, a lost mountaineer (Paul Frees) finds himself in an isolated valley populated only by blind people. Almost a fantasy and a somewhat charming one, based on the story by H.G. Wells. Ibarra: William Conrad. Additional cast: Peggy Webber, Harry Bartell. Announcer: Possibly Frank Goss. Music: Cy Heuer. Director: William N. Robson. Writer: John Dunkel.
Escape: Funeral Fires (CBS, 1950)—They’re burning in a Malayan river town, where natives are mourning those dead of a plague, and where a doctor (Lamont Johnson) and a nurse (Georgia Ellis) set up a serum station in lieu of the alcohol-ridden doctor on the case but discover the critical serum is missing. This sort of thing was a near-cliche even then, but this one’s a slight cut above that. Additional cast: Don Diamond, Ben Wright, Wilms Herbert, Leon Lontoc. Announcer: Roy Rowan. Music: Ivan Ditmars. Director: Norman Macdonnell. Writer: Charles Israel.
The Chase & Sanborn Hour: Mortimer Disappears (NBC, 1939)—Charlie McCarthy is a little too happy that Mortimer Snerd isn’t around tonight, and Edgar (Bergen) is a little too worried about Mortimer’s disappearance—with good reason, as things turn out; Loretta Young and Barton Yarborough perform a screwy playlet, “Man’s Best Friend,” that somewhat anticipates the Bickering Bickersons who’d become infamous when portrayed by Don Ameche and Frances Langford (who’d originate those roles on this show in due course); Vera Vague (Barbara Jo Allen) addresses the men she prefers; host Rudy Vallee sings a number from the freshly-minted Kerns-Hammerstein musical Very Warm for May, “All the Things You Are,” among other highlights. Announcer: Jim Bannon. Music: Robert Ambruster, Chase & Sanborn Orchestra, Donald Dickson. Writers: Possibl Carrol Carroll, Dick Mack, Shirley Ward, Stanley Quinn.
Fibber McGee & Molly: Uncle Dennis Visits (NBC, 1940)—A week after they went to visit him only to learn he was on his way to visit them, the McGees (Jim and Marian Jordan) return to 79 Wistful Vista to discover Molly’s drunken uncle (Ransom Sherman) has left the joint a near-complete wreck but their friends inexplicably enthralled. Teeny: Marian Jordan. The Old-Timer: Bill Thompson. Mrs. Uppington: Isabel Randolph. Gildersleeve: Harold Peary. Announcer: Harlow Wilcox. Music: Billy Mills Orchestra, the King’s Men. Writer: Don Quinn.
The Mel Blanc Show: The Thanksgiving Show (CBS, 26 November 1946)—Amidst holiday spirit, other courageous suitors approach their prospective fathers-in-law confidently, but our hero (Mel Blanc) needs to throw a brilliant Thanksgiving party to get to within a thousand nautical miles of Mr. Colby’s (Joseph Kearns) good side, assuming he has one. Betty: Mary Jane Croft. Cushing: Hans Conreid. Additional cast: Jerry Hausner, Earle Ross. Announcer: Bud Easton. Music: Victor Miller Orchestra, the Sports Men. Writer: Mac Benoff.
Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: One Fella’s Family—Everyone’s Home for Thanksgiving (If you gotta ask, we’re not doing it right, 1959)—From Book Cee Em Vee El Eye, Chapter Eye Ex, Page One; writers/improvisors: Bob Elliott, Ray Goulding.
Boston Blackie: The Lenny Powell Murder (Syndicated, 1946)—Two partners in a small air service get ready to fly a gangster carrying $25,000 cross-country for a $5,000 fee, leaving the third partner—whose paramour happens to be the wife of one of the pilots, as Blackie (Richard Kollmar) discovers the hard way—with the wrong idea about how to finance her divorce and their marriage. Faraday: Maurice Tarplin. Mary: Jan Minor. Additional cast, music, director, and writer: Unknown.
Suspense: Man Trap (CBS, 1961)—A crew chief (Don MacLaughlin) on a mountain highway project is haunted by guilt after his second-in-command (Joseph Julian) dies in a dynamite accident, after he insists on laying it himself, but the man’s wife (Teri Keane) inexplicably fingers the chief as the deliberate cause of the accident. A little soapish but not exactly a turkey, either. Additional cast: Ralph Bell, Lawson Zerbe, Ralph Camargo. Announcer: Art Hanna. Music: Ethel Huber. Director: Bruno Zirato, Jr. Writer: John Robert.