Thursday, May 31, 2012

Forgotten Music Thursday: Bunny Berigan - I Can't Get Started (1937)

It isn’t often (actually, maybe never) that Bloggerhythms’ Wayback Machine has taken us on a ride to the days of the 78 RPM record and to pre-World War Two America but as a casual fan of the old big bands now is the time to stop, get off, and visit with Rowland Bernard Berigan, a jazz trumpet virtuoso of the late 1930S. Berigan's nickname was "Bunny" and he was mostly known for one outstanding song, "I Can't Get Started," written by Ira Gershwin and Vernon Duke, a composition that he turned into a hit record in 1937.

The lyrics to "I Can't Get Started" are definitely dated. They reference the Spanish Civil War, FDR, and Greta Garbo but its story still resonates today. It's about a man who lists all of his many nearly impossible accomplishments yet has failed at the one thing he wants most: winning the girl of his dreams. (The great Temptations' hit of the late 60s, "I Can't Get Next To You," has a very similar subject). Berigan was just an adequate singer but his vocals were good enough to get the job done on the song that became his band's theme. However, the highlight of the record is Berigan's trumpet playing. His loud, full-bodied tone resonates with the listener and his solo that closes out this classic jazz ballad is outstanding. If only we could hear Berigan play in a modern day setting with digital technology that would really bring out his best qualities!

The song has appeared in movies (Save the Tiger and Chinatown) and has been covered many, many times, but none of the later versions possessed the staying power of the bandleader's original.

While Berigan led his own outfit for about three years in the late 30s it was never really successful, especially when compared to the giants of the era. The trumpeter also served as a sideman for both Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman and he played on Glenn Miller's first ever band recording. Louie Armstrong was a fan too.

Sadly, Berigan was an incurable alcoholic and he succumbed to liver disease in 1942 at the age of 33. The pressures of running his own band only made his addiction worse. Unfortunately, he never became as famous as most of his contemporaries because he left us so young and, while he was far more than a one hit wonder, most people who are familiar with him only know this one classic trumpet tune that you can listen to here.

2 comments:

  1. You know, I've never thought of Berigan as all that obscure, but I came upon swing-era jazz pretty much in a sudden lump, having explored backward from 1950s and '60s Basie Orchestra albums and sideways from a fondness for the jazz-flavored pop of Glenn Miller...

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  2. My dad had this on a well-worn LP, and I heard it many times growing up. Vernon Duke's melody is beautiful: not easy to sing because of its wide range and chromatic passages in the bridge, but definitely worth the effort. Thank you for this well-researched reminder of a lovely song and an iconic performance!

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