He was a musical child prodigy admired by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Harry James. His talent on the trumpet helped propel bandleaders like Benny Goodman to fame. But his love of liquor ultimately paved the way to a tragic ending for this electrifying musician of the 1930’s.
Bunny Berigan was a handsome musician and band leader adored by the dancing public and his fellow musicians. Born in Wisconsin in 1908, Bunny soon discovered he had a flair for music. He mastered the violin and later the trumpet by the age of 14, and began playing professionally in local clubs by his mid-teens. Later, he would attend the University of Wisconsin where he taught trumpet and played in dance bands after school. Discovered by Hal Kemp, he joined the successful Kemp orchestra in 1930.
Over his short professional life span, Berigan recorded more than 600 tunes, leaving behind a vast body of evidence to both his talent and driving musical energy. His first recorded trumpet solos were made with the Kemp organization, and his popularity began to spread internationally as he toured Europe in late 1930 with Hal Kemp. Soon after the Kemp the band returned to the United States, Berigan’s talent on the trumpet made him a much sought-after studio musician. Working as a freelancer in New York, Bunny recorded with both Freddy Martin and Ben Selvin’s bands, and later joined the staff of the CBS radio orchestra. By 1932, Berigan was hired away from CBS to become a key member of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra before joining Abe Lyman’s band in 1934.
Berigan’s reputation as a charming, well-loved musician with a charismatic stage personality grew. Unfortunately, so too did his reputation as a drinker. It would eventually lead to his downfall as a band leader and ultimately take his life.
During the 1930’s, Bunny appeared as featured soloist on hundreds of commercial recordings with bands fronted by Rudy Vallee, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller. His solo on the Dorsey hit recording “Marie” was considered one of his signature performances. By 1935, Berigan would forge a musical association that would cement his reputation as a star in his own right: he joined Benny Goodman’s band. Hiring Berigan and rehiring Gene Krupa (with whom Goodman had an earlier falling out), the Goodman band embarked on a nationwide tour that ended with headline-making performances at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles. It was this particular group of musicians that is often credited with the official “launch” of the Swing era. While with Benny Goodman, Berigan recorded a number of classic solos, including “King Porter Stomp”, “Sometimes I’m Happy”, and “Blue Skies”. Goodman once described Bunny’s solos as “a bolt of electricity running through the whole band . . . he just lifted the whole thing.”
In 1937, Berigan decided to branch out on his own as a band leader and assembled a group to record and tour under his name, picking the then-little known tune “I Can’t Get Started” as his theme song. Bunny’s trumpet work and vocal styling made his recorded performance of it for Victor the biggest hit of his career. So influential was this recording that in 1975 “I Can’t Get Started” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Berigan was regularly featured on CBS Radio’s Saturday Night Swing Club broadcasts, a network radio show that helped further popularize Bunny’s trumpet style jazz as the swing era reached its apex.
Unfortunately as the decade drew to a close, a series of financial misfortunes as well as Berigan’s alcoholism worked against his success as a bandleader. It was also at this time that Bunny began a torrid affair with singer Lee Wiley, which lasted into 1940. The various stresses of band leading drove Berigan to drink even more heavily.
Berigan’s financial woes drove him to bankruptcy in 1939, and shortly after he rejoined the Tommy Dorsey band as a featured jazz soloist. By September 1940, Berigan briefly led a new touring band again under his own name, which became moderately successful even as the outbreak of World War Two put financial and personnel pressure on the big bands. The stress drove Bunny deeper into the bottle. It was in early 1942 as his band was on the comeback trail that his health suddenly declined alarmingly. On April 20, 1942, while on tour, Berigan was hospitalized with pneumonia. His doctors later gave Berigan worse news: his drinking had caused cirrhosis which had severely damaged his liver. He was advised to stop drinking and stop playing the trumpet immediately. But Berigan wouldn’t do either. He returned to his band on tour, and played for a few more weeks before he returned to New York City where he suffered a massive hemorrhage on May 31, 1942. He died two days later at the age of just 33.
Bunny Berigan was a jazz trumpeter and bandleader whose immense talent lead him to fame, but whose career and influence were cut all too short by a losing battle with alcoholism.
After Berigan’s death, his band was kept intact under his name and his widow, Donna Berigan, maintained his financial interest in it. Tenor sax player Vido Musso became the leader until the orchestra’s disbanding in the early 1950’s.
Bunny Berigan was inducted in the ASCAP Jazz Wall of Fame in 2008. His music is featured on Swing Street Radio.