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Bunny Berigan (1908-1942)

Bunny BeriganThe accomplishments of Bernard "Bunny" Berigan have secured his place in the annals of American musical history. In his short lifetime, Berigan performed on more than six hundred recordings and achieved national as well as international success. He served as a direct link between Louis Armstrong and those who developed from his roots - Roy Eldridge, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown, Wynton Marsalis, and others. Berigan and his soaring trumpet catapulted the Benny Goodman band, along with the rest of the country, into the swing era and assured Goodman's coronation as the "King of Swing." Berigan's uninhibited jazz style inspired and dominated every group with which he played, including the bands of Hal Kemp, Paul Whiteman, and Tommy Dorsey. His great technical skills and instant reading ability made him a coveted studio player for such vocalists as Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Mildred Bailey, and Lee Wiley. During his remarkable career Berigan not only played with the music industry's giants, he became one as well.

Roland Bernard Berigan was born in Hilbert, Wisconsin in 1908. His father's side was originally from County Kilkenny, Ireland and his mother's family was from Germany. Berigan recognized his love for music at an early age. Introduced to the violin at age six, Berigan took up the trumpet five years later and never looked back. By age thirteen he had begun playing professionally. In 1925, a move to Madison, Wisconsin thrust the young Berigan into contact with many influential professionals and enabled him to position himself in the forefront of an elite group of emerging jazz musicians. He played with the University of Wisconsin jazz group but did not attend college there. After a European tour and some recording work he decided to move to the East Coast.

Berigan's move to New York shortly before the beginning of the Great Depression launched him on the road to success. He also met his wife, Donna McArthur and they married in Syracuse in May 1931. They eventually had two daughters, Patricia and Joyce. In addition to working as a sideman in several popular recording bands, Berigan became a principal player on the CBS radio network.

In 1937, he formed his own band and signed a recording contract with Victor. He recorded his most famous hit and theme song, I Can't Get Started, which was one of the first recordings inducted into the Hall of Fame of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. With the young tenor saxophonist George Auld and Buddy Rich on drums, Berigan had a promising new band. His drinking began to cause problems, however, and after a strong start the band stalled the following year. Considered a minor-league outfit by then despite its leaders star appeal, the orchestra was often given inferior material to record by its label and opportunities were missed. By 1939 Berigan's playing was starting to decline a bit, and his orchestra had not had a major hit in two years. The following year Berigan was forced to declare bankruptcy and the three-year old Bunny Berigan Orchestra came to an end.

Between 1936 and 1938 Bunny Berigan and his Band had thirteen charted hits. Four of them reached the top ten with "Honeysuckle Rose" reaching #4 in 1937.

Berigan went back to Tommy Dorsey's band, where he stayed six months, contributing a few solos but sliding steadily downhill. His drinking accelerated, and Dorsey was forced to let him go. Berigan made two further attempts to lead his own big bands, but both his playing and his health steadily declined. He died on June 2, 1942.

Over the course of his career, Berigan altered the voice of jazz for all time. One most wonder at the even greater impact that he would have made had he not succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver when he was only thirty-three. Twelve years of excessive consumption of alcohol, coupled with malnutrition and overwork, ended the life of one of the twentieth century's greatest trumpeters.


Bunny Berigan, Fox Lake's Own Collection from University of Wisconsin Digital Collection

Bunny Bergian Collection from the Wisconsin Music Archves

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