Bunny Berigan enjoyed a relatively brief period of fame, lasting from 1931 through 1939 — for the first half of those eight years a rapidly rising name within the music business, and for the second as a star before the public, featured in the bands he played in and leading his own outfit. And from 1935 through 1939, he was regarded as the top trumpeter in jazz (with his main competition being Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge). Yet despite the brevity of his career and his all-too-short life, he remains one of the most compelling trumpet players in the history of the music, and in the 21st century, six decades after his death, his work was still being compiled in premium-priced box sets that had an audience. It’s all in the sheer quality of his work — blessed with a beautiful tone and a wide range (Berigan’s low notes could be as memorable as his upper-register shouts), Berigan brought excitement to every session he appeared on. He was not afraid to take chances during his solos and could be a bit reckless, but Berigan’s successes and occasional failures were always colorful to hear, at least until he drank it all away.
He was born Roland Bernard Berigan in Hilbert, WI, in 1908, and he was a natural musician as a boy. He took to the trumpet early, and at age 12 he was playing in a youth band organized and led by his grandfather. In his teens he branched out, passing through various local bands and college orchestras, and in 1928, at 19, he auditioned for Hal Kemp and he was rejected at the time, amazingly enough because of his thin tone; but by 1930 he was part of Kemp’s band for their European tour, and also got to lay down the first recorded solos of his career with Kemp. Following his return to the United States that fall, Berigan joined Fred Rich’s CBS studio band, which was one of the busiest such “house bands” in the burgeoning field of radio, and included such players as Artie Shaw in its ranks. And when he wasn’t playing under the auspices of CBS, he was working freelance sessions for a multitude of artists out of various studios in New York City, and also playing the pit orchestras on Broadway. One such engagement, cited by Richard M. Sudhalter, had Berigan working alongside the Dorsey brothers and Jack Teagarden for the musical Everybody’s Welcome, a mere footnote in the history of the Great White Way (notable only as the stage piece that introduced the Herman Hupfeld song “As Time Goes By,” which was subsequently rescued by Warner Bros. and revived in Casablanca). He played dozens upon dozens of sessions, growing as a musician and his reputation keeping pace — and found time to marry and have two daughters in the midst of it all — accompanying numerous pop performers and vocalists, distinguishing many of the resulting records with his solos. Fred Rich’s orchestra was his primary home through 1935, apart from a hiatus in late 1932 and early 1933 in which he sat with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, and a short stint with Abe Lyman in 1934.
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