Roland Bernard “Bunny” Berigan was born in Hilbert, Wisconsin, on November 2, 1908, and grew up in Fox Lake. Bunny had learned enough trumpet and violin by his early teens to find work in local bands. As a student at the University of Wisconsin he played with the student jazz band and is credited on the recordings they made in May 1928. (The trumpeter on those sides, though at times rather Bixian, is most likely not Berigan.)
By 1930, Berigan was playing and recording with Hal Kemp, and from his first recorded solo with Kemp that October he is instantly recognizable. After touring Europe with the Kemp band, he arrived back in the United States to be an in-demand session musician in radio and recording studios. Fred Rich, Freddy Martin, and Ben Selvin were among the many bandleaders who hired him for record dates. He became a staff trumpeter for CBS radio in early 1931. He signed on with Paul Whiteman in late 1932 and stayed on through early 1934; the orchestra had veered from the high-quality hot arrangements it had become known for in the late 1920s, and for a jazz musician in 1933 it was at best a steady paycheck. Berigan then worked with Abe Lyman for a time before settling on more CBS radio and freelance recording work.
By 1935, he had made many now-classic recordings with the Dorsey Brothers and appeared on Glenn Miller’s first session as leader. That year he joined Benny Goodman and helped usher in the Swing Era with memorable solos on such numbers as “King Porter Stomp” and “Sometimes I’m Happy.” For the first time, his brilliant musicianship was recognized by the listening public.
Bunny Berigan was gaining real fame. Over the next several years, he made indispensable recordings of “Song of India” with Tommy Dorsey and “I Can’t Get Started” with his own band. Unfortunately, his heavy drinking throughout the 1930s had taken an irreversible toll on his health. In 1942, during a bout of pneumonia, doctors discovered advanced cirrhosis. He was advised to take a break from playing trumpet and to quit drinking; he could do neither. A few weeks later, on May 31, 1942, Bunny Berigan died at age 33.
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