Originally posted May 19, 2009
Over the course of more than two years of sharing music here, there have been some detours from the rock ’n’ roll highway. While I love rock and pop from most eras, I also love music from other genres and eras. And I’ve noticed that when I share songs from those disparate non-rock genres, the numbers of downloads drops precipitously. Folks come by here to find rock and pop, and generally the more familiar fare.
That’s fine. We like what we like.
But among my loves in music, as I’ve noted many times, is one Al Hirt, a New Orleans-born trumpet player who died in 1999 at the age of seventy-six. His music was what I listened to while I was learning to play cornet; in that sense, he was my first musical model and hero, getting in line way ahead of the Beatles and Bob Dylan and all the other musicians who came along to entertain and inspire me later.
The first of Al Hirt’s music I heard was almost certainly “Java,” a sprightly tune from his Honey In The Horn album; the album came out in 1963, and in 1964, “Java” went to No. 4, providing Hirt with his only Top Ten hit. (“Cotton Candy” went to No. 15 and “Sugar Lips” went to No. 30 later that year.) It was in 1964, as I’ve noted before, that I got my horn; I took lessons that summer between fifth and sixth grades and continued to play the horn through high school. And as I heard “Java” on the radio – all three of his hits got some play on Top Forty stations and plenty of play on the St. Cloud stations, which at that time did not play any rock – I wanted two things: I wanted the LP, and I wanted to play my horn that well.
I got the album for my birthday that September, and continued to think that “Java,” the second track on Side One, was fun. But the revelation was the first track on the record: “I Can’t Get Started.” I loved the sliding saxophones, the chorus (seeming corny now but so much a part of its time), the shifts in tempo, and above all, Al Hirt’s horn: weaving and darting in and around the arrangement, taking a breather or two and finally 2:08 into the song, taking off and flying, then leaving me hanging in mid-air.
The first time I heard Hirt’s take on “I Can’t Get Started,” I stared at the stereo as I sat on the floor in the living room. When the song ended, I lifted the needle and played it again. And again. I’d never heard anything like it.
What I didn’t know, of course, is that “I Can’t Get Started” is one of the great standards of American song. Written by Vernon Duke, with words by Ira Gershwin, it was first heard – says Wikipedia – in the theatrical production Ziegfield Follies of 1936. Since then, there have been numerous versions recorded; All-Music Guide lists 1,778 CDs with versions of “I Can’t Get Started.” The artists who’ve recorded the song include (and this is by necessity a brief and inadequate selection): Cannonball Adderly, Larry Adler, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Judy Collins, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Maynard Ferguson, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Merle Haggard, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Quincy Jones, Rickie Lee Jones, Gene Krupa, Enoch Light, Wynton Marsalis, Rod McKuen, Peter Nero, Anita O’Day, Charlie Parker, Django Reinhardt, Buddy Rich, Doc Severinsen, Cybill Shepherd, Mel Tormé, Joe Utterback, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Lester Young and Dave Zoller. (No one whose last name begins with “Q” or “X” was listed.)
Some of those, I’d like to hear. Others, well, maybe not. The thought of the Cybill Shepherd version, frankly, scares me.
The one name I did not list there is the man whose version was listed most: Bunny Berigan. A trumpeter and vocalist at the time that Big Band music was separating itself from other forms of jazz, Berigan recorded the song in 1937 for Victor Records (a predecessor of RCA Victor). I learned a little about that – but just a little – by reading the notes on the back of Hirt’s Honey In The Horn.
“On one (recording) date,” writes Anne L. Freels, “Al was scheduled to do ‘I Can’t Get Started,’ a perennial that most knowledgeable musicians feel should be left alone after Bunny Berigan’s incomparable rendition. Especially wary was Louis Nunley, a member of the vocal chorus and a good trumpeter himself. When behemoth Hirt finished with that fine song, however, Nunley sat down and said ‘I’ll never pick up my horn again.’”
I’ll note three things about the anecdote: First: Plenty of musicians had recorded “I Can’t Get Started” at the time Freels was writing, so her comment that the song “should be left alone” is publicist’s overstatement. But over the years, I have read many times that Berigan’s version is considered the standard, and horn players do risk a comparison when they record it.
Second, I doubt that Nunley was serious about leaving his horn sit unplayed. I’m sure that if he actually made that statement about not playing again, it was hyperbole, uttered in amazement at a great performance.
Third: Even if the anecdote was overstated, it underlined to me at the age of eleven that someone besides me thought that Hirt’s version of “I Can’t Get Started” was special.
But I’ll let you judge for yourselves. Here are Bunny Berigan’s version from 1937 and Al Hirt’s version from 1963.
“I Can’t Get Started” by Bunny Berigan, Victor 37539 
“I Can’t Get Started” by Al Hirt from Honey In The Horn