I Can't Get Started

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"I Can't Get Started" (also known as "I Can't Get Started with You" or "I Can't Get Started (with You)") is a popular song, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and music by Vernon Duke (1936), that was first heard in the theatrical production Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 where it was sung by Bob Hope.

Hal Kemp and his Orchestra recorded it at that time and it had a bit of popularity, rising briefly to 14th place on the recording charts.[1] Probably the three most popular vintage recorded versions are those of Bunny Berigan, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra.

Music and lyrics[edit]

"I Can't Get Started" is the plaintive song of a man who has achieved and won everything he could hope for, except the attention of the woman he desires. The rarely heard verse explains the situation ("I'm a glum one, it's explainable, I met someone unattainable, Life's a bore, the world is my oyster no more. All the papers where I led the news, With my capers, soon will spread the news: 'Superman turns out to be flash in the pan.'") Gershwin’s lyrics ("I've flown around the world in a plane ... Settled revolutions in Spain ... Been consulted by Franklin D ... Greta Garbo has asked me to tea") are so topical and totally dated to the headlines of the 1930s that they break the mold for ballads. Yet they have such a clever, endearing charm that only a brave singer will dare to replace them (Sinatra dared with "...designed the latest IBM brain..."). The melody, true to the theme of the lyrics, starts out at a low pitch and rarely goes very far up. A moving melody line carries the descriptive lines of text, however, until it comes to the bridge, where the text turns more emotional. There the song borders on despondency.


Bunny Berigan[edit]

After its initial splash and disappearance, "I Can't Get Started" took on a new life when Bunny Berigan, the star trumpeter with Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey, started a band of his own in 1937 and chose it as his theme song. The basic outlines for Berigan's classic performance of "I Can't Get Started" had been put together him in early 1936 when he first began to perform it at a small jazz club in New York City.[2] He made a recording for Vocalion Records on April 13, 1936[3] but gradually he made subtle changes in the arrangement. After forming his own band, he decided to record "I Can't Get Started" again. This time it was for Victor Records.[4]

In New York, on the day of the recording, August 7, 1937, Berigan was late, leading several band members to find him drunk in a bar on 147th Avenue. Taking him to Victor Studios, Berigan was so intoxicated his band members had to hold him up so he could sing and play trumpet. By the end of the song, as Berigan hit high E and finished, the band remained quiet; Astonished by Bergian's technical skill in spite of his drunken stupor, several members of his orchestra paid for cuts of the record to keep for themselves. (I think this anecdote is apocryphal. In the research I did prior to writing the biography of Bunny Berigan, "Mr. Trumpet ...The Trials, Tribulations and Triumph of Bunny Berigan," I was able to obtain statements from many of Berigan's sidemen from the years he was a bandleader (1937-1942), and they were unanimous in stating that although Berigan was an alcoholic, he was a very high-functioning alcoholic. And although he did drink, alcohol almost never affected his behavior or playing. Finally, Berigan was most conscientious about keeping his professional commitments. Michael P. Zirpolo.)

The late jazz trumpeter Richard M. Sudhalter, noted the changes that had been made since the Vocalion recording. "An introduction—an extended cadenza over four different sustained chords in the key of C—had been added by this time, but otherwise Berigan's routine had not changed since the Vocalion recording. But whereas the Vocalion comes across as a virtuoso performance of a great song, the Victor version presents itself as a kind of concerto, a tour de force for a trumpeter of imagination and daring having impeccable command of his instrument."[5]

The Berigan band's recordings of "I Can't Get Started" and "The Prisoner's Song" were issued together on the twelve-inch Victor record 36208, and were a part of an album of four such records entitled A Symposium of Swing.[6] An edited version was created by Victor on December 4, 1937 and issued as 25728A[7] to enable it to fit on a ten-inch 78rpm disc for use on jukeboxes.

Berigan's recording on trumpet is a virtuoso work that defines the range of the instrument. Berigan displays here a mastery of expression, of emotional nuance, beyond what most trumpet players can perform.[verification needed]

The recording was an immediate hit and reached 10th place on the charts.[8] His band, unfortunately, was short-lived, and he himself died in 1942 at age 33. In 1975, thirty three years after his death, Berigan's 1937 recording of "I Can't Get Started" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The recording was also used in the films Save the Tiger, Chinatown, and The Big Shave.

Berigan's recording and the song itself, however, have continued to be prized by lovers of jazz. Billie Holiday recorded it on September 15, 1938,[9] so did Nat Cole, and before long Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and a host of other vocalists did likewise. It is also a favorite of trumpet players who are willing to risk comparison with Berigan. A few, like Dizzy Gillespie and Maynard Ferguson have done notably well, and jazz recordings on tenor sax by Lester Young and Stan Getz are admired.

Other notable recordings[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

In the screenplay for Groundhog Day the song is heard as Phil mounts (initially unsuccessfully) his campaign to win Rita's heart.

Also in the film, Avengers: Age of Ultron, an instrumental version of the song by the BBC Big Band can be heard during the party scene.

The original Bunny Berigan recording of the song can be heard in the queue and other common areas both inside and outside the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror attraction at Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.

The song has also been used in Martin Scorsese's first short film, The Big Shave.

This was used in the Season 2 episode "I Can't Get Started" of Gilmore Girls.


  1. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954. Wisconsin, USA: Record Research Inc. p. 253. ISBN 0-89820-083-0. 
  2. ^ "swingandbeyond.com". swingandbeyond.com. Retrieved June 3, 2017. 
  3. ^ "THE ONLINE DISCOGRAPHICAL PROJECT". 78discography.com. Retrieved June 3, 2017. 
  4. ^ "THE ONLINE DISCOGRAPHICAL PROJECT". 78discography.com. Retrieved June 3, 2017. 
  5. ^ Sudhalter, Richard M. (1982). Giants of Jazz - Bunny Berigan. Time-Life Records. p. 43. 
  6. ^ "45worlds.com". 45worlds.com. Retrieved June 3, 2017. 
  7. ^ "THE ONLINE DISCOGRAPHICAL PROJECT". 78discography.com. Retrieved June 3, 2017. 
  8. ^ Whitburn, Joel (1986). Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954. Wisconsin: Record Research. p. 52. ISBN 0-89820-083-0. 
  9. ^ "Billie Holiday Discography". jazzdisco.org. Retrieved June 2, 2017. 

See also[edit]

External links[edit]