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I Can't Get Started (with You) (1935)

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Origin and Chart Information
In 1974, Bunny Berigan’s 1937 recording of ‘I Can’t Get Started’ was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.”

- Chris Tyle

Rank 5
Music Vernon Duke
Lyrics Ira Gershwin

“I Can’t Get Started” was introduced by Bob Hope, who sang it to Eve Arden in Ziegfeld Follies of 1936. Opening on January 30, 1936, at the Winter Garden Theatre, the Broadway revue ran for 115 performances.


More on Bob Hope at JazzBiographies.com

Less than a month later, Hal Kemp and His Orchestra, with vocalist Skinnay Ennis, saw their hit recording of “I Can’t Get Started” rise to 14th place on the recording charts. In 1938, Bunny Berigan and His Orchestra’s 1937 rendition rose to tenth place (Bunny Berigan, vocal.)


Chart information used by permission from
Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954

Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 was remarkable in several ways: It was Fanny Brice’s last appearance in a Broadway show; it was George Balanchine’s Broadway debut as a choreographer; and, despite the name, Florenz Ziegfeld had been dead for over three years. Credit for production of the show was given to Billie Burke, but it was actually a Lee and J.J. Schubert production. The Schubert Brothers had purchased the rights to Ziegfeld’s name and had also used it to produce the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934.

It is quite surprising to find Bob Hope introducing a standard. In a New York Times article, theater and film critic Vincent Canby said, “It was, however, sung for laughs, with (Eve) Arden making caustic comments about Mr. Hope’s passion.” Bob Hope may not have been as gifted a singer as partner Bing Crosby, but he managed to see three of his songs make the recording charts:

In addition to Bob Hope, Fanny Brice, and Eve Arden, the original cast included Gertrude Niesen, Josephine Baker, Hugh O’Connell, Harriet Hector, and Judy Canova.

Other songs in Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 were “Time Marches On,” “He Hasn’t a Thing Except Me,” “My Red-Letter Day,” “Island in the West Indies,” “Words Without Music,” “Economic Situation,” “Fancy, Fancy,” “Maharanee,” “Gazooka,” “That Moment of Moments,” “Sentimental Weather,” “5 A.M.,” and “Modernistic Moe.”


More on Ira Gershwin at JazzBiographies.com

Gershwin’s lyrics are an example of a list song. (Other list songs include “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” and “Let’s Do It.”) Describing frustration and defeat, the words itemize a series of grand accomplishments, which apparently have little effect on their object of affection.

Composer Vernon Duke originally had his sights set on a career in classical music. In the book The Song Is Ended: Songwriters and American Music, 1900-1950, William G. Hyland writes, “In order to make a living, Dukelsky was forced to adopt an alter ego, Vernon Duke (a name given to him by the Gershwins).”


More on Vernon Duke at JazzBiographies.com

More information on this tune...

George T. Simon
Big Bands Songbook
Barnes & Noble

(This book contains four pages on the song including the sheet music, a history of the song, and information on musicians who have performed it.)
See the Reading and Research panel below for more references.

- Jeremy Wilson

Music and Lyrics Analysis

In “I Can’t Get Started,” Duke’s A-A-B-A construction has a repeating bass line, called bass ostinato or an ostinato bass line. The repetition can be appealing to jazz musicians, acting as a constant support, or underpinning, from which melodic and harmonic improvisations can spring. -JW

Musical analysis of “I Can’t Get Started (with You)”

Original Key Bb major
Form A1 – A2 – B – A3
Tonality Primarily major
Movement Generally arpeggiated upwards with some stepwise motion. Sustained pitches in the “B” section.

Comments     (assumed background)

A soaring melody with a range of an octave and a fourth, this song is more attractive to instrumentalists than vocalists. Initial harmonic progression is I - vi – ii7 – V7, but it takes an odd detour in mm 3–4.The V7 resolves to III7, which in turn leads to vi, but then goes to a minor chord a whole step higher, the root of which is the melody note at this point. This chord (Am7 in the key of Bb) seems inappropriate, especially in that the restatement of the initial melody is completely incompatible. Is it possible that a common-tone diminished or a V7 might have been there at some point? In any case, the three-note, upward arpeggio based on the tonic chord comes in right on beat three, and there is virtually no chord other than the tonic that will fit gracefully here. One solution might be for the rhythm section to simply lay out at this point. The “B” section uses a “Laura”–type chord progression, starting on the iii (Dm7-G7-C-Cm7-F7-Bb), after which there is a I-vi-II7-V7 turnaround back into the final “A”.
K. J. McElrath - Musicologist for JazzStandards.com

Check out K. J. McElrath’s book of Jazz Standards Guide Tone Lines at his web site (www.bardicle.com).
Musicians' Comments

Vernon Duke’s classic ballad, “I Can’t Get Started,” combines a typical diatonic turnaround with a chromatic phrase, and that juxtaposition creates an unusual harmonic landscape for the soloist to negotiate.

John Stowell, jazz guitarist

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Soundtrack information
“I Can't Get Started (with You)” was included in these films:
  • Save the Tiger (1973)
  • Chinatown (1974)
  • Avalon (1990)
Reading and Research
Additional information for "I Can't Get Started (with You)" may be found in:

Philip Furia
The Poets of Tin Pan Alley: A History of America's Great Lyricists
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Paperback: 336 pages

(1 page including the following types of information: lyric analysis.)

George T. Simon
Big Bands Songbook
Barnes & Noble

(4 pages including the following types of information: history, performers and sheet music.)

David Ewen
American Songwriters: An H.W. Wilson Biographical Dictionary
H. W. Wilson
Hardcover: 489 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: history and performers.)

Alec Wilder
American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950
Oxford University Press; Reprint edition
Hardcover: 576 pages

(1 page including the following types of information: music analysis.)

Thomas S. Hischak
The American Musical Theatre Song Encyclopedia
Greenwood Press
Hardcover: 568 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: anecdotal, summary and performers.)

Max Morath
The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Popular Standards
Perigee Books
Paperback: 235 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: history and performers.)

Max Wilk
They're Playing Our Song: Conversations With America's Classic Songwriters
Da Capo Press; 1st Da Capo Press ed edition
Paperback: 296 pages

(1 paragraph including the following types of information: anecdotal. (Page 198).)

Robert Gottlieb, Robert Kimball
Reading Lyrics
Hardcover: 736 pages

(Includes the following types of information: song lyrics.)
Also on This Page...

Music & Lyrics Analysis
Musician's Comments
Reading & Research

Jazz History Notes
Getting Started
CD Recommendations
Listen and Compare
By the Same Writers...

Jazz History Notes

According to Alec Wilder’s book, American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900-1950, trumpeter and bandleader Bunny Berigan’s recording of “I Can’t Get Started” was instrumental in making the song a standard. In fact, it became Berigan’s theme song, and in 1974, his 1937 recording was inducted into the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (Grammy) Hall of Fame.

“I Can’t Get Started” has been a favorite for trumpet players ever since Berigan’s recording in 1937. In Mark C. Gridley’s Jazz Styles: History and Analysis, the author comments that Dizzy Gillespie could “...make the trumpet tone brittle and then crack it resoundingly in a burst of high notes.” Gillespie could “...channel all his terrific energy into a ballad, using his exceptional skill with harmony and his fertile imagination to mold a unique, personal creation.” As an example of a “masterpiece of this kind” Gridley cites Gillespie’s 1945 “I Can’t Get Started,” which may be found on Ken Burns JAZZ Collection: Dizzy Gillespie. -JW

An extremely sensitive person, tenor saxophonist Lester Young recorded in July, 1942, what could be described as a musical eulogy to the man to whom this song was indelibly linked--Bunny Berigan--who had died just a few weeks before. Along with Nat “King” Cole on piano and “Red” Callendar on bass, Young’s version was a departure from previous recordings of the tune (he had been on Billie Holiday’s version from 1938). Lester’s inventive interpretation reflects his gentle, other-worldly nature, the side of his work that would influence the ballad playing of later musicians like Stan Getz and Zoot Sims. Sandwiched between Lester’s solos is a harmonically forward-thinking piano solo by Cole, who was just beginning to make a name for himself with his trio.

Chris Tyle - Jazz Musician and Historian

Dizzy Gillespie
The Complete RCA Victor Recordings 1937-1949
RCA 66528

Nat "King"' Cole
Complete Recordings With Lester Young
Definite CD (no number

Getting Started
This section suggests definitive or otherwise significant recordings that will help jazz students get acquainted with “I Can't Get Started (with You).” These recordings have been selected from the Jazz History and CD Recommendations sections.

Billie Holiday’s classic performance with Lester Young on saxophone (The Billie Holiday Collection) is a terrific introduction to this tune. The most famous versions, meanwhile, come from two great trumpet players. Bunny Berigan’s most enduring recorded work was his moving rendition of “I Can’t Get Started” (1937-1939) while Dizzy Gillespie’s version from 1945 (The Complete RCA Victor Recordings: 1937-1949) played a huge part in announcing his arrival as a major voice in jazz.

Noah Baerman - Jazz Pianist and Educator

CD Recommendations for This Tune
Click on any CD for more details at Amazon.com
Billie Holiday
The Collection
2004 Sony 61538
Original recording 1938
Holiday wonderfully captures the beauty of the melody and the wistful feeling of the lyric. Saxophonist Lester Young, as was so often the case, is the perfect foil for Holiday’s singing.
Bunny Berigan
1996 EPM Musique 157622
Original recording 1937
See the Jazz History Notes (above).
Lennie Tristano
2002, Melodie Jazz Classic 1184
Original recording 1946
This was one of the first recordings on which Tristano presented his asymmetrical rhythms and use of dissonance to the world. However, he never loses sight of the song and its mood.
Mary Lou Williams
Live at the Cookery
1994 Chiaroscuro 146
Original recording 1975
Williams digs into this tune, making a lush statement alongside her duet partner, bassist Brian Torff.
Sonny Rollins
Night at the Village Vanguard
Blue Note Records
Original Recording 1957
Rollins presents a warm-toned, lyrical take on this song which manages to sound full and lush in spite of the absence of a chord-playing instrument in his trio.

- Noah Baerman

The Jim Hall Trio
1992, Concord 4161
Original recording, 1981
With bassist Don Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke the virtuoso guitarist makes an intensely romantic statement on “I Can’t Get Started.”’ The CD also includes a killer arrangement of “(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings.”’

- Sandra Burlingame

Artie Shaw
The Last Recordings: Rare and Unreleased
1991, Music Masters Jazz 65071
Original recording, 1954
This 2-CD set of standards is a treasure for Shaw fans. On “I Can’t Get Started”’ the clarinetist is heard with Hank Jones (piano), Tommy Potter (bass), Joe Roland (vibes) and Irv Kruger (drums).

- Ben Maycock

Carmen McRae
Here to Stay
Original recording 1955
Carmen’s voice and articulation are superb. Her accompanists on this song are Dick Katz, piano; Mundell Lowe, guitar; Wendell Marshall, bass; and Kenny Clarke, drums. Elsewhere on the CD she performs with Ernie Wilkins’ orchestra, and with the Mat Matthews Quintet.
Chet Baker
Chet Baker: Young Chet
Blue Note Records 36194
Original recording, 1956, Pacific Jazz
As always, Chet’s lyricism carries the day. Bobby Timmons’ delicate piano is an understated buoyancy. Other personnel include Jimmy Bond (bass) and Peter Littman (drums).
Paul Bley
Introducing Paul Bley
1991, Orig. Jazz Classics 201
Original recording, 1953
Pianist Bley filters the standards through his own creative spirit, but on this CD he adheres closely to the mainstream jazz idiom. For those wanting to become familiar with Bley’s piano mastery, this CD is a good start.

- Jon Luthro

Written by the Same Composer(s)...
This section shows the jazz standards written by the same writing team.

Vernon Duke and Ira Gershwin

Year Rank Title
1935 5 I Can't Get Started (with You)

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