The first recording of “Bugle Call Rag” was by the New Orleans Rhythm Kings in 1922, although the CD lists the title as “Bugle Call Blues.” According to Chris Tyle, the historian for our site, “The original 78 rpm issue showed the title as ‘Bugle Call Blues,’ but the tune was copyrighted and known subsequently as ‘Bugle Call Rag.’ The published sheet music is as the latter. It could have been a mistake by the Gennett recording company when releasing the 78.”
The song, by Jack Pettis, Bill Meyers, and Elmer Schoebel, was recorded by Henry “Red” Allen in 1932 and later popularized in swing era renditions by the orchestras of Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. The Miller arrangement was reprised by the DMP Big Band in 1996.
In Swing, Swing, Swing: The Life and Times of Benny Goodman, author Ross Firestone describes “Bugle Call Rag,” arranged by Deane Kinkaide, as “short, stabbing riffs, interspersed with solos, played at an extremely fast tempo calculated to show off the band’s slick ensemble work and generate immediate excitement.”
The lyric praises the infectious nature of the music and its irresistible call to dance. The song appeared in several films including 1942’s Orchestra Wives featuring the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Goodman’s version is heard in Stage Door Canteen (1943), The Benny Goodman Story (1955), Swing Kids (1993), and the 2004 movie The Aviator.
“Bugle Call Rag” inspired many “spin-offs.” In The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945, Gunther Schuller says of the Duke Ellington band, “One of the happiest and most exuberant of the 1938-1939 recordings is ‘The Sergeant Was Shy,’ another reworking of the old ‘Bugle Call Rag.’” The Krupa band played the Ellington tune, and Billy May scored it for the Charlie Barnet band in 1940. In 1965 violinist Stuff Smith in Live in Paris recorded a lively reworking of the tune which he called “Bugle Call Blues.”
The song is still played by Dixieland bands and was recorded by the Jim Cullum Jazz Band in 2006. Ray Charles recorded it in 1963, guitarist Les Paul included it in his History of the Guitar, and saxophonist Ken Peplowski featured it on his 1999 release Last Swing of the Century. Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson covered it in 1957, and the Buddy Rich Big Band in 1967, but most of the recordings date back to the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s such as those by guitarist Django Reinhardt, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and vocalist Nat Cole.