"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, 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. Probably the two most popular vintage recorded versions were by Bunny Berigan and Billie Holiday.
"I Can't Get Started" is the plaintive song of a woman who has achieved and won everything she could hope for, except the attention of the man she desires. It is most exceptional in that 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.
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, changing to a minor key with long held notes, borders on despondency. This song deserves on its merits to be the success which it eventually, slowly, became.
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. Berigan's recording on trumpet is a virtuoso work that defines the range of the instrument, starting in the basement and climbing finally to the stratosphere. In addition to his range, Berigan displays here a mastery of expression, of emotional nuance, beyond what most trumpet players can only dream of: he takes the song all the way from despondence to victory.
The recording was an immediate hit and reached 10th place on the lists. 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 quickly, so did Nat Cole, and before long Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and a host of other vocalists did likewise. It is also a favourite 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.
Billie's accompanied by Buck Clayton (t); Lester Young (ts); Margaret "Queenie" Johnson (p); Freddy Green (g); Walter Page (sb); and Joe Jones (d). Recorded in New York, September 15, 1938. (Vocalion Records)
I've been around the world in a plane
Settled revolutions in Spain
The North Pole I have charted
But can't get started with you
And at the golf course I'm under par
Metro-Goldwyn wants me to star
I've got a house and a show-place
But can't get no place with you
You're so supreme
Lyrics I write of you
Dream, dream day and night of you
Scheme, just for a sight of you
Baby but what good does it do?
I've been consulted by Franklin D.
Robert Taylor has had me to tea
But now I'm brokenhearted
Can't get started with you
When first we met how you elated me
Pet, you devastated me
Yet, now you've deflated me
'Till, you're my Waterloo
When J.P. Morgan bows I just nod
Green Pastures wanted me to play God
The Siamese Twins I've parted
Can't get started with you