According to the lyrics, a renowned trumpet player from Chicago, Illinois is drafted into the U.S. Army but is reduced to blowing the wake-up call (reveille). Restrained from playing boogie-woogie, he is depressed until the captain empathizes and drafts other musicians. The bugler now plays reveille in his own style, with a positive effect on the rest of the company.
Abbott and Costello's first starring film for Universal pictures, Buck Privates, was designed to capitalize on the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940. The studio added the Andrews Sisters, who were also under contract, for musical relief, and hired Don Raye and Hughie Prince to compose songs for the film. (The sisters also performed songs written by others in the film.) Raye and Prince had previously composed the hits "Rhumboogie" and "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar" for the trio. The songwriters turned in "You're a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith", "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy", and "Bounce Me Brother, With a Solid Four", while also composing a novelty tune, "When Private Brown Becomes a Captain", for Lou Costello.
"Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" closely follows the template of "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar", which is about a famous syncopated piano player. However, in its earliest stages, "Boogie Woogie Bugler" (as it was then known) was originally conceived for Lou Costello, but reworked for the Andrews Sisters, while a separate song was composed for the comedian.
People who claim to have inspired the song
Articles published in Stars & Stripes on 19 March 1943, as well as Billboard Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor during World War II claimed that Clarence Zylman of Muskegon, Michigan, was the original Boogie Woogie Bugler. Lyrics in the song agree with several aspects of Zylman's life. Drafted at age 35, Clarence had been performing for 20 years, beginning with radio station WBBM in Chicago and then with several big bands, starting with Paul Specht and Connie Connaughton, and most recently with the Tommy Tucker Orchestra. He brought his playing style to England where he was a bugler for an engineer company, playing Taps and Reveille. He eventually was transferred to an army band. Articles in Billboard and The Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio) support this, and go on to claim that Clarence was sent to teach other buglers his techniques. However, Clarence Zylman did not enlist in the Army until June 9, 1942, well after "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" was written and recorded. Nonetheless, a sculpture of Zylman as the Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy has been dedicated in his hometown of Muskegon, Michigan, at the LST-393 Veterans Museum. The sculpture was created by artist Ari Norris.
A more likely claimant to the title—though he seldom mentioned it—was Harry L. Gish, Jr. (1922–2005), who recorded with songwriters Raye and Prince. At age 17, after a meteoric rise in the mid 1930s based out of the Ritz Hotel in Paducah, Kentucky, Gish ventured to New York City where he appeared (studio only) with the Will Bradley "All Star Orchestra" with highly regarded solos on the Raye-Prince songs "Celery Stalks at Midnight," "Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat," and "The Boogilly Woogilly Piggie." He also performed with the Olsen & Johnson (of Hellzapoppin' fame) band, Ray Anthony and was popular in the Plattsburgh, New York (Lake Placid) area before returning to Decca Records in Chicago. He also had a "summer replacement" radio show there for CBS from WBBM radio.
In the 1980s and 1990s, he honored many requests to play at services for veterans' funerals, and in 1995, in the character of The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy (still able to fit in his World War II uniform: he enlisted in the Army Air Corps) he opened the combined service units (American Legion, VFW and others) celebration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he opened with "Reveille" and closed the ceremony with "Taps."
Bette Midler included the song on her 1972 The Divine Miss M album, and released it as the B side of the album's second single, "Delta Dawn." However, faced with the near-simultaneous release of Helen Reddy's version of the same song, the single was quickly flipped, with "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" becoming the new A side. Midler's version peaked at number eight on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in mid-1973, introducing it to a new generation of pop music fans. The single was produced by Barry Manilow. The track was also a number-one single on the Billboardeasy listening chart.
The Miami-based girl group Company B took their name from the song. They recorded their own version of the song in 1989.
In the Sesame Street song "Dance Myself to Sleep", Ernie has Rubber Duckie play the bugle and calls him "The Boogie Woogie Bugle Duck of Sesame Street."
On an episode of A Different World, Whitley, Kim, and Jaleesa dress up in military attire and sing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" to pay homage to their friend Zelmer (played by Blair Underwood), who is about to depart for war in the Persian Gulf.
One championship winning clip featured on ABC's America's Funniest Home Videos was entitled "Boogie Woogie Booger Boy" which is a take off on the song's name.
An animatronic toy created by Gemmy Industries called the "Sing & Swing Bear" sung this song and danced to it.
In May 2015, the movie Pitch Perfect 2 used it as reference to returning to basics and to help the "Barden Bellas" rediscover their original sound.
In episode 14 of the first season of Starz's Outlander, Claire suggests to Murtaugh that they add a song to liven up the dance Murtaugh is performing along the road to attract Jamie's attention. The song she sings is "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," but since it is 1743, Murtaugh has obviously never heard the song. He likes the tune, however, and Claire ends up performing a traditional bawdy Scots song "The Reels o' Bogie" to the tune of "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy."