Around 1870, during the westward movement of people from Europe, a man and his wife came to America and settled down in Clarinda, Iowa. There, their son Elmer settled down with a local girl named Mattie Lou Cavender, and the young couple had two sons. Pursuing dreams of a brighter future, however, Elmer and Mattie Lou decided to leave Clarinda for Tryon, Nebraska in 1907, where they would live in a sod home1 for the next six years, and have their third son. A few years later, they left their sod home and moved to North Platte.
Even today, Nebraska's flatlands are vast and lonesome; a century ago, the country was depressingly empty. To relieve the bleak, lonely evenings, Mattie Lou would coax music out of a simple pump organ; by day her children would sing songs as they rode a wagon to school (called Happy Hollow, and started by Mattie Lou). This musical atmosphere would have a profound effect upon her second son, who would one day become one of the nation's greatest bandleaders. His name was Alton Glen Miller2, and he was born on 1 March, 1904.
His Musical Background
Glenn Miller's sojourn into the world of music began when, one day, his father brought home a mandolin. For reasons never fully explored, Miller took the mandolin and exchanged it for an old battered horn, which he worked on at every opportunity, to the dismay of his parents who worried 'if he’d ever amount to anything.'
Miller's family moved to Grant City in Missouri in 1915. Three years down the road, they family moved again, this time with infant daughter Irene, to Fort Morgan, where Miller would receive the remainder of his formal education. It was here that he is thought to have bought his first trombone, which he'd paid for using the money he saved from milking cows. (Other sources say that Miller was given his first trombone by town bandleader John Mosbarger while at Grant City in 1915, and whose band he played in after school.) At about this time, Miller became interested in football, and come the end of the sport season, was named 'the best left end in Colorado' by the Colorado High School Sports Association. Thankfully, throughout this detour, Miller's love for music had not diminished. In fact, his interest in a new genre called dance band music led Miller and his buddies to start their own band.
This interest had dire consequences upon his formal education, however. While Miller skipped town to play in a band in Laramie, Wyoming in 1921, his mother was forced to attend her son's graduation ceremonies and accept his diploma on his behalf. His principal was said to quip, 'Maybe you’re the one who should get it anyway; you probably worked harder on it than he did!' Two years later, Miller signed onto a professional contract with a Dixieland group called Senter's Sentapeeds. Opportunity then presented itself in the form of the Holly Moyer Orchestra, where Miller earned enough money to pay for his further education at the University of Colorado. Unfortunately, thanks to his habit of travelling and playing music – by then he'd secured a new job with the Tommy Watkins Orchestra – more than poring over books, he proceeded to flunk three out of five courses in one semester in 1924, and subsequently dropped out of university.
By now it was clear that Glenn Miller could go down no avenue other than music. Following his failed tertiary education, he went to Los Angeles to check out the numerous band opportunities that he'd heard about. This led to his joining the Ben Pollack Orchestra, which was famed for finding talents. Later on in 1926, he went off to join Abe Lyman's eight-piece band. During this time he roomed with a young clarinetist from Chicago who would go on to become another musical legend – Benny Goodman.
By 1928 Miller had moved on to a new job as free-lance trombonist and arranger in New York City, working with the likes of Pollack (whom he rejoined), Red Nichols and Paul Ash. It was here that he married his college sweetheart Helen Burger. By this time, Miller was starting to establish himself firmly in the musical world, having already cut 18 sides for Benny Goodman and worked for radio studio conductors Victor Young, Carl Fenton and Jacques Renard. Four years later, he set up the Smith Ballew Band, which he managed, arranged and played for.
In 1934 Glenn Miller met Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey (who were then performing, for several of their records, with a rising star named Bing Crosby), and helped them set up their first full-time Big Band. When Tommy Dorsey left in 1935 to form his own band, Miller became associated with Ray Noble and organised the Ray Noble Orchestra (based at New York's Rainbow), which featured the likes of Charlie Spivak, Peewee Erwin, Bud Freeman, Johnny Mince, George Van Eps and Delmar Kaplan. Ironically enough, Columbia Records' Goodman-biased A&R man John Hammond was said to have criticised the enterprise: 'One of the great disappointments of the winter has been the musical fizzle of the Ray Noble Orchestra, very few of [whose] arrangements... by the leader, Glenn Miller... have the slightest distinction.' Doubtless, Hammond would one day eat his words.
On 25 April, 1935, Glenn Miller, for the first time, played his first four titles under his own name for Columbia Records. The band, consisting of six horns, a rhythm section and a string quartet, recorded 'Moonlight on the Ganges' and 'A Blues Serenade'. Alas, the records sold a few hundred copies, and Miller resumed his position with Ray Noble’s orchestra.
His Record-Smashing Band
A band ought to have a sound all of its own. It ought to have a personality.
- Glenn Miller
1937 was a turning point in Glenn Miller's life. It was the year that he decided to follow his dreams and form his own band. Unfortunately, like many first attempts, this first band did not quite go down the road of success. Despite the few recordings – one for Decca and another for Brunswick – and performances in New Orleans and Dallas and one-night shows, the band ran into financial difficulties (the venture had reputedly lost Miller over $18,000), and Miller was eventually forced to break it up on New Year's Eve at the Valencia Ballroom in York, Pennsylvania.
By this time Miller was 33 years old, depressed and broke, and had no real direction in life. He returned to mope in New York City – but then decided to give the band idea another try in 1938.
Nobody, least of all Glenn Miller, could pinpoint the exact moment he decided to put emphasis on the reed section in the big band. But it was around this time that he discovered what would become his band's signature voice – focus on the entire band and not on soloists; a clarinet (in place of the trumpet) holding the melodic line, a tenor sax playing the same note, and three other saxophones providing the harmonic support. It was this wholly unique sound that would set his band apart from all the rest, and endure among his listeners3.
The second Glenn Miller Orchestra, founded in March 1938 – and which would later feature the talent of Tex Beneke, Marion Hutton, Ray Eberle, Paul Tanner, Johnny Best, Hal McIntyre, and Al Klinck – soon began smashing attendance records along the east coast. The public first heard this new swing sound, with its reed harmonies and brass accents, on 16 April at the Raymor; their first big performance was at the 'Paradise Restaurant' in New York that very year. When they returned to play at its State Fair in Syracuse, their performance broke the city's record for the largest dancing crowd; one night later in Pennsylvania the band surpassed Guy Lombardo’s all-time record at the Hershey Park ballroom. It must have been a proud moment for them when they were invited by ASCAP to perform at Carnegie Hall alongside three of the biggest band legends – led by Paul Whiteman, Fred Waring, and Miller's former roommate Benny Goodman – and an even prouder one when they created an even greater sensation than any of these giants.
In 1939, one year after its formation, the band was extended the invitation to play the summer season at the prestigious Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, NY – which led to a similarly important spring engagement at Meadowbrook, New Jersey. Frequent radio broadcasts by both these institutions led to a nationwide following of the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
By now the irresistible Glenn Miller Orchestra was in constant demand. Their 'Tuxedo Junction' (recorded on 5 February, 1940) broke records by selling 115,000 copies in the opening week alone. 'In the Mood' and 'Pennsylvania 6-5000', released under the RCA Victor Bluebird label, did almost as well. In early 1940, their band had surpassed all other bands in the Down Beat magazine's Sweet Band Poll; by fall, it was performing in 'Moonlight Serenade', a series of radio broadcasts for Chesterfield cigarettes, and scraping up even more popularity than it already had. Their hit 'A String of Pearls' aptly describes the band’s astounding sales-breaking, attendance-record success during this period: 70 Top 10 records between 1939 and 19424.
Then in 1941 the band made its breakthrough in the world of Hollywood movies when it appeared in Sun Valley Serenade5, which featured the Modernaires and the Nicholas Brothers – as well as 'Chattanooga Choo Choo'6, which would go on to sell over a million copies. A year later saw their appearance in another movie, Orchestra Wives.
And then the war came to America.
His Wartime Contribution
On 7 December, 1941, the Japanese dropped the heavy end of the hammer on Pearl Harbour, and for the first time in the World Wars, America became directly involved. Drafts for young, able-bodied men started coming in.
Because Miller was married and, at 38, too old to be drafted, he was exempt from joining the army; however, under his own initiative he decided to volunteer service to his country. He first volunteered for the Navy, but was turned down with the reply that his service was not needed. Undaunted, Miller sent the Army's Brigadier General Charles Young a persuasive letter on 12 August, 1942, stating that by joining the Army he could 'put a little more spring into the feet of our marching men and a little more joy into their hearts and to be placed in charge of a modernised army band'. He was finally accepted – something that would cost his band its $20,000 weekly income. Their last concert together was in Passaic, New Jersey on 27 September 1942, but it was such a sad occasion that the band could not bring themselves to finish playing the closing theme song, 'Moonlight Serenade'.
Miller joined the Army in the autumn of 1942, where he was immediately assigned to the Army Specialist Corps. There he badgered the higher-ranking officials that he could boost the overall morale of the enlisted men by modernising the army band. He was granted permission to do so following completion of his training promotion to the rank of Captain7, and upon transference into the Army Air Corps formed his 50-member Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band8.
The only real snag he hit during this period was when he first introduced swing music into marches. His senior officer scoffed at it, asserting that John Philip Sousa's music had been good enough for World War I. Miller replied, 'Are you still flying the same planes you flew in the last war too?'; rather than punish Miller for his insolence, the Army let him have his way.
By 28 July of the next year, his swing 'superband' was playing for cadets training at the Yale Bowl at Yale University in New Haven Connecticut (with two string bass instruments riding on two jeeps), performing for the American Air Force (AAF) radio series, I Sustain the Wings and recording 12-inch vinyl V-discs, which were distributed to troops overseas and attracted Air Corps recruits. Aside from his musical contribution, Miller also proved to be a valuable fund raiser for the Army – the two rallies he held in Chicago and St Louis in 19439 brought in $4 million.
Not content with playing for US soldiers, Miller wanted to cater to the musical needs for the troops in England as well. The Air Force did not agree; Miller went right to Eisenhower's aide Colonel Ed Kirby, who was a fan of his music, and enlisted his help. This led to the AAF giving in come May 1944, and Miller brought a group of 62 musicians to England on board the Queen Elizabeth on 22 June10.
Upon arrival in England, the band was stationed at 25 Sloane Court, nicknamed 'buzz bomb alley' after all the German V1s11 roaring overhead. Concerned for the safety of the band, Miller immediately made arrangements for them to move to new quarters in Bedford. They moved on 2 July, and not a moment too soon either, because the very next day a buzz bomb turned their old quarters into so much rubble, killing 100 people. Miller and his band would go on to record a six-show radio series at HMV's Abbey Road Studios in London at the end of October 1944, to be beamed to German troops.
At Bedford, the band performed for 13 radio shows per week in a BBC studio and were constantly shuttled to different bases (35, all told) by aeroplanes that unfortunately had unpressurised cabins, which caused a persisting bad case of ringing in the ears for Miller. In the next five and a half months, they would perform in 71 concerts, which were all broadcast over the Allied Expeditionary Forces Network, beamed at troops in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. (In fact, one general commented that Miller's band's performances were the biggest morale boosters for the enlisted men, next to letters from home). His 'Moonlight Serenade', which had been recorded under the RCA Victor Bluebird label in 1939, went on to become America's second national anthem. And even during the war, Miller continued to rack up civilian fans – it would seem that the British princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret Rose, were avid followers and almost never missed his nightly broadcasts.
Alas, most of Miller’s English performances never made it onto vinyl due to war shortages of metal. When the band moved to London to record V-discs in November, they cheated death when a V2 rocket narrowly missed the Mount Royal Hotel where they were performing.
On 15 December, 1944, Glenn Miller boarded a Noordwyn 'Norseman' C-64 aeroplane to fly to Paris, where he was scheduled to bring his band in for a Christmas concert for the Allied troops. The plane never arrived. Neither Miller nor his companions, Lt. Col. Norman Baessell and the pilot F/O John Morgan, were ever seen again.
It wasn't until Christmas Eve that Helen Miller, back home in New Jersey, was notified off her husband's disappearance and it was announced to the public that the nation's greatest bandleader was missing. The official report was that the Norseman aircraft had crashed into the Channel due to either iced-over wings or engine failure. This explanation would prove dissatisfactory for the majority of the populace, and over the course of the next 55 years, many hypotheses concerning his disappearance sprung up, ranging from plausible to unlikely to downright outrageous. The mystery behind Miller's disappearance has continued to rage, with many conspiracy theories forming as the years go by.
And the Band Played on
Despite the mysterious disappearance of their bandleader, Glenn Miller's Army Air Force Band nevertheless performed their scheduled Christmas concert in Olympia under the direction of Jerry Gray. It would continue to perform to Allied troops until 1945, when the band played its last concert on 13 November at the National Press Club dinner for President Harry Truman in Washington DC. General Eisenhower and General Hap Arnold, both of whom were present at the occasion, thanked the band for their contribution to the war.
After the war, Tex Beneke, Miller’s pet sideman, took over the band and continued Miller's swing legacy. It was called the Glenn Miller Band with Tex Beneke; however, following a head-on collision between Beneke and the Miller estate, Beneke left the band.
1954 saw Hollywood's tribute to this band legend in the form of The Glenn Miller Story, directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart as Miller and June Allyson as his wife Helen.
In the wake of the movie, the Glenn Miller Orchestra was re-formed, and handed down from one leader to another. Drummer Ray McKinley (Miller’s longtime friend) was first selected by the estate to re-form and lead the new group. He would continue to lead the band for the next decade before handing it over to jazz clarinetist Buddy deFranco in 1966. DeFranco held this position until January 1974, when he passed on the baton to Peanuts Hucko, who had been a star clarinetist back when he was in Miller's AAF Band. Nine months later, the position was taken by trombonist Buddy Morrow; in March 1975, leadership changed hands again, and trombonist Jimmy Henderson would lead it until 1981. Larry O'Brien, who had been a sideman back when the band was led by McKinley, took over the band for two years, but was called away by other commitments and was replaced by saxophonist Dick Gerhart. Five years later, O'Brien got back the baton, and has been with the band ever since.
On 1 March, 1989 – what would have been Miller's 75th birthday – his daughter Jonnie Dee Miller bought the house in Clarinda where Miller was born. The Glenn Miller Foundation was subsequently founded to oversee the restoration process. Initially, nobody knew exactly how to go about it as very little was known about the house as it existed in 1902; however, thanks to the publicity the foundation attracted, one Bob Watson of Salem, Oregon came forward and offered help. His parents had bought the house from the Millers when they moved in 1907, and thus Watson not only knew a great deal about the house, but had also several photographs of it. Major restoration of the house began in March 1991, whereby newer additions to the home were removed and the original layout was restored.
In 2003, Glenn Miller was posthumously given the Grammy Awards 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award12. The jazz vocal group Manhattan Transfer recorded a track on their album 'Extensions' which was based on the theme music to The Twilight Zone, with the following lyrics:
'On a cold and rainy night/One Mr. Miller had a rare flight/Glenn was up there boppin' a rhythm/Then the engine stopped to listen with him/Now he resides and plays trombone/In the mystic unknown zone.'
To commemorate the 100th year of Glenn Miller's birth, a year-long program of events took place in 2004 at the Twinwood Airfield in Bedford. The program began with Miller's 100th Birthday Hangar Dance Party at the airfield on 29 February, and at the time of writing is scheduled to end with 'A Celebration of the Life and Music of Glenn Miller' on 12 December to commemorate the 60th anniversary of his disappearance.
I think Glenn showed us personal sacrifice. He gave up a very successful career by joining the Army. He didn't have to go into the service. He was exempt because of his age and because he had children. He wanted to do his part… The day after Pearl Harbor was attacked he went down to join the Navy. He was exempt as well so he worked in a defense plant. Glenn did what he thought what his job would be, to organise a band for morale. He was hugely successful at it. Unfortunately, he paid for it with his life. How selfless can you get? He didn't have to go in the service. He was making tons of money and riding the crest of his popularity. Even with the war going on he probably would have racked it in. Instead, he chose to serve his country, which is an exemplary thing for somebody to do.
– Larry O'Brien.
Glenn Miller was a musical legend who left a legacy – not by his music alone, but his unselfish desire to serve his fellow man during the war. It is perhaps tragic, even ironic, that the war repaid him by removing him from those who loved him most.
The Golden Years of Glenn Miller 3CD Deluxe Edition sleeve notes (2002). The Sohol Collection.
Official Glenn Miller sites
- Glenn Miller Birthplace Society
- Glenn Miller Orchestra Europe
- The Glenn Miller Orchestra
- The Official Glenn Miller Website
Other Resources on the Internet
- Grammy Awards: 2003 Lifetime Achievement Award
- International Travel News: Remembering Glenn Miller
- Jazz Connection Magazine: Remembering Glenn
- Music in the Miller Mood
- The Glenn Miller Story