Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Alton Glenn Miller, 1 March 1904, Clarinda, Iowa; d 15 December 1944) Trombone, arranger, leader of one of the century's most popular bands. He was a sideman on freelance recordings, arranged for Ben Pollock '26-8, played in pit bands on Broadway while studying music, toured with Smith Ballew, worked for the Dorsey brothers, Ray Noble, Glen Gray, Ozzie Nelson; formed his own band and failed '37, re-formed '38: a three-month gig at Glen Island Casino (Long Island) began May '39, a famous venue because of broadcasts from the bandstand. He began a tradition of ending broadcasts with medleys ('something old, something new'); a gig at Meadowbrook (a roadhouse on New Jersey's Pompton Turnpike) and broadcasts for Chesterfield cigarettes followed and Miller's became the most popular dance band in the world. He joined the United States Army Air Force '42, formed an all-star service personnel band and was posted to England '44; he did not get along with the BBC, who wanted him to play everything at the same volume; he had wangled an army commission to be able to play for U.S. troops, so he broadcast on U.S. Armed Forces Radio Service. When the band was posted to France, Miller's light plane never arrived.

A hard-driving leader, he took a fatherly but possessive attitude towards his personnel and was also a tough businessman; arranger Billy May said that the only person Miller was jealous of was Kay Kyser, the only bandleader who made more money. But Miller kept an eye on ticket prices at ballrooms, seeing to it that his young fans could afford to get in; and when he was entertaining troops in England he insisted on doing extra shows if necessary to accommodate everyone. He was one of those leaders who insisted on everybody playing the same solos they played on the records, so the fans got exactly what they expected; a stickler for a reliable sound, during rehearsals he would yell, 'Observe the markings!' Among the singers, Ray Eberle (b 19 January 1919, Hoosick Falls NY; d 25 August 1979, Douglassville GA) was not as good as his brother Bob Eberly (with Jimmy Dorsey); similarly, Marion Hutton's sister Betty was a bigger star: but the businessman in Miller apparently thought that talent ran in families. Tenor saxist Al Klink (b 28 December 1915 Danbury CT; d 7 March 1991) was a better musician than Tex Beneke, but Beneke's vocals made him a star, so he was featured on tenor as well; vocal group the Modernaires (with Hutton) were typical of the period (but see their entry, below).

Other bands were more exciting, but Miller's won polls and had more than 40 top ten records in the three years after Billboard began keeping charts '40, a phenomenal score for the time: there was enough jazz content so that it was a 'swing' band like all the others, and so that Miller had fans in both the 'sweet' and 'hot' categories. The success was also due to the band's reliable section playing, the pretty trademark sound on ballads of a clarinet lead over the reed section, good arrangements and Miller's choice of material, a summary of American pop music: a Miller record sounded like you had heard it before and always liked it. In '39 alone the hits incl. 'Little Brown Jug', a jive version of a 70-year-old tavern/glee-club song arranged by Bill Finegan; the band's theme 'Moonlight Serenade' (a Miller composition) b/w 'Sunrise Serenade' (by Frankie Carle), a two-sided hit that eventually sold two million; and 'In The Mood', which was no more than a familiar riff. British journalist C. H. Rolph thought he had heard it played by a cinema orchestra as early as 1919; it was played by Wingy Manone ('Tar Paper Stomp' '30), Horace Henderson and Don Redman ('Hot And Anxious' '31-2); the arrangement called 'In The Mood' (written by Eddie Durham according to Phil Schaap, though saxophonist Joe Garland got composer credit) was first played by Edgar Hayes (with Kenny Clarke on drums) and became a Miller hit during the Glen Island gig. 'Tuxedo Junction' came from the Erskine Hawkins band '40, but was a new arrangement by Jerry Gray. The romantic 'Moonlight Cocktail' was slowed down from a piano rag by Luckey Roberts; among the best arrangements were Gray's 'A String Of Pearls' and Finegan's 'Song Of The Volga Boatmen', all '41. 'Chattanooga Choo Choo' featured in the band's first film (Sun Valley Serenade '41); '(I've Got A Gal In) Kalamazoo' in the second (Orchestra Wives '42), both by Mack Gordon and Harry Warren; the record industry was recovering from the Depression, and RCA Victor invented the gold record gimmick to celebrate 'Choo Choo' selling a million copies. 'American Patrol' '42 was Gray's version of a march written in 1891. Many of these, especially the instrumentals from '41-2, are still as fresh as any of the hits of the era; adding others like 'Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)', they are still redolent of wartime nostalgia, when tearful goodbyes took place in railway stations all over the USA. Add good period pop tunes ('Adios', 'Perfidia', 'My Prayer', 'Elmer's Tune', etc) and Miller's formula was the essence of the period's pop music.

Many other arrangements and pop tunes were too obviously formulaic, and the band's attempts at very fast tempos ('Anvil Chorus', 'Runnin' Wild') were almost comically bad; 'In The Mood' is a clunky performance, despite being one of the era's biggest hits. Klink later said, 'We were too scared to swing.' In fact Herman 'Trigger' Alpert was a good bassist (b 3 September 1916, Indianapolis IN; d 21 December 2013, Jacksonville Beach FL), but Miller's rhythm section was grreatly improved when Ray McKinley drummed and pianist Mel Powell replaced Miller's pal Chummie McGregor in the USAAF band (and Johnny Desmond was a better vocalist than Eberle). Billy May's arrangement of 'Ida, Sweet As Apple Cider' (apple juice in the USA, non-alcoholic) was to have a jive vocal by the band as a setting for Beneke's voice, but Miller wouldn't allow it; the 'swing choir' was not part of his formula. May's fine arrangement of 'I Got Rhythm' was recorded live early '42, probably from the Hotel Pennsylvania, and the band sounded as if it were having fun for a change; maybe Miller was taking the night off. Klink said, 'Glenn should have lived and the music should have died'; May said, 'Adolf Hitler is alive and playing Fender bass with Glenn Miller in Argentina.' But May also admitted that Miller was a good musician, and that he had learned a lot from him; some said that Miller would have given all his success to be able to play trombone as well as Jack Teagarden.

The original hits have never stopped selling; Miller had broadcasts recorded, including those of the USAAF band; when RCA issued a limited edition multi-LP compilation in the mid- '50s the whole industry was astonished at the response: there was a black market for it and a second set had to be issued. Forty albums of Miller were available in the UK alone '89, even though the original 78s were usually badly transferred to master tape. RCA's first digital transfer, a single CD selection, was a failure, but the work was done again and today's transfers are brilliant: the band has never sounded better on record, and die-hard fans could buy a 13-CD set of the complete studio recordings. The better USAAF band sounds great on CD: two-CD sets The Lost Recordings on RCA and Vol. 5: The Complete Abbey Road Recordings on Avid were made for broadcast to Nazi Germany (the Avid set has the complete programmes); three-CD The Secret Broadcasts on RCA and two-CD sets on Avid Vol. 1: American Patrol and Vol. 2: Keep 'Em Flying have the same material but Avid has 19 more tracks; still more material is on Avid single CDs Vols 3, 4 and 6 All's Well Mademoiselle, The Red Cavalry March (title tune arranged by Jerry Gray) and Blue Champagne.

Miller bands authorised by his estate were led by Tex Beneke, Ray McKinley, Buddy DeFranco, Peanuts Hucko and others; a band led by Dick Gerhardt played at Glen Island in April '84 (the first time since 1940); another led by Glenn's brother Herb played in the UK '84. A ghost band made In A Digital Mood '84 on GRP, with Julius LaRosa, Mel Tormé and Marlene VerPlanck re-creating the Modernaires. George T. Simon's Glenn Miller And His Orchestra '74 was an affectionate book; Next To A Letter From Home by Geoffrey Butcher is exhaustive on the war years. Biopic The Glenn Miller Story '54 had a good soundtrack (no. 1 LP) but the usual poor script values, the writers putting 'Little Brown Jug' in '44 instead of '39 for the sake of a plot device. The Miller estate was sore at Tex Beneke and saw to it that the band's biggest star wasn't even mentioned in the film.