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Glenn Miller Biography

1 March 1905, Clarinda, Iowa, USA, d. 15 December 1944. Miller was the first artist to be credited with a million-selling disc (for ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’), and was the toast of North American popular music during World War II for his uniformed orchestra’s fusion of sober virtuosity, infectious dance rhythms and varied intonation of brass and woodwind. In Miller’s hands, close harmony vocals - often wordless - were almost incidental in a slick repertoire that embraced Tin Pan Alley standards (‘April In Paris’, Hoagy Carmichael’s ‘The Nearness Of You’), jump blues (‘St. Louis Blues’, Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘King Porter Stomp’), western swing (‘Blueberry Hill’, once sung by Gene Autry) and orthodox swing (‘Jersey Bounce’, ‘Tuxedo Junction’), also exemplified by the ‘hotter’ big bands of Artie Shaw and Jimmy Dorsey.

After his family moved to North Platts, Nebraska, Miller’s trombone skills earned him places in bands operational within his Fort Morgan high school, and afterwards at the University of Colorado. On becoming a professional musician, he found work on the west coast and in New York as both a player and arranger - notably for Victor Young, whose Los Angeles studio orchestra accompanied Judy Garland and Bing Crosby. Other prestigious feathers in Miller’s cap were his supervision of Britain’s Ray Noble And The New Mayfair Orchestra’s first USA tour and a scoring commission for Columbia Records. His earnings were ploughed back into the organization and rehearsal of his own band which, despite setbacks such as his wife’s long illness in 1938, built up a huge following in New York, through dogged rounds of one-night-stands and record-breaking residencies in venues such as Pompton Turnpike roadhouse and the celebrated Glen Island Casino.

Signed to RCA Records in 1939, Miller proved a sound investment with immediate consecutive bestsellers in evocative classics such as ‘Little Brown Jug’ (written in 1869), ‘In The Mood’ and ‘Sunrise Serenade’. The latter was coupled with ‘Moonlight Serenade’ - a strikingly effective extrapolation of a trombone exercise that became Miller’s signature tune. As synonymous with him, too, was 1940’s ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ with a vocal chorus (by Tex Beneke, Marion Hutton and the Modernaires) atypically to the fore. This novelty was also among highlights of Sun Valley Serenade (1941), the orchestra’s first movie (co-starring Norwegian ice-skating champion, Sonja Henie). Other Miller classics included the irresistible ‘Pennsylvania 6-5000’ and the haunting ‘Tuxedo Junction’. At Miller’s commercial peak the next year, Orchestra Wives (1942, with Ann Rutherford and Cesar Romero), enveloped a similarly vacuous plot with musical interludes that included another smash in ‘(I’ve Got A Gal In) Kalamazoo’. The enduring lyric brilliantly used the alphabet; ‘a b c d e f g h I got a gal in Kalamazoo’. That same year also brought both Miller’s lively hit arrangement of ‘American Patrol’ and his enlistment into the US Army. Even though he was too old for combat he still volunteered out of patriotism, was elevated to the rank of captain and sent out to entertain the Allied forces. He was promoted to major in August 1944.

Following a visit to Britain, his aircraft disappeared over the English Channel on 15 December 1944. His death was an assumption that some devotees found too grievous to bear, and rumours of his survival persisted. In any case, his orchestra lived on - even if the economics of staying on the road, combined with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll, finished off lesser rivals. Universal Pictures produced the immensely successful 1954 biopic, The Glenn Miller Story (with James Stewart in the title role). An Oscar-nominated soundtrack album (directed by Henry Mancini) was released, and a reissued ‘Moonlight Serenade’ reached number 12 in the UK singles charts. Miller’s habit of preserving many of his radio broadcasts on private discs enabled the issue of another album, Marvellous Miller Moods. Also reaching the US chart in the late 50s was a 1939 Carnegie Hall concert recording and The New Glenn Miller Orchestra In Hi-Fi. Miller’s original arrangements were regarded as definitive by those multitudes who continued to put repackagings such as The Real Glenn Miller And His Orchestra high into the international charts as late as 1977. The sound was recreated so precisely by the Syd Lawrence Orchestra that it was employed in a 1969 television documentary of the late band leader whose UK fan club booked Lawrence regularly for its annual tribute shows. Among the best tributes paid were those by Manhattan Transfer in a 1976 version of ‘Tuxedo Junction’, and Jive Bunny And The Mastermixers, whose 1989 medley, ‘Swing The Mood’ - a UK number 1 - was sandwiched between excerpts of ‘In The Mood’, sampled from Miller’s 1938 recording. The arranging style perfected by Miller’s staff arrangers, notably Jerry Gray, continued to influence several middle-of-the-road writers and band leaders during the next two or three decades. Curiously enough, for a musician whose work is now preserved eternally in its 40s style, Miller was always eager to move on. Shortly before his death he remarked to Ray McKinley that the style that had made him famous was no longer of interest to him, ‘I’ve gone as far as I can go with the saxophone sound. I’ve got to have something new’. The enduring quality of Miller’s work is most forcibly underlined by the realization that his tunes have become part of the instant musical vocabulary of listeners young and old. In 1995, just over 50 years after Miller’s death, a set of recordings made by the American Band of the AEF at the Abbey Road studios in London late in 1944, was released as a two-CD set.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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