The Glenn Miller Story

Well, forgive me, as I am about to plant several tunes in your head that won’t leave. Blame Glenn Miller (Alton Glenn Miller, 1904-44)!

As a kid, I was already familiar with Glenn Miller’s music through my mother, who had been a teenager in the late ’30s and ’40s. But the awareness further gelled with television airings of The Glenn Miller Story (1954). This movie made a big impression on me a child, due to its impactful ending, and the warm, familiar presence of Jimmy Stewart in the lead. At first blush, it seems an odd project for Stewart and director Anthony Mann to have teamed up on; they normally collaborated on westerns. But there lay a kind of patriotic mission behind the project. Stewart had flown planes for the U.S. army air force during World War II. Miller had enlisted in the special forces and entertained troops starting in 1942. His plane disappeared over the English Channel two years later when Miller was en route to perform in France. So Glenn Miller was a war hero — full stop. I keep wanting to qualify that with “essentially” or “basically” or something. Isn’t that strange? But NO. Despite the fact that he wasn’t there to kill anybody, he took risks on behalf of his country and paid the ultimate price. So he was a war hero. I’m sure Stewart and plenty of others felt that way.

Even if he hadn’t died in the war, Miller had already made a major, massive sacrifice. He and his band were one of the top musical acts in the country. He was making piles of money, and despite the fact that he was pushing 40 years old, he felt strongly the need to put the country’s needs ahead of his own. You either get that or you don’t.

Miller’s origins were humble. He’d grown up on farms in Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado. He’d bought his first trombone with his own money when he was a kid, and after a brief fling with college he devoted himself to a professional musical career full time in the mid 1920s. For years he played in popular orchestras alongside such fellow musicians as Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Coleman Hawkins, and Gene Krupa. In 1930 he played with the Red Nichols Orchestra, which resulted in his playing in the pit bands of the Broadway shows Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy. From the early to mid 30s, he was with the Dorsey Brothers as a musician, composer and arranger. In 1935 he helped Ray Noble organize his American band, in which you can see him play in the movie The Big Broadcast of 1936.

With all this experience under his belt, in 1937 Miller organized his first band of his very own. This initial iteration could not compete against the scores of other bands that were out there, so he want back to the drawing board and worked very hard on developing his own distinctive sound. Miller had studied with Joseph Schillinger, whose famous system later evolved into the Berklee Method, still taught at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. He began to work hard to apply the principals of what he’d learned into this new sound. The first major fruit to be born was “Moonlight Serenade” which became his signature tune in 1938, and went to #3 in the pop charts when released as a record the following year. This hit put Miller and his band on the map and over the next four years they were popular on radio, and on record, and in live performances at ballrooms, presentation houses, and other large concert venues. The Glenn Miller Band had 16 #1 hits, and 69 records in the top ten, which is more than either Elvis or The Beatles. Some of his other major hits which continue to be well known are “In the Mood” (1940), “Pennsylvania 6-5000” (1940), “Chattanooga Choo Choo” (1941), and “(I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo” (1941).

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, including radio variety, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.