Happy 112th Birthday, Maj. Glenn Miller!

Alton Glenn Miller was born 112 years ago today in Clarinda, Iowa. His family moved around a bit, to Nebraska and Missouri, before finally settling in Fort Morgan, Colorado, where Glenn attended high school. Having picked up the trombone in his junior high years (after dabbling with the cornet and the mandolin), he formed his first dance band with some fellow students, and by the time he had graduated from high school in 1921, he had his sights set on a career in music.

Miller attended the University of Colorado but devoted so much time to his pursuit of a musical career that his attendance (and, as one might expect, his grades) suffered. He finally dropped out of school, studied with the renowned musical composition theorist Joseph Schillinger and went on to play with a number of orchestras, led by such names as Ben Pollack, Victor Young, Nat Shilkret, Red Nichols and the Dorsey Brothers. He also played in the pit bands for two hit Broadway shows, Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy.

Glenn Miller

In addition to playing trombone with the Dorseys, Miller served as arranger and composer, two roles in which he’d go on to have great success. In 1935, he organized an orchestra for British bandleader Ray Noble that included such later-prominent names as Claude Thornhill, Bud Freeman and Charlie Spivak. The orchestra appeared in the 1935 Paramount picture The Big Broadcast of 1936, marking Miller’s first appearance on the big screen.

Miller formed his own orchestra for the first time in 1937, but it lacked a distinctive sound and didn’t last long. Back in New York, he set about coming up with a sound that would be his and his alone. He did so by having the clarinet and tenor saxophone play the melodic line, while three other saxes played in close harmony (we think we’ve got that right—no arrangers, we!). The trick to it was using Wilbur Schwartz, a saxophonist, to play that clarinet. Schwartz had a fuller sound than many clarinet players didn’t, and that was what set the Miller orchestra apart. As Miller himself once put it, “The fifth sax, playing clarinet most of the time, lets you know whose band you’re listening to. And that’s about all there is to it.”

In the spring of 1939, the Glenn Miller Orchestra had a successful rusn first at the Meadowbrook Ballroom in Cedar Grove, New Jersey, and, more famously, at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York, where they drew 1,800 patrons on opening night. Soon thereafter, the band’s record sales took off, beginning a long string of hit tracks that are still familiar today. Later that year, Time magazine observed that, of the 12 to 24 discs in each of the country’s 300,000 jukeboxes, between two and six were usually Miller’s.

From 1939 to 1942, the Miller outfit had its own quarter-hour radio show, sponsored by Chesterfield cigarettes, that aired three times a week. They also appeared in a pair of 20th Century Fox pictures, Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942). A third film, Blind Date, was never made, due to Miller’s entry into the Army.

Miller’s sound was tightly arranged and well rehearsed, and jazz critics of the day (and since) have sometimes been harsh in their assessments of the group, but Miller didn’t care. He knew just the sound he wanted and insisted he didn’t view the orchestra as a jazz ensemble. The critics may have carped, but the public loved the orchestra’s music (and does to this day).

At the peak of his popularity in 1942, Miller pulled strings to be accepted into the Army (at 38, the Navy felt he was too old). He was made a captain (later promoted to major), and after being transferred to the Army Air Forces, set about to entertain the troops with his special brand of swinging sounds. He formed a 50-piece band and took it to England in the summer of 1944, where it performed some 800 times. The orchestra even made some recordings at the famed Abbey Road studios. Of Miller’s efforts to entertain the U.S. and Allied troops, General Jimmy Doolittle once said, “Next to a letter from home, that organization was the greatest morale builder in the European Theater of Operations.”

On December 15, 1944, Miller was to travel from Bedford, England, to Paris, France, to entertain troops there. His plane, carrying Maj. Miller, Lt. Col. Norman Baessell and pilot John Morgan, went down over the English Channel and was never recovered. The cause of the crash is said to have been a faulty carburetor. Miller was survived by his wife, Helen, and their adopted children, Steven and Jonnie; he was mourned by millions of adoring fans around the world. Miller was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star in 1945.

The list of Miller’s enduring hits is a long one: In the Mood, Moonlight Serenade, Chattanooga Choo-Choo, A String of Pearls, Pennsylvania 6-5000, (I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo, and so many more.

Happy birthday, Major Miller, wherever you may be!

Happy birthday, Kitty Kallen!

Kitty Kallen quoteSadly, there aren’t terribly many performers still with us who enjoyed success during the Cladrite Era—all the more reason, then, to celebrate songbird Kitty Kallen‘s 93rd birthday.

Kallen, born Katherine Kalinsky in 1922 in Philadelphia, sang on the radio as a child on a program called The Children’s Hour, which was sponsored by Horn and Hardart, the Automat people, and as a teenager, she had occasions to sing with the big bands of Jan Savitt (in 1936), Artie Shaw (in 1938), and Jack Teagarden (in 1940).

At 21, she replaced Helen O’Connell as the singer for the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, primarily performing duets with Bob Eberly. After Eberly entered military service in 1943, Kallen joined the Harry James Orchestra, with whom she sang on several hit songs, including two—“I’m Beginning To See the Light” and “It’s Been a Long, Long Time”—that reached #1 on the charts.

But Kallen’s career didn’t end when the big band era did. Her 1954 hit, “Little Things Mean a Lot,” was number one in the U.S. for nine weeks and remained on chart for nearly seven months, selling more than two million copies in the process. She had many more hits throughout the 1950s and early ’60s

She also appeared frequently on television, on Broadway in Finian’s Rainbow, in many of the world’s top nightclubs and in at least one motion picture. On her final album, Quiet Nights, she sang in the bossa nova style. A lung ailment would eventually force her retirement, but Ms. Kallen is still with us and we sincerely hope she enjoys a wonderful birthday today.

Oh, Mr. Miller!

We love us some Glenn Miller, but he does seem, let’s face it, sort of buttoned up. Not exactly loosey-goosey, our Glenn. And his reputation persists as having been something of a no-nonsense guy as a bandleader, too. His music was heavily charted, with limited room for improvisation, but it obviously paid off: His orchestra was incredibly successful.

Still, we got a kick out of these 1929 photo-booth strips, taken with his (then) new bride, Helen (who, while plenty cute, doesn’t look a thing like June Allyson). Nice to see stiff ol’ Glenn mugging it up for the camera (click the image to see a larger view with more images or click here for the supersized version).

The Karen Files, pt. 7

Another in an ongoing series of posts celebrating the life of our mother:

It’s easy, sometimes, to think of our parents as somehow older than they are. We too often were guilty of thinking of Karen as being of the Greatest Generation, of imagining her listening and dancing to the big bands during the height of the Swing Era.

But she was born in 1933. She was just a child when Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, and the rest were flying high. Heck, she was just 11 when Glenn Miller died.

She remembered and enjoyed that music, sure, much as we remember and enjoy the pop music of the 1960s, when we were kids. But it wasn’t the music of her adolescence and young adulthood. She grew into young womanhood during the post-big band era, when the focus moved to vocalists. Big bands were still around, sure, but they weren’t the dominant force they had been.

Hers was the era of pre-rock ‘n’ roll vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Nat “King” Cole, Patti Page, and Margaret Whiting.

For that matter, Karen wasn’t so old when rock ‘n’ roll began to capture the nation’s attention. She was 21 when Bill Haley and the Comets recorded “Rock Around the Clock” in 1954 and 23 when Elvis Presley‘s recording of “Heartbreak Hotel” became a No. 1 hit in 1956. She wasn’t likely to be found among the squealing teens at a Presley performance, but she wasn’t necessarily old enough to view the young rock-n-roller with the alarmed disapproval so many of her elders did. Presley was, after all, less than two years younger than Karen.

Similarly, we’re often a bit surprised to be reminded that Karen was just a kid during World War II and the events that preceded the United States’ involvement in it. This was brought home to me by the documents that make up this week’s installment of The Karen Files, which we found while sorting through the thousands of snapshots and documents Karen left behind.

The documents accompanying this text are pages from ration books. Until coming across these, we had no idea that children received ration booklets, too. It makes sense, though; obviously, a family of ten would have greater needs than a family of three, so assigning each child their own ration books (to be used, no doubt, by their parents) seems the ideal way to assure that each family gets what’s coming to it.

We’ve scanned and posted all the pages of the ration books for your consideration here. Perhaps many of you have seen ration books before—after all, every American had one, and of those millions of books, surely not a few got stashed when they were no longer needed, for later generations to come across, as we did, in dusty cartons long stowed away in attics or basements.

We learned a few not terribly weighty details about Karen’s life in May, 1942, from these documents. She lived at 509 South 4th Street in Okemah, Oklahoma (we knew she had grown up in a different house than the one where we visited our grandparents, but we didn’t know where it was). She was nine years old, stood four feet and one-half inches tall, and weighed 68 pounds. Her eyes were blue then, as always, and her hair was listed as blonde (light brown, we’d have to call it). Again, these details have no real import, but small things can have an impact when you’re trying to imagine loved ones at particular points in their lives.

We wish we’d thought to ask Karen what the heck she thought of Elvis Presley when he hit the national stage or how it felt to be a child during World War II. There are so many questions that we don’t think to ask our folks, even when we spend a lot of time thinking about the old days. Then a loved one’s mind grows feeble, due to illness or advanced age, or a life comes unexpectedly to an end, and it’s too late to ask.

View all this week’s Karen Files images.