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.
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!
In Chapter 20 of his 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, Rudy Vallée recalls his lonely youth when gals didn’t always appreciate what he had to offer them and explores the impact that fame can have in the arena of romance.
“That’s My Weakness Now”
I WAS born with an extraordinary amount of feeling. By feeling I mean something that has many sides and may be expressed in many ways. A person who has this intensity of emotion within, may find an outlet for it through passion and anger, or through artistic work such as painting, sculpture and writing, whether literary or musical. Some of its greatest mediums of expression are instruments of a musical nature, including that most beautiful of all instruments, the human voice. The majority of human beings rarely experience great passion or feelings. If I explain what I mean by “great passion or feelings,” I think it will be seen that I am quite correct.
In speaking of that passion or feeling known as anger or temper, I have found that nearly everyone seems to take a certain foolish pride in saying that they have quite a temper when once aroused. And yet, I find these people unusually docile, easy to get along with, and very tractable. It is true that, sufficiently aroused, they are provoked to anger. But in my mind, the person who really has a temper is one who, on he slightest provocation, or on no provocation at all, flies into an ungovernable rage. In the same spontaneous way does this same feeling or passion manifest itself through music and the sex impulse.
I know so many musicians who play well, who play mechanically correctly, and with a certain amount of feeling withal. That is, the listener is aware of the fact that there is some emotion expressed in the person’s tone, whether through an instrument or the voice. But the degree of feeling in the majority of musicians is very small, simply due to the fact that the majority of persons are not tremendously emotional by nature. So it is obviously quite impossible for them to express something they do not feel through their voices or instruments. The actor or orator who can sway his audience is merely using his voice and mind as a medium for the expression of this elusive feeling. I do not claim to know from what part of the body this phenomenon comes; I do know that it manifests itself differently in different people. I experience it very often through music. Martial tones give me that very commonplace run of shivers up and down my spine. Sad music, or extremely beautiful music combined with beautiful poetry, brings tears very easily to my eyes, beautiful music with a love story or love picture brings an emptiness, a yearning, and an ache into my heart. All my life I have always felt these emotions when I have been confronted by these expressions of the emotions of others. Thus it is that certain people have within them a well of emotion and passion or a certain quality of personality. We call that personality “IT” or sex appeal. A person of this temperament reacts upon one whose system is likewise constructed, in such a way that each is tremendously aware of the other’s feelings. Ever since I was a child I have been aware of the tremendous attraction that certain types of people who are generally alike in type have for me.
Clearly everyone has a weakness for something. By that I do not mean a weakness that becomes an obsession that ends with the person going to an asylum, or, in the case of a drunkard or a gambler, “to the dogs.” Rather is this weakness a sort of a cross between a hobby and a complex. For some men the week is not complete and they have not had their greatest happiness unless they have attended some kind of a sport event; for another man it is a business convention; for another in the nature of a gathering of old cronies either at cards, pool, or a fishing trip; and for still others it is a drinking bout, or a gambling fest, or a smoker. While I enjoy some of these things, I find none of them absolutely essential to my happiness. We have among our great paintings a simple that is called “End of Day” which depicts a farmer going home with the setting sun. I remember the painting only vaguely but I do know that the idea it conveyed to me was that the reward which awaited the farmer was his cottage, which all its homely comforts, his children, and lastly that complement that must have been created as a necessary half of the total, his wife.
Likewise to me, the reward for all my strivings, schemings, labors and hopes, is the comfort that I will receive from the company of the girl who brings happiness to me. Perhaps it will be just her company, just her presence by my side; maybe it will be the pressure of her hand, or the feel of her in my arms as we dance, or if alone, in embrace; and then that acme of all happiness and delight, the touch of her lips, that gives me this joy. I know that the majority of men are not so dependent on the companionship of women as I am and are perhaps happier for their independence, as I have often been very lonely.
In Chapter Two of Rudy Vallée’s 1930 memoir, Vagabond Dreams Come True, we’re there as Vallée’s band of musicians begin the engagement that would bring them fame and acclaim, at NYC’s Heigh-Ho Club.
THE YANKEES MEET
I was not a bit hurt when I saw the change of expression that came over the faces of the five boys who did not know me, because I realize only too well that I do not look like an orchestra leader. The other two, Cliff Burwell and the tenor saxophonist, Joe Miller, had played with me and knew that I had some ideas and liked my work. I had played many engagements with Cliff Burwell at the Westchester Biltmore during my college years. In fact, I regarded his pianistic ability so highly that had I been unable to secure him I would not have taken the Heigh-Ho engagement.
To me the piano is the and soul of the orchestra, without which you have nothing. And as I had for a long time had the idea in my head which I was now about to put into practice, I knew I would need a pianist who knew his keys thoroughly, and had a good memory for old pieces; one who could learn new pieces quickly, could play a tune in any key and, above all, could take piano choruses alone with only the drum accompanying him and play them in a way that would sound like four hands at the piano.
In all my dance orchestra experience I had played with the best of pianists. In London, our pianist was England’s best. The American with whom I had sailed to London, who was one of America’s greatest. The men I played with while at Yale were the best. I had become quite spoiled, and since this was the first band of my own, I felt that to start with a poor pianist would be to whip me before I began.
I had wired Burwell, who was in New Haven, playing very little as work was at a standstill. He was a wonderful man who had never been sufficiently featured and brought out where the public could appreciate his marvelous artistry. Today I think he thanks me for doing just that. I was very greatly relieved when he wired back that he would come, and that he could also secure Joe Miller, the tenor saxophone who lived near him and to whom I had also wired.
The rest of the men were strange to me.
There was Ray Toland, drummer, six and one half feet tall, size fifteen shoes. For several years he had played with Mannie Lowy, our first violinist, who has a wonderfully sweet tone and a loyal and energetic personality.
Next came Charlie Peterson, our banjoist, who came in from the middlewest with a Minnesota accent and the taste of several colleges; good-natured and always day-dreaming.
Then there was Harry Patent, our little bass player, quite as devoted to the study of music as my pianist. Harry had played the violin in junior symphonies and had decided to take up the string bass at the age of seventeen. He had practiced long and faithfully but had failed to secure an engagement anywhere, because he looked too young; so he conceived the bright idea of growing a mustache, which did indeed lend him an air of sophistication. Someone had recommended him to us and we gave him his first opportunity. Today he is rated as one of the world’s finest string bass players and has never failed to evoke admiration from other musicians.
Finally came one of the boys who is the bane of my existence and at the same time a great personality. With a name like Jules De Vorzon you would look for no less than one of the descendants of the old Canadian fur trappers who would have difficulty in eliminating a “Canuck accent”; instead you find a pop-eyed individual whose face is a puzzle. He might be Italian, or French, or even Jewish, which he really is. Jules—always late, always making engagements at the last minute; wrapped up in his girl whom he loves more than life itself—but little Jules, irrepressible, buoyant, with a vitality that expresses itself in a thousand ways that always brings a smile and an invitation to the tables of our guests.
These were my recruits, and I saw they looked at me in a disappointed sort of way because that is the first reaction of the average person who sees me for the first time. My appearance was never calculated to inspire awe or respect in anyone. It has given me a great humorous kick, when, in the course of our vaudeville engagements, we have gone to the stage door of a new theatre to find our dressing rooms and the stage door man has invariably said to me, “When will Mr. Vallée be here?