02 March 2010

Arts and Music: Glenn Miller

By Carrie Lofty

Big Band music skyrocketed in popularity in the 1920s and 30s, reaching its zenith during WWII. An estimated $90 million was spent on live club music entertainment in 1938 alone. While this dollar amount went down during the war years, that didn't mean that the Big Band craze had waned. It was just that all the boys had gone off to fight!

At the close of the first war draft session in 1942, Benny Goodman had lost all but four of his orchestra. Retirees and women soon filled the ranks, and many of those bands traveled the country on USO Camp Shows to entertain the troops and stump for war bonds. On occasion band leaders themselves were drafted or volunteered. One of the most famous was Alton Glenn Miller, born in 1904 in Clarinda, Iowa.

After enduring years of obscurity, Miller and his musicians played their famous Glen Island Casino gig in New Rochelle, New York. At that spring of '39 gig, they performed for over 1800 people. His popularity became a phenomenon. Time noted in late 1939: "Of the twelve to 24 discs in each of today's 300,000 U.S. jukeboxes, from two to six are usually Glenn Miller's." Some of those famous tunes were "Tuxedo Junction," "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," and his signature composition, "Moonlight Serenade."

In 1940, he was offered a 15-minute radio program once a week, with Chesterfield Cigarettes as the sponsor. Chesterfield was so concerned about Miller's maverick sound and raging young fans that they also booked the "safe" Andrews Sisters. That engagement was quickly bumped up to three times weekly. Eventually he went on to star alongside his musicians in the films Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives, released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1941 and 1942 respectively. Other classic hits followed as well, including "Pennsylvania 6-5000" and my personal favorite, "Sun Valley Jump."

That proved the height of his civilian career. In 1942, too old to be drafted, he appealed to join the US Army and hoped to established what he imagined as the first "modern" Army band. Transferred to the US Army Air Force with the rank of captain, he took his 50-piece band overseas and performed more than 800 shows for GIs and Allied soldiers. His popularity was thought to appeal to the German people as well. His lead vocalist, Johnny Desmond, sang many tunes in German, and Miller himself made German appeals to end the fighting. All of his wartime recordings in England were done at the famous Abbey Road Studios.

On December 15, 1944, Miller boarded a plane with the intention of meeting his band in newly-liberated Paris. They were to perform before a live audience, which would also be broadcast as a Christmas special back home in the States. His plane never arrived and he was eventually declared missing in action. His band carried on without him and performed the concert in his memory. They premiered "Little Brown Jug," which had been meant as a Christmas present for Miller's wife of sixteen years, Helen. She loved the song and had prodded him for years to do an updated arrangement.

Beyond the possibility of having crashed amidst heavy fog over the English Channel, other theories have been raised to explain his disappearance. The most widely accepted was that an air raid squadron, back from an aborted mission, dropped bomb payloads in the Channel over a designated spot. (Bombers had to discharge their cargo or risk explosion upon landing.) Another theory was that it was shot down by an anti-aircraft battery outside of Folkestone, England. The most convoluted was that, because Miller spoke German, he had been given a secret mission by Eisenhower to try and turn certain German officers toward the cause of peace, and that he was killed in a brothel in Paris. All reports of a crash, according to this scintillating theory, were part of a government cover-up.

Miller left behind Helen and their two young adopted children, Steven and Jonnie. He also left behind a legacy of music that few would ever top. His legacy was cemented with 1954's The Glenn Miller Story, starring fellow WWII Air Force volunteer, Jimmy Stewart (below). But that was the same year when Bill Haley recorded "Rock Around the Clock." Big Band would never be the same, and with only a few exceptions throughout the following years, it would never be the domain of young people again.