When musicians debate the question of which were the biggest hits to emerge from the big band era, inevitably two titles come to the forefront: Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine” and Glenn Miller’s “A String of Pearls”. Ironically, neither of these two songs, both of which became million sellers, might never have become hits were it not for one man- arranger and composer Jerry Gray.
Generoso Graziano (stage name ‘Jerry Gray’) was born to Italian immigrants in Boston, Massachusetts. His father Albert was a music teacher who began teaching his son the violin at age seven. As a teenager Jerry showed promise for classical violin, and studied under the famous Czech violinist and composer Emanuel Ondricek, and even performed with the Boston Symphony. But Jerry’s real interest lay in the emerging jazz scene. By the time Jerry graduated high school he had already formed his own jazz band and performed in Boston area speakeasies.
But by 1936 Jerry had tired of classical music altogether and made the jump to swing, joining “Art (Artie) Shaw & His New Music” as lead violinist. Jerry learned musical arranging under Artie’s direction and soon became lead arranger. During the next two years under Shaw, Jerry Gray wrote some of the band’s most popular tunes, including “Carioca”, “Any Old Time”, and the mega-hit “Begin the Beguine.”
While Artie Shaw proved to be a very talented bandleader, he also proved to be a temperamental one. One evening in November 1939, Shaw grew tired of all the fan attention and stress of the music business and thus walked off the stage during a gig in New York City and flew to Mexico. (It is notable that Shaw eventually resurfaced, returning to fulfill his contract obligations with RCA Victor. Shaw scored a hit with a song he discovered while in Mexico- “Frenesi”).
The day after Shaw fled to Mexico, Glenn Miller called Gray and offered him a job arranging for the Miller band. At first blush it would be a challenging move because Shaw had generally allowed his arrangers great musical latitude, while Miller’s commercial focus often led him to second-guess his staff. But after a time with the Miller organization, Jerry eventually felt himself more comfortable working for Glenn, whose personality was less volatile and more predictable than that of Shaw’s.
Jerry Gray once told fellow musician and music critic George Simon, “To me, Glenn’s band didn’t swing like Artie’s… but after I made up my mind to accept things as they were, things started to click. Glenn was a businessman who appreciated music. I may have been happier musically with Artie, but I was happier personally with Glenn”.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon with the Miller orchestra didn’t last long when Glenn announced he was breaking up the band to join the Army Air Force in September of 1942. But the now-‘Captain Miller’ used his army influence to have Gray drafted and posted to his unit, and so in 1943 Gray rejoined his old boss to continue making great music.
Gray became chief arranger for Miller’s AAF band, and his training as both a violinist and swing arranger served him well in the massive orchestra which by then was composed of an enlarged dance band and a 21 piece string section. During the first year in the AAF under Miller, Jerry created arrangements of several of Miller’s civilian hits, and added strings to the version of “Begin the Beguine” that he had written for Artie Shaw. He also co-wrote the famous march version of “St. Louis Blues” along with Ray McKinley. In addition, Gray was the full orchestra’s assistant conductor, and the responsibility fell to him to conduct the first concert in Paris after Glenn Miller’s airplane disappeared over the English Channel in December of 1944. At that point, Gray assumed full leadership of the AAF Orchestra until its final performance on November 17 of 1945 at wars-end.
Back in civilian life, Gray was passed over for the job of leading the postwar “ghost” Glenn Miller band (that job fell to former bandmate Tex Beneke), but Gray did return to his post as arranger for the orchestra. Later, Gray did studio work in the Los Angeles area, including leading the band on a radio show called Club 15 featuring Dick Haymes. In 1949 he was offered a record contract by Decca to lead his own “Jerry Gray & the Band of Today”, an orchestra featuring his old Miller hits along with new compositions and staffed by many former Miller band members including Al Klink, Trigger Alpert, Zeke Zarchy, Jimmy Priddy, Ernie Caceres, and Johnny Best. Most notably, Jerry hired clarinetist Wilbur Schwartz whose playing had been so crucial to the civilian band’s successful sound.
In 1953 he and Henry Mancini worked together on the biopic The Glenn Miller Story, starring James Stewart and June Allyson. Gray had served as Mancini’s best man in 1947. In addition to leading his own dance band, Jerry wrote and arranged for singers such as Vic Damone. By the 1960s he took over as the house band at the popular Fairmont Hotel in Dallas. He continued to lead the Fairmont Hotel band into the 1970s before dying of a heart attack at the age of 61.
During Jerry Gray’s time with Glenn Miller, he arranged or wrote some of the most recognizable hits of the big band era, including “Elmer’s Tune”, “Moonlight Cocktail”, “Perfidia”, and “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”. His compositions included “Sun Valley Jump”, “Caribbean Clipper”, “Pennsylvania 6-5000”, “I Dreamt I Dwelt in Harlem”, “Keep ‘Em Flying”, and his most famous song, “A String of Pearls”. So many of Jerry’s songs became hits that he is sometimes described as being as responsible for the Miller band’s success as Miller himself. Publically, the humble Gray always demurred to Mr. Miller.