The Glenn Miller Big Band That Failed

Glenn Miller Band 171x145

The year was 1935. Arranger and trombone player Glenn Miller had already experienced success in his musical career, and he was about to embark on his first “solo” career as a band leader. The Iowa native had entered the University of Colorado in 1923, but was an academic disappointment as he spent more time playing any gigs he could get instead of studying. In 1926 Miller landed a job in with Ben Pollack Band. He joined Red Nichols’s orchestra in 1930. During the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, Miller earned a living working as a freelance trombonist in several bands, playing alongside Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Joe Venuti, Eddie Condon, Gene Krupa and Coleman Hawkins.

In the early-to-mid-1930s, Miller worked as a trombonist, arranger, and composer for the Dorsey Brothers, (providing accompaniment for many of The Boswell Sisters sessions). In early 1935, Miller was asked to assist British bandleader Ray Noble establish an American orchestra. It was while working with Noble that Miller first experimented with the arrangement of lead clarinet over four saxophones that eventually became the distinctive “Miller sound” of his own big band.

Glenn Miller compiled several musical arrangements and began recording under his own name in 1935, and then formed his first band in 1937. The band, after failing to distinguish itself from the many others of the era, broke up just a year later, leaving Miller dejected and thousands of dollars in debt. That was the Glenn Miller Big Band that failed.

Glenn Miller made his first movie appearance in the The Big Broadcast of 1936 for Paramount Pictures as a member of the Ray Noble Orchestra. The film featured performances by Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers, who would appear with Miller again in two movies for Twentieth Century Fox in 1941 and 1942.

By 1938, Miller had paid off his debts and by working jobs as an arranger and recording studio musician, raised enough capital for a second attempt at forming a “Glenn Miller Orchestra”. In September 1938, the Miller band began making recordings for the RCA Victor’s “Bluebird” label. The following year, the band’s fortunes changed dramatically with a date at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York. The Glen Island performances were broadcast on network radio, exposing the “Miller sound” to listeners from coast to coast. Back in the RCA Victor studios, there were record-breaking recordings such as “Tuxedo Junction”, which sold 115,000 copies in the first week. In February of 1942, RCA Victor presented Miller with the first gold record for “Chattanooga Choo-Choo”, selling over one million copies.

From December 1939 to September 1942, Miller’s band was featured three times a week during a quarter-hour broadcast for Chesterfield on CBS, paired at first with the wildly popular Andrews Sisters.

The Miller Orchestra appeared in two films. In Twentieth Century Fox’s 1941 release of Sun Valley Serenade, they were major members of the cast, which also featured Dorothy Dandridge and the Nicholas Brothers in the show-stopping song and dance number, ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo.’ Following their first film success, Miller and the organization returned to Hollywood a year later film Orchestra Wives in 1942.  Miller was to do a third movie for Fox, Blind Date, but as America entered World War Two, that film never panned out. A decade after his death, Universal Pictures released The Glenn Miller Story with Jimmy Stewart’s remarkable portrayal of Glenn Miller.

In 1942, at the peak of his musical career, Glenn Miller decided to join the war effort and enlist in the Army. Miller’s civilian orchestra played its last performance on September 27, 1942. In the Army, Miller initially formed a large marching band that was to be the core of a network of service orchestras. Miller’s weekly radio broadcast “I Sustain the Wings” was very popular. This led to permission for Miller to form his 50-piece Army Air Force Band and take it to England in the summer of 1944, where he gave nearly one thousand performances before troops and on radio. While on radio, Miller also performed on so-called “propaganda broadcasts” for the Office of War Information. Many songs are sung in German by Johnny Desmond and Glenn Miller speaks in German about the Allied war effort.

On December 15, 1944, Miller was to fly from England to Paris to make arrangements to move his entire band to the continent for appearances before Allied troops that had liberated France six months before. Departing in the foggy early morning hours from Twinwood Farm Airfield near Bedford, his small single engine plane disappeared over the English Channel. The plane and its three passengers (including Miller) were never recovered.

In the years since Miller’s disappearance there have been many theories related to the plane’s disappearance, most popular was the theory that the plane became lost in the fog and crashed over the English Channel, or that it was hit by a bomb jettisoned by Allied planes returning from an aborted bombing raid on Germany. Both these notions have been discredited as have several others. Most likely, Miller’s plane crashed because it had a faulty carburetor. The plane’s engine had a type of carburetor that a history of causing crashes in other aircraft by icing up in extreme cold weather. When Miller disappeared, he left behind his wife, Helen, and the two children they had adopted, Steven and Joannie.

In February 1945, Helen Miller accepted the Bronze Star medal for Miller.

Today, some eight decades after Miller’s first band failed, the Miller sound and legacy lives on and has ushered in new musicians and audiences in the intervening decades. Audiences continue to delight to Glenn Miller classics like “String of Pearls,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “Little Brown Jug,” “Pennsylvania 6500,” “In the Mood,” Chattanooga Choo Choo” and of course, “Moonlight Serenade.”

Glenn Miller was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1973. Recordings of Miller’s 1935-1937 and 1938-1942 Civilian orchestras along with his 1943-1944 Army Air Force band can still be heard on Swing Street Radio, and many of Miller’s radio performances can still be heard Friday nights at 10PM Pacific on the Swing Street Ballroom.