Glenn Miller

Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

  • Biography
  • Back Stories
  • First Person
  • The Great Songs

The one band with an absolutely identifiable sound is the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The ensemble was only in existence for less than five years, yet it remains among the most popular of all bands, big or small.

The ensemble was only in existence for less than five years, yet it remains among the most popular of all bands, big or small.

Its great success is due to more than just its unique sound. Miller might not have been the greatest trombonest in the country and his conducting was almost secondary to his other talents: arranging, organization, and an excellent sense of what the public wanted.

He positioned his band strictly in the center. Never avant-garde like Artie Shaw sometimes became and not as square and sweet as a Kay Kyser or Lawrence Welk, Miller was strictly in the swing band category. His singers, which included Ray Eberle (brother of Bob), Marion Hutton (sister of Betty), Paula Kelly, Skip Nelson, and the Modernaires never overwhelmed the music with anything like emotion or and original sound (and that’s not a criticism). His band members, which included such greats as Al Klink, Tex Beneke, and Bobby Hackett, weren’t known for their solos. Improvisation was never the strong suit of Miller. Miller’s arrangers, Bill Finegan, Billy May, and Jerry Gray wrote in the Miller manner as dictated by the boss. Listening to Finegan’s arrangements for the Sauter-Finegan group or Billy May’s flights of fancy for Sinatra and others, it’s hard to imagine them bound by the Miller sound. As the bandleader, himself, explained in Metronome Magazine in May 1939, “We’re fortunate in that our style does’t limit as to stereotyped intros, modulations, first choruses, endings, or even trick rhythms. 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.”

Well, it’s not about all by a long shot. Miller was a master at picking material for his band. He had an unusually high number of hits in such a short period. Miller didn’t go in for the overly lachrymose ballads of the period though he was thought of as a “sweet” band. He did record the supposedly humorous novelty songs of the period, “Three Little Fishes” for one. Sometimes you had to pick up one song from a plugger in order to get one you really wanted and a band leader needed to pepper his play book with current hits. Miller concentrated mainly on good-natured songs with an upbeat, attitude and simple, declarative lyrics. There weren’t any tone poems or high falutin’ lyrical excercises in the songs he chose.

He had a penchant for raiding the back catalogue, the back, back catalogue of old favorites, bringing them into the present with his patented arrangements. Songs and instrumental pieces like “Little Brown Jug,” “The Anvil Chorus,” “Song of the Volga Boatman,” and “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” found their way into the band’s book. Miller also seemed to have a soft spot for songs with “moon” in the title: “Moonlight Serenade,” “Moon Love,” “Oh, You Crazy Moon,” “Blue Moonlight,” “Bluebirds in the Moonlight,” “Moments in the Moonlight,” “The Man in the Moon,” “Moonlight Sonata,” Moonlight Mood,” “Moonlight Becomes You,” and “Moonlight Cocktail.” Why? We don’t know.

One of Miller’s favorite songwriters was Harry Warren who, luckily, was signed to Twentieth Century-Fox at the same time as Miller. Warren and his lyricist, Mack Gordon, clicked with Miller and “got it.” For their films, Sun Valley Serenade in 1941 and Orchestra Wives in 1942, Warren and Gordon wrote scores that seemed to create nothing but standards.

All these songs, and a whole bunch with “stars” in the title (no, we don’t know why), were subject to the Miller sound. It began back in 1936 with the formation of the first Glenn Miller band. The congregation had five reed men and Miller suggested that Irv Fazola, a good sax player but a great clarinetist, double the tenor-sax lead on his clarinet instead of just sitting there waiting for his sax part to come in. Boing! The band wasn’t a hit but Miller, who got his start as an arranger as well as a trombonist, took notice when he started up his next band in March of 1938.

Miller was respected by most of his players because he got results but not particularly liked. Miller was equally strict but never mean, just serious about making a success of his band. He was described as cold-blooded, at least when it came to firing band members. He’d always trade up, though, slowly building a top-notch unit who would follow him unquestioningly. If you wanted to shine individually or swing too hard or show up a little under-the-weather, well, you weren’t for Miller.

We don’t want to give the impression that Miller wasn’t a regular guy, it’s just that he was never prone to showing his emotions. A child of a poor upbringing traveling from Iowa to Nebraska to Missouri and finally Colorado, Miller never forgot the hardship of his early years. Money was important to him and success meant more money. Like many Americans who grew up during the depression, he never forgot the tough times. Al Klink, the great reed player, recalled, “I guess the best one-word description I’ve heard, and it isn’t mine though I’d agree with it, was that Glenn was ‘G.I.’—and that was even before he was in the service.”

Miller told his friend and later, biographer, George Simon, “I’m not the kind of guy I really want to be.” He was aware of his shortcomings but the pressure of having a successful band drove him to be more of disciplinarian that he might have wanted to be. He could be kind and even generous but preferred to keep his largesse a secret.

No matter what kind of a person Miller was, it’s important to keep in mind that his music still lives on at least as much as music from the ‘40s is remembered at all. There’s still a Glenn Miller tribute band touring the country and several international Glenn Miller appreciation societies meeting regularly. Miller and his music made a lot of people very happy and continues to still. Again, considering they were together for less than five years, the Miller band has had a remarkable impact on American popular song.

The Miller band was so well rehearsed that they often only played one take in the studio. Sometimes two but almost never.

Miller made the band pay for their own uniforms, unheard of at the time. And he forbade them from wearing them off the bandstand.

Occasionally when Marion Hutton was singing, Al Klink would joke, “The mike is out of tune tonight.”

“Chattanooga Choo Choo” was the first gold record, a tradition that continues to this day.

When the band appeared on the Chesterfield sponsored radio show they could only smoke Chesterfields and had to wear maroon socks (the color on the cigarette pack) even though it was radio.

Tommy Dorsey, who lent Miller $5,000 to get started and was miffed when he was paid back but without an interest in the band, dubbed Miller, “Old Klondike.” (KB)


The tune was adapted from Rube Bloom’s instrumental, “Shangri-La.” The title came from Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism: Part II.Fools Rush In (Where Angels Fear to Tread)

Trimmed to fit

Joe Garland and Wingy Manone’s 1937 tune “Tar Paper Stomp” was adapted by Garland for “In the Mood.” Andy Razaf added a fine (if often ignored) lyric. Garland offered the song to Artie Shaw but the bandleader thought it too long. Miller picked it up, made a few cuts—and it became his theme song.In the Mood

Harry Warren

“I’ve had a lot of titles about places that I’ve never been to. I think everybody around those days was writing about far-off places they’d never been to. A lot of fellas wrote southern songs about Dixie and they’d never been down there, they didn’t know anything about it. But they wrote them just the same. I’ve written songs like ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo.’ I’ve gone through Buffalo but I never stayed in Buffalo. Like Kalamazoo. The city of Chattanooga, I’m an honorary citizen, but I’ve never been there.”Chattanooga Choo Choo

I guess you like it

Jerome Kern, for all his success and experience, could still be insecure about his work. He had the teenage Margaret Whiting sing this song with a Johnny Mercer lyric for him at his home in Beverly Hills. Cowed by the great man’s talents, Whiting was speechless when she finished. Kern responded, “I guess you like it, even though you don’t say so. If you didn’t like it, you would not have been able to sing it so well.”Dearly Beloved

An angle that worked

Harry Warren: "I had a dum-dum-dum-dum rhythm going in my head, which was why Johnny Mack [Mack Gordon] and I decided to spell out the name. And I had been in Kalamazoo when I was very young and had carved my name on the wall of the railroad station there. I guess maybe that was the basis for the lyric. It wasn’t the first song to spell out its title, but it was an angle that worked."I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo

Tells a story

Harold Arlen: "The words sustain your interest, make sense, contain memorable phrases and tell a story. Without the lyric, the song would be just another song."That Old Black Magic

But what can I do?

Johnny Mercer meant his 1942 lyric, set to Harold Arlen’s tune, to refer specifically to Judy Garland, with whom he was having an affair. The song consists of the famous line: “I should stay away, but what can I do?”That Old Black Magic

Math problem

In 1935, while a student of Joseph Schillinger, Glenn Miller wrote a simple composition as a mathematical exercise. Miller picked up the piece years later when he was a member of Ray Noble’s Orchestra and Edward Heyman supplied a lyric titled, “Now I Lay Me Down to Weep.” A new lyric was subsequently written by historian George T. Simon titled “Gone with the Dawn,” and yet another was tossed on the pile by Mitchell Parish (who specialized in new lyrics to old songs) called “Wind on the Trees.” He finally came up with the winner, “Moonlight Serenade.” That title was inspired by Miller’s recording of Frankie Carle’s “Sunrise Serenade.”Moonlight Serenade

Moved to tears.

Arranger Bill Finegen sometimes wrote wilder arrangements than Miller wanted and the leader would cut down the more egregious excesses. Miller did appreciate Finegen’s work and when he first heard the arrangement of “A Handful of Stars” he cried.Handful of Stars

I'd like a room

The title of this tune was the actual phone number of New York’s Hotel Pennsylvania, where Miller’s band often played. Originally, the band didn’t shout out the title—but once the short vocal was added, the song became a big hit and the hotel was mightily pleased.Pennsylvania 6-5000

Alabama railroad

This song was written by bandleader Erskine Hawkins, Julius Dash, and William Johnson. The latter two were saxophone players with Hawkins. The title of the song comes from an actual railroad junction in Alabama. Miller and Hawkins both appeared at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem on Christmas Eve 1939. Hawkins played the tune and members of the Miller band took notice. Jerry Gray wrote up an arrangement a few days later and the Miller band recorded the song in 1940, to great success.Tuxedo Junction

No sentimental value attached

Glenn Miller: "The trend seems to be to jazz up the classics. I don’t have any objection to doing this if there is no sentimental value attached to them. So while the 'Anvil Chorus' from Il Trovatore lends itself every inch of the way to an adaptation, the symphonies of Beethoven don’t, because people think of them as sacred."Anvil Chorus

Tortured for American ears

Feodor Chaliapin popularized this traditional Russian song in his concerts and recitals throughout the United States. When he heard the Bill Finegan swing arrangement played by the Miller band, his comment was, “The boatmen’s song is tortured for American ears.”Song of the Volga Boatman

Making money

“Why do you judge me as a musician, John? All I’m interested in is making money.”Glenn Miller to John Hammond

Glenn could play anything

“I knew Glenn could play anything I could put on paper and that he could arrange it in a way that could only make it sound marvelous. He was a master--more than people realized. His influence was enormous. Glenn was more responsible for the sound of the big band era than anybody. I wish I could have written more music for him but he went into the Army right after Orchestra Wives and two years later he was dead.”Harry Warren

Bookmark and Share
The 3 part PBS Series
Own the DVD