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The “Chattanooga Choo Choo” That Could: The Life and Legacy of Glenn Miller

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The following is a guest post from Archives Processing Technician Melissa Capozio Jones.

“You had better tell your grandfather–Glenn Miller is his guy!” my father excitedly said when I mentioned I would be working on the Glenn Miller materials. Like my grandfather, you would be hard pressed to find anyone in the U.S. who had lived through the 1930s and into the post-war years who hadn’t at least heard of Glenn Miller and his orchestra. His name is synonymous with the classic big band sound, and his ballad “Moonlight Serenade” is likely one of the best-known songs of all time, recognizable by old and young alike.

Manuscript score.
Alto Saxophone 2 part for “Moonlight Serenade”, used by the Glenn Miller Orchestra under the direction of Tex Beneke. Box 4, folder 11, Production Materials for The Glenn Miller Story, Music Division.

It was this incredible popularity that led Universal Pictures to create a 1953 biographical film about Miller and his life, titled The Glenn Miller Story. Production materials and reference documents used for the film were what I had the pleasure of working on.  A quick look at Miller’s life shows why there was so much support for producing a film centered around him. Not only was he a household name in music, but the story of how he got there was inspiring and dramatic, perfect for Hollywood.

Born in 1904, Miller was passionate about his chosen career from a young age, deciding to take up trombone and ultimately dropping out of college to focus solely on music. He freelanced with a number of groups throughout the 1920s, touring and learning from other musicians while honing his composing and arranging skills. After marrying his college sweetheart, Helen Burger, in 1928, Miller continued his freelance work in New York, eventually becoming the music director for the Dorsey Brothers. His work with the Dorseys led him to English bandleader Ray Noble who had Miller organize his American band.

Miller went on to record under his own name for the first time in 1935, but without much success. His recordings for Columbia Records sold poorly, leaving him to return to his work with Noble. It was around this time that he began studies with music theorist Joseph Schillinger, who would have a direct impact on Miller’s signature sound.

Black and white photograph
Scene from The Glenn Miller Story (Universal Pictures), starring James Stewart as Glenn Miller. Box 2, folder 2, Production Materials for The Glenn Miller Story, Music Division.

It took two more years before Miller ventured out on his own again, forming the first iteration of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Although the orchestra made several recordings which received positive reviews and a number of performances, they didn’t achieve the popularity of other dance bands of the day. Accepting defeat, Miller disbanded the group in early 1938. In an interview in 1976, Benny Goodman revealed that Miller, struggling with the failure of his first orchestra, asked him, “What do you do? How do you make it?”  and Goodman replied, “I don’t know, Glenn. You just stay with it.”

And stay with it he did. Just two months later, in March 1938, Miller formed his second orchestra. This time, he sought to create a band with a distinctive sound that would set it apart from the other American dance bands. “A band ought to have a sound all its own. It ought to have a personality,” he once said. He found it with the new Glenn Miller Orchestra and by 1939 they hit their stride, playing gigs across the country to massive audiences including a joint performance at Carnegie Hall with Benny Goodman, Fred Waring, Paul Whiteman, and their orchestras. Their recordings of now-classic hits “Tuxedo Junction” and “Pennsylvania 6-5000” broke records as well. Over the next two years they appeared in movies and received the first ever gold record from RCA Victor for “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”

Typed title page
Captain Don W. Haynes’ wartime diary. Box 3, folder 5, Production Materials for The Glenn Miller Story, Music Division.

In 1942, Miller made the decision to step away at the height of his career with his orchestra and join the war effort. Initially turned away by the Navy and ineligible for the draft due to his age, Miller decided instead to convince the Army to modernize the military band, eventually joining the Army Specialist Corps. At the completion of his training he was transferred to the Army Air Corps where he formed the 418th Army Air Force Band. They shipped out to England and spent much of 1944 touring military bases and giving hundreds of performances and radio broadcasts. Miller’s civilian life clearly had no trouble acclimating to the rigors of the war, with the band providing entertainment and boosting the morale of military personnel overseas at a frantic pace. His manager and executive officer, Captain Don Haynes, compiled a diary detailing the time from their deployment in June 1944 until August 1945, providing insight into not only their packed performance schedule but their intimate feelings on their circumstances. A film production transcript of the diary is included with the Glenn Miller materials here at the Library of Congress.

Miller would never return home to the United States. On December 15, 1944, Miller left England for Paris to prepare for his band’s arrival, accompanied by pilot John Morgan and Lieutenant Colonel Norman Baessell.  Their plane disappeared over the English Channel; the plane and passengers were never recovered. Miller’s headstone in Arlington National Cemetery reads MIA, a designation that leaves an extraordinary life feeling unfinished. After his disappearance, his wife, Helen, continued his work by supporting the re-formation of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, as well as gifting to the Library the materials I would eventually work on.

Glenn Miller’s life left an extensive legacy, one of classic big band tunes, lasting impact on the modern military band, and a story worthy of the silver screen.

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