Remembering a Musical Patriot
December 15, 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of the disappearance of one of America’s most popular musicians, who provided part of the soundtrack in the 1930s and 1940s to the lives of the Greatest Generation, and gave up a stellar civilian career to boost the morale of the Armed Forces in America and Europe during World War II. That would be Glenn Miller.
If you were to ask your parents or a grandparent who was the most popular bandleader of the “Swing Era”, they will probably say Glenn Miller. (I know my father would, because I have his collection of Miller 78’s and LP’s.) Let’s let the numbers do some talking.
From 1938-1942, Miller and his orchestra had 16 number 1 records, and almost 70 songs that hit the Top Ten. For comparison, that Top Ten total pretty much doubles the number of either Elvis Presley (38) or The Beatles (33). The hits are familiar to anyone who has ever heard a big band recording or concert, songs including “In the Mood”, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, “Tuxedo Junction”, and Glenn’s theme song, “Moonlight Serenade.”
In 1942, Miller disbanded his civilian band and entered the Army, in order to put together a stellar orchestra to boost the war effort and bring a touch of home to the men and women of our armed forces, and those of our Allies. First, with performances in America, particularly though a radio program called “I Sustain the Wings”, and then it was on to Great Britain. They played throughout the British Isles, on the BBC, and recorded programs at EMI’s studios at Abbey Road (yes, THAT Abbey Road) for propaganda purposes with songs and announcements in German for the Office of War Information. They were definitely busy over there.
Example: On December 12th, 1944, Major Miller and the American Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces recorded a show in London, and then did a live broadcast on the Armed Forces Network at the Queensbury All-Service Club. Oh, and did another ½ hour concert for some 2,500 people in attendance there. It would be the last show the band would do with their leader.
On December 15, 1944, Major Miller boarded a UC-64 Norseman aircraft bound for Paris to do some advance work for the orchestra’s planned move to France. Taking off in terrible weather, Glenn’s plane disappeared over the English Channel.
Many theories have been put forth as to what happened. Most these days seem to agree that the carburetor on the Norseman iced up, causing the plane to crash, killing the plane’s passengers. The romantics amongst us will believe the explanation from the Manhattan Transfer’s “Twilight Zone/Twilight Tone”…”Glenn was up there bopping’ a rhythm, then the engine stopped to listen with him play that beat.”
If you’ve ever wanted to take a deep dive into some Miller music, you’ve got a lot to choose from. Between his studio recordings (about 260), movie soundtracks, the seemingly endless amount of radio broadcasts, and the treasure trove of the Army Air Force band recordings. It will be a wonderful experience, and a tribute to a patriot.