Glenn Miller inspired the World War II generation. He was born on March 1, 1904 in Iowa and died on December 15, 1944 whilst traveling to entertain American troops in France.
Miller was an American big band arranger, musician, composer, and bandleader in the swing era. From 1939 to 1943, he was the biggest selling recording artist. Leading one of the best known big bands, Miller’s recordings include “In the Mood”, “Moonlight Serenade”, “Pennsylvania 6-5000”, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, “A String of Pearls”, “At Last”, “(I’ve Got a Gal In) Kalamazoo”, “American Patrol”, “Tuxedo Junction”, “Elmer’s Tune”, and “Little Brown Jug”.
THE EARLY TEARS
Born in Clarinda, Iowa, bandleader and musician, Glenn Miller started playing the mandolin as a child, but quickly switched to the horn. Miller played in the school band. After graduating in 1921 he turned professional becoming a member of the Boyd Senter’s orchestra.
Miller quit the orchestra in 1923 to go to college. After a year at the University of Colorado he dropped out to return to the music business. Moving to Los Angeles, California, Miller worked for a time with Ben Pollack’s band. He then headed to New York City, where he freelanced as a trombonist and an music arranger. Miller became the musical director for Tommy Dorsey’s band with brother Jimmy Dorsey in 1934. He then formed an American orchestra for British bandleader Ray Noble.
THE KING OF SWING
Glenn Miller struggled for many years before establishing himself. He formed his own orchestra and then reconfigured it several times until he found the winning combination. It was his band’s performance at the Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York, in 1939 that helped put Miller on the map, many concerts were broadcast on the radio, giving them great public exposure.
Miller scored his first hit with “Wishing (Will Make It So)” that same year. He penned his even bigger successful single, “Moonlight Serenade,” which climbed the charts in 1939 as well.
With their distinctive swing jazz style, Miller and his orchestra became the country’s top dance band. They dominated the music charts with such tracks as “In the Mood,” “Tuxedo Junction” and “Pennsylvania 6-5000” in 1940.
Miller made his first film in 1941, Sun Valley Serenade, with Sonja Henie. The film featured one of his famous signature songs “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” The following year, he appeared in Orchestra Wives (1942).
That same year, Miller had to put his music career aside to serve his country. He was inducted into the U.S. Army, later transferring to the Army Air Force.
Miller headed up the U.S. Army Air Force Band, which gave numerous performances to entertain the troops during World War II. He was stationed in England in 1944 when he learned that his band was to go to Paris. On December 15, Miller boarded a transport plane headed to the newly liberated French capital. He intended to make preparations for his group’s new series of concerts there, but he never arrived. There were two others on board the plane: Lt. Col. Norman Baessell and pilot John Morgan. Miller left behind his wife, the former Helen Burger, originally from Boulder, Colorado, and two children they had adopted in 1943 and 1944, Steven and Jonnie. In February 1945, Helen Miller accepted the Bronze Star medal for Miller.
What happened to Miller’s plane remains a mystery. Neither the plane nor Miller’s body was ever recovered. Miller’s military band continued to play for months after his death, and the Glenn Miller Orchestra was revived after the war to honor his legacy. Jimmy Stewart later starred in the popular film The Glenn Miller Story (1954), which was loosely based on Miller’s life.
Watch the Glenn Miller Story starring James Stewart (1954)