Glenn Miller

One of America’s most celebrated bandleaders, Glenn Miller’s name is synonymous with swing music. Miller’s chart success and popularity among audiences of his time rivals that of latter-day artists such as Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Within the relatively short period of three-and-a-half years he managed to top the charts more than twenty times. Miller disbanded at the height of his career to join the Army Air Force in late 1942, where he led what became the pre-eminent military orchestra of the war years until his tragic death in late 1944.

Early Bands

During the 1920s and early 1930s, Miller, who played trombone, worked with a variety of bands and orchestras as both a musician and arranger. He became known as a capable organizer, helping put together successful bands for Smith Ballew, the Dorsey Brothers, and Ray Noble, though he had a difficult time starting one of his own. His first orchestra, in 1935, lasted only a few months.

Miller tried again in March 1937, managing to keep his second band together through the end of the year, though it constantly struggled. Miller was never satisfied with his musicians, especially his drummers, and kept constantly changing them. The band recorded on Decca in March and Brunswick in December, and even lined up a national radio broadcast late in the year, but it wasn’t enough, and Miller disbanded in January 1938.

Initial female vocalist for the 1937 orchestra was Jeanne D’Arcy, later replace by Kathleen Lane. To fill the male slot, Miller asked popular Jimmy Dorsey vocalist Bob Eberly if he had any brothers who could sing, and Bob said yes. Miller hired Ray Eberle based solely on that recommendation.[1]

Towards the end of 1937, Miller had begun to experiment with the unique sound that later became his trademark. He had written several arrangements for trumpeter Pee Wee Erwin which featured him playing an octave above the tenor sax line. When Erwin left, his replacement couldn’t hit such high notes, and Miller reassigned the part to clarinetist Johhny Mince and added a fourth sax to the mix. This prominent use of reeds instead of brass became the Miller sound, though it didn’t catch on at the time.

Success at Last

Miller decided to give it another try in March 1938, organizing a new band with mostly new faces. This time, Miller got lucky and ended up with a group of competent musicians whom he liked. Miller also made the shift away from two-beat jazz and, influenced by Count Basie, began to use more modern sounding four-beat arrangements. The new orchestra recorded on Bluebird.

In the vocal department, Eberle returned. Lane had found another job, however, and Miller hired Gail Reese in her place. Never quite happy with Reese, he kept his eye open for a replacement who could liven up the act. In September, he finally found what he was looking for in Marion Hutton, whom he heard while she and sister Betty were performing in Boston with Vincent Lopez’s orchestra. Though Betty was the one who captured the public’s eye, Miller thought Marion easier to handle and invited her to join.[2] Miller liked her wholesome looks and briefly billed her as Sissy Jones. Saxophonist Tex Beneke handled specialty numbers.

The new band struggled. They did well in ballrooms, but their style was lost in the New York night clubs and hotels where they most played and where patrons expected less exciting music. Miller became discouraged, but things finally began to look his way in March 1939 when he landed a booking at the Glen Island Casino in New York, the most prominent spot in the country at the time. Before heading into the Casino, Miller took the band into the Meadowbrook in New Jersey and whipped them into shape. By the time the orchestra hit the Casino, it was well-polished and took the country by storm, becoming the talk of the music world and the number one band in the nation by year’s end, a spot it held for the next four years.

Vocalist Changes

Compared to other orchestras, Miller had a relatively stable vocal department, with few changes. Most of those changes revolved around Hutton, who left the band and returned twice. She first took a leave of absence in summer 1939, when she collapsed from exhaustion. Kay Starr took her place during the few weeks she was gone. Then in December 1940, gossip columns leaked the news that Hutton was pregnant. Though she was married, she felt embarrassed and stepped back from the bandstand, staying on the band’s radio program until Miller could find a replacement.

To fill Hutton’s shoes, Miller turned to Bobby Byrne vocalist Dorothy Claire. Claire was the perfect choice. She and Hutton had similar styles, and she would be a drop-in replacement for Hutton’s role in the band. Miller reportedly offered Claire $250 a week, a significant incentive to the $75 a week she received with Byrne. Miller also promised Claire evening clothes as well as extra pay for recordings and special broadcasts. Claire accepted and joined the band on January 6, 1941, despite the fact that she had just signed a two-year contract with Byrne in November.

Understandably upset with Miller’s poaching of his star vocalist, Byrne sued Miller for $25,000, charging him with “conspiracy, connivance, coercion and intimidation” for inducing Claire to break her contract. Miller’s attorney argued that Claire was still under 21 years of age at the time, which meant any contract she had entered was not legally binding in the eyes of the law. Claire’s mother, however, had countersigned her contract. Miller eventually decided that the legal problems weren’t worth it and released Claire in March, and she returned to Byrne to finish out her contract.

To replace Claire, Miller hired Paula Kelly, wife of Modernaire Hal Dickinson. The Modernaires, a vocal quartet who had previously sang with other orchestras, including those of Charlie Barnet and Paul Whiteman, had begun to work with Miller in late 1940, recording with the band while working on their own radio program and on Broadway. The quartet did not officially join Miller’s band, however, until January 18, 1941 when it left New York for a tour. They became a popular fixture in the orchestra’s sound, their smooth harmonies perfectly complimenting Miller’s style. After Kelly joined Miller, she began to sang backing harmony with the Modernaires, something which carried over when Hutton decided to return to the band in August.

Eberle emerged as one of the most popular male vocalists of the era, though his singing style wasn’t always appreciated by critics or even Miller’s own musicians. Still, he remained with the band until almost the very end. Eberle was often unprofessional, which irked the always professional Miller. A series of incidents in 1942 led to Miller firing Eberle in June when he showed up late to rehearsal, even though the reason for his tardiness was beyond his control. Both Eberle and Miller took their complaints about each other public after the firing. Miller replaced the departed singer with Chico Marx vocalist Skip Nelson.

Beneke was the only vocalist to remain throughout the band’s existence. He became highly popular in his own regard, singing on some of Miller’s most memorable tunes, including “I’ve Got A Gal in Kalamazoo” and “Chatanooga Choo Choo.”

Military Service

In summer 1942, both Miller and his manager, Don Haynes, arranged to join the Army Air Force, with the goal of organizing a modern military orchestra. Miller was not the first bandleader to go into the service. Others had already enlisted or joined and were leading service bands. Miller, however, had grander ideas. Miller’s civilian orchestra played its last show on September 27, 1942. It was an emotional moment for all involved. Hutton couldn’t make it through the performance, bursting into tears and running off stage in the middle of “Kalamazoo.”

After being given his commission, Miller went right to work putting together a new orchestra, handpicking its members. He was given carte blanche in selecting whom he wanted. The new outfit featured a string section, and Miller’s repertoire expanded from popular numbers into classical. Miller’s band was initially stationed at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, from where it made numerous radio broadcasts. In mid-1944, it was sent to Europe, where it performed in England and on parts of the continent that had been liberated by the Allies.

Former Artie Shaw arranger Jerry Gray became an integral part of the band. Miller used a number of vocalists while in the States, finally settling on Johnny Desmond, who traveled with the group overseas. Desmond became a phenomenon in Europe among servicemen and civilians alike, earning the nickname “G.I. Sinatra.” He counted among his fans Princess Elizabeth, the future British queen. Miller also used a vocal quartet known as the Crew Chiefs.

In December 1944, the band was slated to perform in Paris. Miller flew ahead to finalize arrangements, but his plane never landed. The exact cause of the plane’s disappearance is still unknown to this day. Its wreckage has never been found. It was initially believed to have been shot down by friendly fire over the English Channel, but a modern investigation argues that the cause of the plane’s demise was due to defective parts and a pilot who wasn’t trained for the type of weather they encountered.

Miller Mania

Though gone, Miller was hardly forgotten. A surge in interest occurred surrounding Miller after the war. Miller’s service band remained together under Gray until being discharged in 1945. Haynes, along with Miller’s widow, saw the potential for keeping Miller’s music alive and organized a new Miller band, composed of former Miller musicians, both civilian and military, and led by Beneke. The new orchestra made its debut in January 1946, causing quite a sensation and remaining popular through the rest of the decade. In early 1948, with hardly any former Miller musicians remaining, it dropped the Miller name and officially took Beneke’s.

In 1950, a wave of Miller mania swept the nation, with several new bands appearing on the scene that played in the Miller style, mostly notably that of Ralph Flanagan. The fad had died down by late 1950, but the competition had shaken Beneke, who saw no future in being a Miller clone and wanted to forge his own sound. He disagree with Haynes on Miller’s vision for what his band would sound like after the war, and in December he broke with Haynes and the estate. He continued to play Miller songs but branched out on his own as well.


  1. The two Eberle brothers spelled their names differently. Bob changed his professionally in 1939 when the announcer on the Milton Berle show kept mispronouncing it. ↩︎

  2. Miller allowed no stars in his band, learning a lesson from Benny Goodman, who encouraged both Harry James and Gene Krupa, who came to rival him in popularity and disrupted the band when they both left in 1938. ↩︎

Vocalist Timeline

Note: Dates may be approximate. Some vocalists may not be listed due to lack of information on their dates of employment.


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. Walker, Leo. The Wonderful Era of the Great Dance Bands. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1972.
  3. “Streamlined Chassis.” Down Beat Jul. 1937: 16.
  4. “Glenn Miller Opens in New Orleans with New Band.” Down Beat Jul. 1937: 31.
  5. “Blues Singer Coming to Annual Ball.” The Telegraph [Nashua, NH] 14 Feb. 1939: 7.
  6. “Gets Married.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1940: 1.
  7. “Marion Hutton Quits Glenn Miller To Become a Mother.” Billboard 28 Dec. 1940: 76.
  8. “Talent and Tunes On Music Machines.” Billboard 11 Jan. 1941: 63.
  9. “Miller Sued For 'Theft' of Vocalist.” Down Beat 15 Jan. 1941: 1.
  10. “Byrne Vs. Miller Litigation Begun.” Billboard 18 Jan. 1941: 14.
  11. “Glenn Miller's Orchestra is Army Favorite.” The Victoria Advocate [Victoria, TX] 4 Feb. 1941: 2.
  12. “Paula Kelly In, Claire Out of G. Miller Band.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1941: 1.
  13. “Marion Hutton In Comeback?” Down Beat 1 May 1941: 5.
  14. “Marion Hutton Bears a Boy.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1941: 1.
  15. “Marion Hutton Returns.” Billboard 9 Aug. 1941: 13.
  16. “Hutton Rejoins Glenn Miller.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1941: 5.
  17. “Campus Picks Top Chirps.” Billboard 2 May 1942: 19.
  18. “On the Records.” Billboard 20 Jun. 1942: 68.
  19. “Betty Hutton Has a Rival As Sister Joins the Films.” The Pittsburgh Press 5 Jul. 1942: Third Section, 7.
  20. “Miller Figures 25G in Buffalo.” Billboard 1 Aug. 1942: 18.
  21. “Miller in Army.” Billboard 19 Sep. 1942: 20.
  22. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 26 Sep. 1942: 21.
  23. Carter, Dick. “Talent and Tunes on Music Machines.” Billboard 26 Sep. 1942: 67.
  24. “Men All Scatter As Miller Joins.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1942: 4.
  25. “Tex Beneke Set to Head Miller Outfit in Mufti.” Billboard 6 Oct. 1945: 15.
  26. “Haynes, Tex Will Pilot Miller Ork.” Down Beat 1 Nov. 1945: 5.
  27. Wilson, John S. “Flanagan Ork Gives Every Indication Of Being A Hit.” Down Beat 5 May 1950: 1.
  28. “Beneke, Haynes Split.” Down Beat 12 Jan. 1951: 1.
  29. “Tex Admits Miller Debt, But Wants Independence.” Down Beat 26 Jan. 1951: 1.