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 20 times.
Miller worked with a variety of bands and orchestras early in his career. 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. A second in 1937, with Kathleen (Kitty) Lane and Jeanne D’Arcy as vocalists, also failed to catch on. He finally hit the right formula in 1938. His new sound was greeted enthusiastically, and by the following year his orchestra was in great demand.
Miller’s band is probably as well known for its vocalists as it is for its music. Miller initially hired Gail Reese as female singer when he formed the group in 1938. Never quite happy with her, he kept his eye open for a replacement who could liven up the act. 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. He thought Marion easier to manager than Betty and hired her to replace Reese after only a few months.
Hutton remained with the group throughout the rest of its existence, though she took leave of absence twice—the first time in summer 1939, when she collapsed from exhaustion, and the second in January 1941, when it became public that she was pregnant. Kay Starr took her place during the few weeks she was gone in 1939. Miller hired Bobby Byrne vocalist Dorothy Claire to replace her during the latter absence. Claire, however, was still under contract to Byrne, which started a very public spat between the two leaders and resulted in Byrne suing Miller for inducing Claire to breach 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. In her place, Miller hired Paula Kelly, wife of Modernaire Hal Dickinson. Kelly remained with the band until Hutton returned in August.
Miller’s male vocalist situation proved less complicated. When forming the orchestra, 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. Though Eberle emerged as one of the most popular male vocalists of the era, 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.
Saxophonist Tex Beneke was an original member of Miller’s group and remained with the bandleader for the duration of the orchestra’s existence. Beneke sang on the band’s specialty numbers, which include some of its more famous and enduring songs, such as “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo.” Vocal group the Modernaires joined Miller in January 1941.
In September 1942, Miller disbanded his group and joined the Army Air Force with the goal of organizing a modern military band. His new orchestra played a constant stream of radio broadcasts and concerts. 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, though it is believed to have been shot down over the English Channel.
After Miller entered the service, Hutton, Beneke, and the Modernaires teamed up in a combined act called the Glenn Miller Singers and toured the country to sell-out crowds. Beneke left the group at year end, first for Horace Heidt’s band and then for the Navy. Hutton left the act in August 1943 to pursue a solo career, at which point the Modernaires brought in Paula Kelly and began touring as a combined act called, appropriately enough, the Modernaires with Paula Kelly.
The two Eberle brothers spelled their names differently. Bob changed his professionally when the announcer on the Milton Berle show kept mispronouncing it. ↩︎