Tenor saxophonist and singer Tex Beneke is best remembered for his long association with Glenn Miller. Beneke began his career performing in regional bands in the Oklahoma and Texas area. He joined Ben Young’s outfit in 1935 and traveled to Detroit with them in 1937. There, in 1938, he was heard by fellow saxophonist Sam Donahue, who recommended him to his then boss, Gene Krupa. Krupa couldn’t hire Beneke but knew Miller was putting together a new outfit and informed the bandleader about him.
Beneke debuted with Miller’s orchestra in 1938. He quickly became one of the bandleader’s closest associates and emerged as a popular star in his own right, his sax solos decorating many of Miller’s hit songs. Down Beat magazine readers voted him to the 1940, 1941 and 1942 All-American Swing Bands, the only Miller musician to earn that honor. Aside from his sax duties, Beneke also stepped out of the band to sing novelty tunes. His most notable vocal hits include “Chattanooga Choo Choo” and “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo.” He also appeared with the band in their two 20th Century Fox films.
After Miller disbanded in September 1942 to join the Army Air Force, Beneke went out on tour with fellow Miller vocalists Marion Hutton and the Modernaires as a combined act called the Glenn Miller Singers. Beneke received offers from Jan Savitt and Horace Heidt, taking the latter at a rumored guarantee of $500.00 per week. His sudden appearance in Heidt’s orchestra in December surprised many people, but his unexpected departure after only five days on the bandstand surprised even him. Beneke had tried to enlist in the Navy earlier in the year but had been rejected due to color blindness. No sooner had he settled in to Heidt’s outfit when he received a wire from the Navy informing him that they had waived his disability, and he was ordered to report. While in the service, Beneke was stationed at the Naval Air Technical Training Center in Norman, Oklahoma, where he was a member of the welfare department and director of two dance bands. He rose to the rank of Chief Petty Officer.
Post-War Miller Band
After his discharge in November 1945, Beneke was recruited by Miller’s widow to front his former employer’s Army Air Force orchestra when it returned to the States. The band made its first civilian radio performance on January 12, 1946, over NBC and its first live performance on January 24, 1946, at the Capitol Theater in New York. Composed mostly of Miller’s AAF musicians and those who had played with Miller before the war, the group was officially called the Glenn Miller Orchestra with Tex Beneke and was billed as the band Miller “wanted to present to the American public on his return from overseas.”
The orchestra, which used both Miller’s pre-war and wartime books, was one of the largest bands in the country, with 30 or more musicians, including a string section. Johnny Desmond was originally slated to be the male ballad singer but departed for a solo career before the band made its debut. Artie Malvin, an ex-Claude Thornhill vocalist who had been an arranger for Miller’s AAF band, stepped in to take his place. Vocal group the Crew Chiefs made the transition from the wartime band. Jerry Gray continued to arrange. Lillian Lane joined the orchestra as its first female singer before their appearance at the Capitol.
Beneke’s orchestra quickly became one of the most popular in the country, often playing to record-breaking crowds. At a time when most bands were struggling, and many disbanding, Beneke’s Miller group was raking in the profits. Beneke was not officially the leader of the band however. That title went to manager Don Haynes, who had also been Miller’s manager, joining him in 1940 and enlisting in the service alongside him, where he continued to manage Miller’s wartime band as well. Beneke was salaried as a front man, but after the band proved a huge success he raised the issue. Reports stated that there was friction between him and Haynes over the matter, which Beneke “strongly” denied. Beneke was finally cut in on the profit sharing equally with Haynes in January 1947.
Haynes and Beneke slowly tried to wean the band off of Miller’s name and book but were unsuccessful at every turn. Beneke began by adding a few songs to the band’s book that were not closely tied to Miller, but fans complained. Billing on record labels, originally credited as “Tex Beneke with The Glenn Miller Orchestra,” had subtly changed to “Tex Beneke and The Miller Orchestra” by the end of 1946, but when Haynes sent a contract to a theater operator requiring that only Beneke’s name be displayed on the marquee and in advertising, the operator sent it back. When Haynes sent a new contract with both Beneke and Miller’s name included, the operated accepted it, and at an increased price. “That proved it to us,” said Haynes, “and as far as we are concerned, the Miller name will remain indefinitely.” When Down Beat printed an article discussing the desire by Haynes and Beneke to make the name change, angry letters flooded into the magazine. Readers were almost unanimously against it.
The group finished first in Billboard magazine’s 1947 poll for best sweet band. They appeared regularly on radio on all the major networks in 1946 and 1947, including a thirteen-week appearance on Desmond’s Mutual network radio program, Judy, Jill and Johnny, starting in December 1946. In Summer 1947, the band began alternating with Frankie Carle on the Chesterfield Supper Club. The deal caused major problems with Beneke’s booking schedule, forcing him to cancel a number of dates due to Chesterfield requiring the band to do their Monday and Wednesday shows from New York. Beneke lost $35,000 in the process. In early 1948, the band began a weekly recruitment program, On the Beam, for the Army Air Force on the Mutual network.
As the band began to come into its own, Beneke had to walk a very tight rope when it came to using the name of his former boss. Though fans were extremely loyal to Miller, critics and those in the music trade felt that Beneke was misusing the late bandleader’s name for his own advantage. Beneke and Haynes kept slowly pushing and by October 1947 felt confident enough that bookers were willing to accept the Beneke name on its own. They announced that starting February 2, 1948, the band would drop Miller’s name from its tag. By this time, aside from Beneke, there was only one other member who had played with Miller. The band’s name on Victor record labels had become “Tex Beneke and his Orchestra” by the end of 1947.
In January 1949, Beneke got rid of the band’s ten-member string section. Fans had continually asked him to drop strings and get back to the Miller basics, though Beneke stated that Miller would have used strings if he were alive, which is why he had kept them. Beneke continued to be hemmed in by Miller’s legend, having to heavily play Miller standards at every performance. If he brought in a new ballad, it had to be given the familiar Miller reed voicing. In early 1949, he told Down Beat that the band was going to get more “Miller-ish,” as all their requests were for the Miller style. In an early 1949 interview, Beneke also said he had held out hope that Miller wasn’t dead and would return but recently had come to accept that he wouldn’t.
Though Beneke continued to draw crowds, by the end of the 1940s his music and style had lost much of its promise. He began to receive serious competition on the Miller front in late 1949 from Ralph Flanagan’s orchestra, which released a series of recordings in the Miller style, and on the same label, Victor, as Beneke. In response, in early 1950, Beneke began to return more to Miller’s library. Flanagan’s live debut in spring 1950, however, drew an excited reaction from the trade press, who generally felt it to be better than Beneke’s band. Unlike Beneke, Flanagan avoided current pop tunes and focused on the dance beat. As one Down Beat review wrote about Flanagan: “It’s one of the very few bands since the war which this reviewer has listened to for an entire evening with sustained interest.” Beneke began to feel the heat, and he took exception with Victor’s handling and promotion of Flanagan. He and Haynes asked Victor for release from their contract.
Lane, Malvin, and the Crew Chiefs remained with the band through summer 1946. Malvin had left by October, replaced by Garry Stevens. Lane and the Crew Chiefs left in October. The Mello-Larks replaced the Crew Chiefs, with Mello-Lark Joan Lorry temporarily taking over as female vocalist until Ginny O’Connor, previously with Mel Tormé’s Meltones, was hired for the role. O’Connor retired in spring 1947 to marry Beneke’s pianist, Henry Mancini. The Mello-Larks left in summer 1947, and Beneke replaced them with his own creation, the Moonlight Serenaders. Stevens stayed with the orchestra into early 1948.
Like most bands in the late 1940s, Beneke’s had trouble finding and keeping vocalists, and he went through a slew of names. He had a hard time replacing O’Connor, and the female vocal slot was open for quite some time. Wilma Risner sang on the orchestra’s On the Beam radio program in early 1948. By June 1949, Mary Mayo, one of the Moonlight Serenaders, was handling female vocalist chores, but by August Claire Sherwin had come and gone followed by Suzanne Shepherd. Marilyn Jackson also sang.
Ronnie Deauville replaced Stevens as the male balladeer, but by fall Kirk Wood had come and gone. In late 1948, Beneke relied solely on himself and the Moonlght Serenaders for vocals, with vocal group member Bob Mitchell taking ballads. Glenn Douglas was male vocalist in mid-1949. Gregg Lawrence, Buddy Yeager, and Bob Shaver sang in 1950. In 1951, Bill Raymond was vocalist, with the Crew Chiefs returning to back Beneke on recordings. Ray Eberle and the Gwen Bari Trio also recorded with the band in summer 1951.
Helen Lee sang in mid-1950, but by September she had been replaced by Eydie Gormé. With Gormé, Beneke finally found a stable female vocalist, and one who impressed the critics. Gormé had previously sang with Tommy Tucker but credits Beneke with teaching her how to perform. She went on to a very successful career as a singer in the 1950s and 1960s.
Break with Miller Estate
Flanagan’s rise in popularity as well as the appearance of other Miller imitators caused Beneke to take stock of his situation, and in December 1950 he made the decision to part ways with Haynes and strike out on his own. Haynes was dismissive, saying “Somebody has put big ideas in [Beneke’s] head. He seems to think he can get along on his own with no help from those who gave him his start.” Haynes also took possession of the original Miller library, which comprised about half of Miller’s total book. Beneke was not worried, explaining, “Most of the so-called ‘original Miller arrangements’ have been published as stocks almost note for note and can be bought in any music store. That’s exactly what I did to replace some.” Beneke had no immediate plans to change the band’s style or format, though he hoped to create a sound that would be more distinctive than the “now-much-copied” Miller sound, believing Miller’s music would have evolved naturally over the years if Miller had been alive and would not have remained static.
Beneke attempted to keep working with Miller’s widow, offering her an agreement where she would have received the same percentage as she always had, but she declined. Beneke lost the right to use the Miller name, though operators were allowed to use the tagline “Music in the Miller Mood” when referring to Beneke’s band. Beneke also put pressure on RCA Victor and won his early release from the label. He signed with MGM Records in January 1951, and Mancini began writing new arrangements for the orchestra. Beneke switched booking agencies from General Artists Corporation, who had handled Miller, to Gabbe, Lutz and Heller.
In January 1951, Haynes secured a court order to seize property that had been jointly owned by he and Beneke before the split. The morning after Beneke’s band had finished an engagement at the Palladium in Los Angeles, a moving van hired by Haynes arrived at the club and hauled off music racks, portions of the music library, and various other props. The famously quiet-tempered Beneke offered no objections, though he felt he had as much right to the property as did Haynes. Beneke wanted the split to be settled peacefully and had no desire to make trouble. Haynes also seized other jointly-owned property in New York.
In November 1951, Miller’s estate decided to sell transcriptions and recordings taken from air check of Miller’s 15-minute Chesterfield program in the early 1940s. General Artists Corporation sued the estate, claiming contractual rights to the programs. Beneke, using the same lawyer as GAC, also sued because he hadn’t given permission for his name or work to be used in connection with the air check recordings. He had only found out about the sale when the estate sent him checks, at a sideman’s scale. Haynes, who was the Miller estate’s manager, was in charge of selling the transcriptions.
Though the Miller imitation fad began to fade out by the end of 1951, Beneke continued to play Miller songs, as the crowd continued to request them, but he also began to branch out in other directions. Lacking a strong presence in the vocal department after Gormé left to go solo in summer 1951, he began to focus more on instrumentals, many of them without the distinctive Miller sound. Record sales were poor, however, and Beneke blamed MGM’s lack of promotion, requesting a release from his contract with the label. The band signed with Coral in 1953.
Eberle and the Modernaires reunited with Beneke several times over the years for recordings in the Miller manner. Beneke continued leading his orchestra up until the early 1990s. Tex Beneke passed away in 2000 from respiratory failure.