A Miller Memory… or How would you ever have anything signed by such a great bandleader?
Recently, I was fortunate enough to listen to a concert of big band music here in my home town of Canton, Ohio with a gentleman whom I have known for many years. He is 91 years young, and very vital, with a sharp mind. Before the concert began, we exchanged pleasantries, and then after the music started, we limited our conversation to brief comments made between selections.
Among the tunes the band played was Jerry Gray’s original composition/arrangement “A String of Pearls,” which was a mega-hit for Glenn Miller and his Orchestra. I was taking special note of how this band employed its five saxophones, because in the original Miller recording, Gray had the wonderful Ernie Caceres, who played mostly baritone saxophone in the section, play alto throughout this arrangement, take a solo on that instrument, and not play the baritone in the section. This band was using a baritone in the ensembles, having it play in unison with the lead alto. (At right: Glenn Miller (left) with Jerry Gray; pictured when they were in the Army together 1942-1944.)
After the applause for “A String of Pearls” died down, my friend said to me “I once saw the original Miller band at Moonlight Ballroom here in Canton.” I told him I had read about that engagement in the excellent book Moonlight Serenade—A Bio-discography of the Glenn Miller Civilian Band, by John Flower, and explained that Flower included considerable detail about many Miller engagements in his book. He then said, “[W]ell, that night I don’t know how many people were in Moonlight Ballroom, but I do remember that it was absolutely packed. In fact, it was impossible for anyone to dance because people were standing from right in front of the bandstand well back onto the dance floor. Since I wanted to be near the band, my date and I went up as close as we could get to the bandstand, and just watched the musicians. The band was incredibly good. Miller made sure to play all of his hits, which of course thrilled the crowd. He also sprinkled in some lesser known arrangements. I wish I could recall them.” (At right: Miller’s saxophone section in 1940, about a year before “A String of Pearls” was recorded. L-R: Al Klink, tenor saxophone; Willie Schwartz, alto saxophone; Hal McIntyre, lead alto saxophone; Ernie Caceres, alto saxophone; and Tex Beneke, tenor saxophone.The girl in the foreground is vocalist Marion Hutton.)
“Anyway, as the first set was about to end, we went behind the bandstand, where there was sort of a runway that ran between the back wall of the bandstand, and the wall where the doors were that led into the dressing room, where the band members went to take their break. Since the band was still playing when we went back there, very few people were there then. But the band’s road manager, Johnny O’Leary was there. I spoke with him for a few seconds. He told me where the band had recently been, and I don’t recall that now, and then he told me that when they finished at Moonlight Ballroom, they were heading to a ballroom near Altoona, Pennsylvania for another one-nighter.”(At left: Glenn Miller (light colored jacket, with some of the members of his band, playing a theater engagement.)
Note: Here is the info about Glenn Miller’s appearance at Moonlight Ballroom in Canton, Ohio on June 7, 1942 from the Flower book: “The band played from 9:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. The per person charge to get in was $1.25.There were 4,496 dancers there.The night before, the Miller band played at Lakeside Park Ballroom in Dayton, Ohio and drew 3,200 dancers at a steep $2.50 admission fee.The band went from Canton to Carrolltown, Pennsylvania, where they played the next night.” (Carrolltown is about 20 miles northwest of Altoona. MZ) (Photo at left is of Miller and some of his sidemen on the set of the Twentieth Century Fox film Sun Valley Serenade March 24-May 3,1941.)
My friend’s memory of events that happened seventy-four years before, though not perfect in every detail, was remarkably accurate. I have no doubt that Johnny O’Leary told him the band was headed to Altoona, Pennsylvania that night so long ago.(At right: the Miller band onstage at a ballroom packed with listeners who aren’t dancing. The trumpet soloist is Billy May.)
Here is the rest of his story:
“At that very moment, I turned around and Glenn Miller was walking toward us, with members of his band following him. I wanted to get his autograph, but had nothing for him to write on, or a pen. As he came near, I said ‘Gee Mr. Miller, I really love your band. He smiled and said, ‘I’ll bet you want my autograph, too.’ I then said ‘Yes, I do, very much, but… and then he smiled again and said, ’you don’t have a pen. Well, I always carry one for situations like this.’ I then said with all of the sheepish awkwardness of a not so sophisticated seventeen year old boy, ‘I don’t have any paper…’ By then, I expected him to tell me to get lost, but instead, he reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out a Chesterfield cigarette, and autographed that and handed it to me and said, ‘I’m glad you like my band, keep listening,’ and then he entered the band room. I kept looking at that cigarette, and showed it to my date, and just felt as though I was flying. I asked her to put it into her purse, so it wouldn’t get damaged when we went back into the ballroom.” (At left: the Miller band onstage doing a Chesterfield broadcast. Miller’s radio program sponsored by Chesterfield cigarettes was the cornerstone of his great success.)
“I got that cigarette back from my date after the dance, and took it home, and stored it carefully in a small tin box that I kept in the drawer of a desk in my bedroom. There it remained until I entered the Army later in 1942. I did not open my desk drawer from late 1942 until early 1946, because I was away from home in the Army. When I returned, one of the first things I did was to open my desk drawer and open that little tin. When I did, I was shocked to find that that precious cigarette was gone. I immediately went to my mother and asked, ‘Mom, where is that cigarette that I had in that little tin in my desk drawer?’ ‘Oh that,’ she said, ‘I threw that away because I don’t want you to be smoking cigarettes.’ I then said ‘didn’t you notice that that cigarette was autographed by Glenn Miller?’ ‘Yes, I did. Wasn’t he a boy you went to high school with?’ ‘No Mom, Glenn Miller was one of the greatest bandleaders ever.’ ‘How would you ever have anything signed by such a great bandleader?’ she said. “Sensing a state of utter hopelessness, I said in exasperation, ‘Mom that was a very valuable cigarette that you threw away.’”
Here is Glenn Miller’s recording of “A String of Pearls”:
“A String of Pearls”
Composed and arranged by Jerry Gray.
Recorded by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra on November 3, 1941 for RCA Bluebird in New York City.
Glenn Miller, lead trombone, directing: Dale McMickle, first trumpet; Alec Fila, John Best and Billy May, trumpets: Bobby Hackett, cornet and guitar; Gordon “Tex” Beneke, lead alto saxophone; Ernie Caceres and Willie Schwartz, alto saxophones; Al Klink and Irving “Babe” Russin, tenor saxophones; Jimmy Priddy, Paul Tanner and Frankie D’Annolfo, trombones; Chummy MacGregor, piano; Doc Goldberg, bass; Maurice Purtill, drums.
The story: By the time Glenn Miller recorded “A String of Pearls,” he and his band had had two-plus years of success. Indeed, Miller’s successes were multiplying rapidly in the fall of 1941. Their CBS network radio show, Glenn Miller’s Moonlight Serenade (sponsored by Chesterfield cigarettes), was an ongoing success, analogous to a hit television series today. It provided Miller with not only a solid financial base for the ongoing operation of his band, but also a powerful promotional device for his latest recordings and other activities.He and his band had been featured in a Hollywood film, Sun Valley Serenade, earlier in 1941, and they were scheduled to return to Hollywood in early 1942 to make another film, Orchestra Wives. Their appearances at ballrooms and theaters were sellouts. Promoters across the nation were constantly demanding the Miller band, but there simply were not enough hours in the day for Miller to present his band everywhere it was being requested.
As one might expect, the Miller band was working almost constantly. Miller, who was a superb business executive in addition to being a fine musician, centered his band’s activities in Manhattan in the late fall of 1941. Their primary location engagement was at the Cafe Rouge of Hotel Pennsylvania, from which they broadcast regularly late at night. Miller also inaugurated a Saturday afternoon broadcast (5:00-6:00 p.m.) from the Pennsylvania at this time, which he called Sunset Serenade. He also broadcast for Chesterfield on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings each week (see photo at left), and made as many records for RCA-Bluebird as possible. Before leaving New York in February 1942, Miller and his band added several shows a day at the Paramount Theater on Times Square during a three week stand there.
The personnel of the Miller band was relatively stable, principally because his musicians were making more money than almost any other musicians in New York. At the time “A String of Pearls” was recorded, Miller’s principal tenor saxophone soloist, Tex Beneke, was temporarily covering the first alto saxophone chair. The man who had occupied that chair for several years, Hal McIntyre, left Miller in early October to resume leading his own band. McIntyre’s replacement did not work out. Shortly after this recording was made, Miller secured the services of a superb lead alto player, Skip Martin, who served in that capacity until the breakup of the Miller band in late September 1942. Since Beneke had moved over to lead alto, Miller hired on a temporary basis one of the best free lance tenor saxophone soloists in New York, Babe Russin. When Martin came into the band shortly after this recording was made, Beneke returned to his old tenor saxophone duties, and Russin left.(Tenor saxophonist Tex Beneke is pictured at right.)
The music: “A String of Pearls” is another perfectly balanced, colorful swing arrangement by Jerry Gray. (His masterful treatment of Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine” is presented elsewhere on this blog.) It opens with a brief descending introduction that moves through the brass sections of the band, ending with Bobby Hackett’s chorded guitar played in unison with Doc Goldberg’s bass and pianist Chummy MacGregor’s left hand chords. The saxophones under Beneke’s alto lead, state the minimalist melody in three eight bar repeats separated by brief, contrasting brass punctuations. Then Miller’s powerful (eight strong) brass section takes the transition into the saxophone solos. Ernie Caceres plays the first alto solo against bright brass backgrounds. After the brass return with their descending chords, Caceres and Tex Beneke have a bit of a dialog on their alto saxophones.Then tenor saxophonists Babe Russin and Al Klink also have a verile instrumental chat. This leads to the centerpiece of the performance, Bobby Hackett’s cornet solo. (Hackett is pictured at left in 1942.) It is a lovely, creative improvisation that has been much imitated since this record was issued in 1942. Chummy MacGregor follows with a bit of piano, and the band, in muscular fashion, takes the performance out with tasty riffs, lowering the volume a bit before the dynamic finale.
This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.