“My Isle of Golden Dreams”
Composed by Walter Blaufuss; arranged by Bill Finegan and Glenn Miller.
Recorded by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra for Bluebird on August 18, 1939 in New York.
Glenn Miller, first trombone, directing: R.D. “Mickey” McMickle, first trumpet; Clyde Hurley and Legh Knowles, trumpets; Paul Tanner and Al Mastren, trombones; Hal McIntyre, first alto saxophone; Gerald Yelverton, alto saxophone; Wilbur Schwartz, alto saxophone and clarinet; Al Klink and Gordon “Tex” Beneke, tenor saxophones; J.C. “Chummy” MacGregor, piano; Dick Fisher, guitar; Rollie Bundock, bass; Maurice “Moe” Purtill, drums.
The aphorism “a rising tide lifts all boats” was proved to be accurate again and again during the swing era. If one artist recorded a song, and for whatever reason, it became a hit, other artists rushed to record it in a “cover” version. The one recording artist whose activities were monitored closely, indeed obsessively, by the people in the recording industry was Bing Crosby. Crosby was simply an entertainment phenomenon. He had a very successful sponsored network radio show for many years; his film career spanned the entire swing era, and extended well beyond. And last, but far from least, the records he made sold in the millions. Whenever Bing recorded anything for Decca, the label he was responsible for building, that recording, whether it was good or bad, was going to be bought by many thousands of people, at a minimum. This perforce caused others to include the songs he had recorded as a part of their musical presentations before audiences, and very often, to record a cover version of it themselves. (At right: Bing Crosby in his early matinee idol years – mid 1930s. He was an entertainment business phenomenon during the swing era.)
Bing Crosby recorded “My Isle of Golden Dreams” on June 13, 1939, with Dick McIntyre and his Harmony Hawaiians. Word of this got out, and suddenly other artists began performing the song, which had been composed in 1919 by Walter Blaufuss (music) and Gus Kahn (lyric). I’m reasonably certain that Glenn Miller had encountered this song at some time during his career as a professional musician, which extended back to the early 1920s. He then did what any successful bandleader did, which was to begin to prepare the song for presentation by his band, which in the summer of 1939 was beginning to achieve great success.
In the summer of 1939, Glenn Miller, an experienced arranger himself, was working with a young, precious arranger, Bill Finegan, whose talent he readily appreciated, though he probably did not express that appreciation very much to the insecure Finegan. Miller saw it as his job to blend Finegan’s talent as an arranger with his long experience in the dance band business. Consequently, Miller exerted great control over what Finegan wrote, and how he wrote it. Additionally, if Finegan wrote an arrangement, and if for whatever reason Miller thought it need revisions, he made them.
I have imagined what the conversation was when Miller assigned the song “My Isle of Golden Dreams” to Finegan. Perhaps it went something like this: GM: Finegan, I want you to write an arrangement on the old song “My Isle of Golden Dreams.” Crosby has just recorded it, and that will open the door for it with the public. I want it done as an instrumental because I don’t like its sentimental lyric. I want the tempo to be on the slow side so it will be good for dancing, and I want you to use our trademark reed sound contrasted with the sound of oo-ah brass. I also want a nice solo for Tex on his saxophone, because he really does a good job on songs in ballad tempos. BF: OK Glenn. I will do that. (Above left: 22 year old Bill Finegan at the piano. He was very talented and Glenn Miller knew it. Note the adult beverage and burning cigarette. Below right: tenor saxophonist and singer Tex Beneke.)
Bill Finegan, like everyone else associated with the Glenn Miller band in the summer of 1939, was very much was swept up in the excitement caused by the band’s recent string of successes. After a slow start the previous autumn, Miller’s recordings for Victor’s Bluebird label were starting to sell briskly. They were selling so briskly in fact that Bluebird was pressing Miller for more “product.” Between July 28 and August 18, 1939, Miller recorded an amazing sixteen sides. Miller and his management team then began to advocate for better terms for Miller’s renewal contract with Bluebird, which had been an entry-level contract. They were successful. The new contract was signed on September 24, 1939. While all this was going on, Miller’s Bluebird recordings, now led by “In the Mood,” which was recorded on August 1 and released shortly thereafter, were selling in ever-increasing numbers. (A link to the story and music for “In the Mood” can be found at endnote 1 below.)
The Miller band’s stand at Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York, which started on May 23 and ended on August 23, had been an unqualified success. Not only had the ballroom been packed with dancers every night, but the frequent sustaining (unsponsored) radio broadcasts of the band over the NBC radio network had established a strong nationwide identity in the dancing public’s mind of what the Miller band was all about. Although Miller worked at Glen Island Casino for break-even money at best, he did so willingly because he was seeing the trickle of new contracts for the band’s services increase to a flood while the Glen Island stand continued. By the time they closed at Glen Island, Miller had signed contracts for lucrative engagements, including week-long stands at major theaters including the Loew’s Capitol Theater in Washington D.C. (August 25-31); the Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore (September 1-7); the State Theater in Hartford, Connecticut (September 15-19). That engagement was abbreviated because the Miller band was set to open the premier swing era big band showcase, the Paramount Theater in Manhattan, starting on September 20.
A photo taken during Glenn Miller’s first stand at the Paramount Theater in Times Square – September 20 – October 10, 1939.
Miller’s engagement at the Paramount Theater continued until October 10. It was also hugely successful. The gross for the first week was $59,500.00. For the second week, it was $53,000.00. (Multiply by 15 to get the value in today’s dollars.) On dates surrounding these theater engagements, the band played very successful one-night stands. The money Miller made from all of this work enabled him to finally pay off the many debts he had accrued while he was in the process of building his band’s success. And there was still a good bit of money left after that.
This item appeared in the October 4 issue of Variety: “Glenn Miller will replace Paul Whiteman on Chesterfield’s Wednesday night (8:30 – 9:00) spot on CBS on December 27, 1939. It’s Miller’s first commercial (sponsored radio show). His program will include the Andrews Sisters. Miller’s contract stipulates that he remain in New York City during the first 13 weeks, and after that he has traveling privileges. Deal was set up between G.A.C., Miller’s representative, and Newell-Emmett Agency.” (2) This development, on top of the successes of the past few months, was the official seal of approval for Glenn Miller and His Orchestra. They had well and truly arrived.
When Bill Finegan obtained the sheet music for the song “My Isle of Golden Dreams,” he may well have rolled his eyes. This vintage (1919) piece of American song did have a banal lyric, which was certainly not one of Gus Kahn’s best. He was no doubt relieved that he didn’t have to deal with that. The up-and-down melody, by Walter Blaufuss, was not on the level of the creations of the giants of American Popular Song who came to prominence in the 1920s and 1930s. But Miller wanted an arrangement on it, and Finegan was required to dig deeply into his resourcefulness to make an arrangement that would both satisfy Miller, and be musically rewarding, for those who cared about such things. (Miller most certainly did.) The chart that eventually was recorded by the Miller band is a triumph for Finegan, despite the fact that (I’m reasonably certain) Miller did some revising of Finegan’s score.
Finegan’s introduction is superb. The first sounds we hear are the saxophones imitating the sound of a 1939 De Soto as its driver hits the starter. Then there is a burst of brass out of which doleful-sounding trombones lead to Tex Beneke’s mournful singing tenor saxophone, supported by a cushion of reeds and some oo-ah brass. Finegan had touched almost all of the right bases before the first chorus had even begun. I suspect that Miller was secretly pleased.
The first chorus melody exposition is handled by the Miller woodwinds, with oo-ah brass as their foil. Even at this early stage in the history of the Miller band, the trademark Miller reed sound of Willie Schwartz’s clarinet playing the lead an octave above Al Klink’s tenor saxophone, is handled with unique perfection by those two young musicians. Although many have tried to capture their sound in the decades since the Miller band was making music, none have succeeded. (Above left: Willie Schwartz and Al Klink: together they created a unique Miller sound.)
Tex Beneke’s warm and melodic sixteen bar solo, backed by oo-ah trombones, is exactly what Miller expected it to be. Tex excelled at these kinds of slow melodic expositions. The band segment that follows shows the discipline that Miller imparted to his musicians: not a note is out of place.
The next tract is played at a faster tempo, and features the straight-muted trumpets, solotone-muted trombones and swirling saxophones. This provides a contrast to what had come before, and what follows. How Finegan handles the return to ballad tempo and the change of keys, especially the descending reed sounds, presages what he and other Miller arrangers would do often in the future to move the music from one tempo or mood to another.
The reeds and oo-ah brass take the performance to its close, with a subtle exclamation point being added by Moe Purtill’s brushed cymbal.
The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.
Notes and links:
(1) Click on this link to get the full story behind Glenn Miller’s recording of “In the Mood”: https://swingandbeyond.com/2018/07/07/in-the-mood-1938-edgar-hayes-and-1939-glenn-miller/
(2) Moonlight Serenade …A Bio-discography of the Glenn Miller Civilian band by John Flower (172), 84-91.
Here are links to other great Glenn Miller performances: