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Glenn Miller Orchestra makes sure namesake's legacy insn't forgotten

By Greg Summers

Having the Glenn Miller Orchestra return here Saturday at 7:30 p.m. as part of the See Lancaster SC Performing Arts Series was a foregone conclusion.

In January 2007, the talented big-band musicians played to a sold-out crowd on the Bundy Auditorium stage inside the Bradley Arts and Sciences Building at the University of South Carolina at Lancaster.

The warm welcome they were shown three years ago, along with some down home hospitality, is reason enough to come back, said band leader Larry O’Brien.

That included a buffet dinner with all the bells and whistles.

“When you feed a road musician, you make a friend for life,” O’Brien said after that initial show here. “When you feed him like that, he’ll be back.”

The 19-member band, whose hometowns reach from Alaska to Florida, are making sure that Miller’s place in music and history are never forgotten.    

Miller's unique arrangements – with a clarinet playing the melody, a tenor saxophone playing the same note and three other saxophones playing the harmony – became the music of America’s Greatest Generation.

That signature sound gave Miller, who was a dejected college drop-out and late 1930s trombone player, a presence that set his orchestra apart from the rest. 

It also resulted in a string of top hits the likes of which had never been seen.  Every note the one-time struggling arranger touched was turning to gold and had captured the very pulse of a country.

Songs like “Little Brown Jug” and “String of Pearls” became instant hits. 

Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” attained the milestone in the music industry by receiving the first-ever gold record in 1942.

That success included national radio broadcasts and sold-out concerts that broke attendance records up and down the East Coast. When it comes to songs such as “In the Mood” and “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” Americans just couldn’t get enough.

And just as Miller was hitting his stride, Americans were hitting the shores of Normandy and later on, in the Pacific, during World War II.

With so much at stake, Miller disbanded his orchestra in 1942 at the height of its popularity and volunteered for the U.S. Army. While in service, he organized the Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band to entertain troops stationed in Europe.

Then on Dec. 15, 1944, Miller left England in a single engine plane for Paris to set up  an upcoming appearance there. But the plane disappeared somewhere over the English Channel. The army declared Miller officially dead one year later, but his sound was still popular.  

In 1956, Miller’s family authorized the formation of another Glenn Miller Orchestra under the direction of drummer Ray McKinley. McKinley had become the Army Air Force band’s unofficial leader after Miller’s disappeared.       

It has remained active under the leadership of eight musicians, including O’Brien, a trombonist.

O’Brien said the band enjoys teaching as much as performing.

One of their goals is to bring young musicians into the Miller fold.

Sadly, O’Brien said the big-band music is no longer on the airways. He said it all but disappeared from TV when Doc Severinson left “The Tonight Show.”

He said there is a real concern the big-band sound will be forgotten. That’s why they include arrangements by Miller, Hoagie Carmichael, Nat King Cole and Duke Ellington in their shows.

O’Brien said younger musicians have no idea of the fun they are missing. 

“Think about it,” he said at USCL in 2007. “If you hear one hour of big-band music on the radio for an hour a week, you’re lucky and it’s probably the hour that you’re in church.” 

Glenn Miller’s top 15 hits

– “In the Mood”

– “Moonlight Serenade”

– “Tuxedo Junction”

– “Chatanooga Choo-Choo”

– “String of Pearls”

– “When You Wish Upon A Star”

– “That Old Black Magic”

– “Moon Love”

– “Little Brown Jug”

– “Sunrise Serenade”

– “Pennsylvania 6-5000”

– “(I’ve Got A Gal In) Kalamazoo”

– “American Patrol”

– “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)”

– “King Porter Stomp”

Want to go?

WHO: Glenn Miller Orchestra

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 13

WHERE: University of South Carolina at Lancaster’s Bundy Auditorium

HOW MUCH: Tickets ($45 each) are available at the See Lancaster SC office inside the Springs House, 201 W. Gay St. Tickets can also be purchased by e-mail at plittle@lancastercity.sc.com.

INFORMATION: (803) 286-1145 or (803) 285-6207 (fax)