One of America's most celebrated bandleaders, Glenn Miller's name is synonymous with swing music. Though he struggled for many years to find the right sound, when he finally found it he took the public by storm. 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. His genuine patriotism and its tragic end also helped shape his legend. He gave up his place at the pinnacle of the entertainment world to enlist in the Army Air Force and support American troops during WWII, a sacrifice that ended up costing him his life.
Miller was born in 1904 in Clarinda, Iowa. His family moved first to Nebraska in 1907, where they lived in a sod house, and again to Missouri in 1915 before settling in Fort Morgan, Colorado, in 1918. During high school Miller developed an interest in dance band music and played trombone in a group formed by his classmates. After graduation he took a job with the dixieland outfit Senter's Sentapeeds.
In 1923 Miller joined the Holly Moyer Orchestra in Boulder, which gave him the opportunity to both continue playing the music that he loved and attend college at the University of Colorado. His studies suffered due to his musical interests, and he dropped out the following year, joining the Tommy Watkins Orchestra. He eventually traveled to Los Angeles, where he soon landed a job with Ben Pollack, playing alongside Benny Goodman.
Miller left Pollack in 1928 during a tour stop in New York. He soon married his childhood sweetheart, Helen Berger, and for the next few years found jobs working with such bandleaders as Red Nichols, Irving Aaronson, Bert Lown, and Paul Ash. Miller had a knack for finding good musicians and arrangers, and he was often called to help put together new orchestras. In 1932 he helped organize Smith Ballew's group, where he spent two years, and in 1934 he helped the Dorsey Brothers with their new orchestra. The following year he assembled a band for Ray Noble. It was also in 1935 when Miller first recorded under his own name. The record sold only a few hundred copies, and he decided to remain with Noble's outfit instead of striking out on his own.
In 1937 Miller put together another band, but that orchestra soon disbanded due to financial difficulties. Vocalists were Kathleen Lane and Jeanne D'Arcy. He made a third attempt in 1938 and this time hit upon the right formula. His new sound was greeted enthusiastically by the public, and by the following year his orchestra was in great demand. They remained at the top of the charts throughout their existence, propelled by their unique musical style and the vocals of Ray Eberle, Marion Hutton, Tex Beneke, Dorothy Claire, Paula Kelly, and the Modernaires. In 1940 the orchestra was featured in its own radio program on CBS. In 1941 they starred in their own movie Sun Valley Serenade, which was followed by Orchestra Wives the next year.
In 1942 Miller disbanded his orchestra and joined the Army Air Force with the goal of organizing a modern military band. He quickly proved a hit with Allied soldiers. His military orchestra played a constant stream of radio broadcasts and concerts and was a big morale booster for American troops. In December of 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. Like Buddy Holly, James Dean, and other artists who met tragedy during the height of their success, Miller has become an icon -- a snapshot of an era gone but not forgotten. His musical legacy lives on and will continue to do so for many years to come.