Swingfest has become a popular and anticipated event each year in Chattanooga. Held on Saturday of Labor Day weekend at Coolidge Park, the festival features performances by the area’s big bands. Swing dancers use every square inch of a wooden dance floor in front of the stage. The rest of the audience can be seen tapping toes, snapping fingers, and generally, having a great musical evening.
It’s appropriate that Chattanooga hosts Swingfest, for during the big band era, the city gained worldwide fame through sales of over a million 78 RPM records of the swing tune, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” Band leader Glenn Miller was the conductor of that train. Here is a look back at some key dates in the history of that song, the era in which it gained fame, and the life of Glenn Miller.
Alton Glenn Miller was born in 1904 in Clarinda, Iowa. His family later moved to Nebraska, Missouri, and Colorado, where Glenn played in the school band. Though he was not often noted by others as an outstanding musician, Glenn made music his passion and was determined to follow a career in it. He entered the University of Colorado, but eventually dropped out in order to become a full-time trombonist.
While he was a member of the Ben Pollack band, Glenn Miller realized his real musical talent was in arranging. Several years of paying his dues in other bands and in leading his first band (which failed) resulted in Glenn deciding on some new approaches. He wanted his band to be easily identifiable, and to be a cohesive group. Arrangements featured a clarinet lead supported by four saxophones, giving the band’s music a sweet sound. Glenn also introduced vocalists such as Gordon “Tex” Beneke and Marion Hutton.
The changes in Miller’s group began to pay off in 1939. The band was booked for the summer at Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York. Radio broadcasts from the casino helped the sound of Glenn Miller to reach far-away audiences. Glenn’s signature tune, “Moonlight Serenade,” along with “In the Mood,” “Little Brown Jug,” and “Pennsylvania 6-5000” led in record sales.
MAY 7, 1941
As would happen years later with Elvis Presley and The Beatles, Glenn Miller was approached by Hollywood about transferring his musical popularity to the big screen. On May 7, 1941, the band recorded the Mack Gordon-Harry Warren tune, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” at the RCA Victor studios in Hollywood.
The Choo-Choo arrangement featured some railroad-like sounds that made the listener think of a train starting up, bells and whistles sounding, and then gaining full steam. The lyrics told a poetic tale, though along an improbable route, of a man traveling from New York to Chattanooga to meet the one he used to call “Funny Face.” The flip side of the RCA Bluebird record featured the ballad “I Know Why.” Both tunes, along with “In the Mood,” would be featured in the upcoming movie, “Sun Valley Serenade.”
In Chattanooga, Glenn Miller and His Orchestra were carried on a fifteen-minute CBS radio program carried locally by WDOD. The show was broadcast Tuesday through Thursday, and competed with band leader Kay Kyser’s Musical College show on NBC Red station WAPO.
Swing dancing was popular at several local night spots. At The Flamingo on Lee Highway, Ellis Goodloe’s group played every Saturday night, with couples paying a $1.50 cover charge. The Cavern Castle at Ruby Falls hosted dances. On board the Idlewild excursion steamer, dancers could enjoy a ride on Lake Chickamauga while King Perdue and His Orchestra performed.
The drums of war, however, were sounding louder than the drums of swing bands. The front page of the May 7, 1941 Chattanooga Times reported U.S. Secretary of War Stimson urging that the U.S. Navy be allowed to deliver munitions to British troops. The Axis had occupied eight isles in the Aegean Sea. Josef Stalin had just risen to premier of the Soviet Union.
OCTOBER 12, 1941
The movie “Sun Valley Serenade” was released nationally on August 29, 1941. The plot had a World War II-based theme, as actor John Payne (who plays a role as the pianist in Miller’s group) sponsors a Norwegian refugee whom he believes to be a very young girl. Instead, former Olympic figure skating champ Sonja Henie shows up, and romantic comedy ensues. The film also featured starred comedian Milton Berle, as well as the Nicholas Brothers, who performed some outstanding dance numbers. The setting was Sun Valley, Idaho where the Glenn Miller (Phil Corey in the movie) band was playing.
“Sun Valley Serenade” was advertised locally on September 3, 1941 – “Don’t miss Sonja Henie with Glenn Miller and his band.” However, an outbreak of infantile paralysis closed all area theaters that month. It was the first such shutdown for health reasons since the 1918 influenza pandemic. The movie finally opened on Sunday, October 12, 1941 for a four-day run at the Tivoli. The advertisement noted that it featured the musical hit, “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.”
The front-page headlines were calling the city’s attention away from admiring its recognition in song. The German army was sixty-five miles from Moscow. The Chattanooga News-Free Press editorial page asked “After Russia, What?” The U.S. Navy had captured German spies in Greenland. President Franklin Roosevelt was demanding that merchant ships be armed, but this was debated by some as being in violation of our nation’s neutrality.
FEBRUARY 10, 1942
During Glenn Miller’s radio program, RCA executive Wally Early presented Glenn with a framed gold copy of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” The record had achieved sales of more than 1,200,000 copies. This was the first song since “My Blue Heaven” in the 1920’s to sell more than a million. In accepting the award, Glenn told his fans, “Thanks a million two hundred thousand.” He then quickly counted off the tempo, and the “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” was off on another “really solid Tennessee excursion.”
By this time, the United States had been officially drawn into World War II as a result of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Front page headlines reported the sinking of a U.S. Army transport off Hawaii by a Japanese submarine. The luxury liner Normandie was being converted to the U.S.S. Lafayette. Ralph Baird, assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy, said that the nation should come to grips with the reality of the war’s danger, and expressed his opinion that we were currently losing the war. For Glenn Miller, it was a time to ponder how as an entertainer, he could be doing more to support his country.
SEPTEMBER 24, 1942
By this date, Glenn Miller had made his decision to enter the service. He first approached the U.S. Navy for a commission, but was rejected. The United States Army Air Force accepted him, however, and he was commissioned as a Captain. As the commander of the Army Air Force Band, Glenn would serve his country by playing music for the service men and women to remind them of home.
Glenn Miller broke the news to his fans on the September 23, 1941 radio show, which was followed by an emotional final performance the next evening. Trumpter Harry James sat in with the group on “Jukebox Saturday Night.” Glenn then turned the reins of his radio show over to Harry.
Though the generals sometimes wanted Sousa marches exclusively, Glenn led the Army Air Force band over the next several months in a sometimes swinging style, as noted in the swing version of “St. Louis Blues March.” The band toured extensively, and is said to have entertained more than one million troops.
DECEMBER 25, 1944
Anxious to travel to Paris to make arrangements for his band’s Christmas performance there, Glenn had took off on December 15, 1944 as a passenger in a C-64 Norseman. The nine-passenger plane had a single engine and no de-icing equipment. Visibility above the English Channel was poor. The Royal Air Force was also returning from an aborted bombing raid on Germany, and as standard procedure, jettisoned their bombs over the channel in the vicinity of the Norseman. Regardless of the cause, Glenn Miller’s plane never arrived at its destination.
On Christmas Day, 1944, the New York Times reported ”Major Glenn Miller, director of the U.S. Air Force Band, is missing on a flight from England to Paris . No trace of the plane has been found.”
THE LEGACY OF GLENN MILLER
Like all service men and women, Glenn Miller had dreamed of returning to civilian life. He envisioned putting a civilian band together again, and giving a concert to celebrate the war’s end.
The post-WWII music scene, however, saw the rising stars of vocalists such as Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Tony Bennett, Patti Page, and Rosemary Clooney. Vocalists got their names on record charts in the place of the big bands.
The Glenn Miller Orchestra, under various leaders, has continued to play the Miller catalog to this day. Gordon “Tex” Beneke, the vocalist/saxophonist who had originally sung “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” led the band following Miller’s death, and brought his own band through east Tennessee on tour in 1954.
Today, Glenn Miller’s sound lives on in the swing bands of various schools, as well as in local community bands that perform at Swingfest and other venues.
If you have memories of “The Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and Glenn Miller, or attended a concert by one of the big bands, please send me an e-mail at email@example.com.