Published: February 6, 2019
In their career The Beatles scored 33 top ten hits, while Elvis Presley notched up 38. But a middle-aged band leader outperformed them both with 59 top ten hits, including 17 Number Ones, in just a four-year period.
And the music of Glenn Miller, who was born on this day, remains popular, with tribute bands successfully pumping out his swinging tunes in venues across the world.
Born in Iowa, Miller became interested in dance band music while at high school and earned a modest living as a freelance trombonist in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He formed his first band in 1937 but his musicians seemed to hit the wrong notes and they disbanded in less than a year.
Miller realised he needed a unique sound and eventually found it by making the clarinet play a melodic line with a tenor saxophone holding the same note and three other saxophones playing in harmony. Nobody had heard anything quite like it before and the Glenn Miller sound was to become a triumphant success.
He was the best-selling recording artist from 1939 to 1943, leading one of the best-known big bands. His recordings include "In the Mood", "Moonlight Serenade", "Pennsylvania 6-5000", "Chattanooga Choo Choo", "A String of Pearls", "American Patrol", "Tuxedo Junction", and "Little Brown Jug".
In 1942, Miller joined the United States Army Air Force where he continued his musical career with the Army Air Force Band. But it would soon lead to tragedy. On 15 December, 1944, he flew as a passenger from the United Kingdom to France where he planned to play for soldiers who had recently liberated Paris.
His plane, a single-engine UC-64 Norseman, disappeared while flying over the English Channel. No trace of the aircraft, crew or passengers has ever been found.
Tighar, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, based in the US, began investigating Miller's fate in 2018. Its founder, Richard Gillespie, says: "The unresolved death of any celebrity is fertile ground for conspiracy theories and Glenn Miller’s disappearance is no exception. He was a secret agent for the OSS, captured by Germans, tortured, and left to die in a Paris brothel; killed in a drunken brawl; died of lung cancer in a French hospital; mistakenly shot by an airfield sentry; etc."
One commonly accepted explanation for the Norseman’s loss has been that it was a casualty of friendly fire. In 1984, former Royal Air Force navigator T. E “Fred” Shaw recalled seeing a small aircraft knocked into the Channel by bombs jettisoned from RAF Lancasters returning from an aborted mission.
Dennis Spragg disputes this theory. He is the author of Glenn Miller Declassified, published in September, 2018. Drawing on numerous sources and declassified documents, his book identifies significant problems with the friendly fire theory and makes a strong case for the Norseman having gone down due to icing.
Spragg says the plane was flying low because of poor visibility. When fuel lines froze the engine stopped, giving the plane's pilot about eight seconds to react before it plunged into the water. Because the plane was constructed of mostly lightweight materials, it probably disintegrated on impact, killing those aboard instantly, Spragg says.
Perhaps Tighar (pronounced "Tiger") will fish out the facts. Meanwhile, they have another big mystery on their hands: finding out what happened when American aviation pioneer and author Amelia Earhart disappeared while flying her Lockheed Model 10-E Electra over the central Pacific Ocean in 1937.