Born in Clarinda, Iowa, on March 1, 1904, bandleader and musician Glenn Miller started out playing the mandolin as a child, but quickly switched to the horn. His family moved several times in his youth—to Missouri, then to Nebraska, and finally to Colorado in 1918. In high school in Fort Morgan, Colorado, Miller played in the school band. He turned professional after graduating in 1921, becoming a member of Boyd Senter’s orchestra.
In 1923, Miller quit the orchestra to go to college. He spent a year at the University of Colorado before dropping out to return to the music business. Moving to Los Angeles, California, Miller worked with Ben Pollack’s band for a time. He then headed to New York City, where he freelanced as a trombonist and an arranger. In 1934, Miller became the musical director for Tommy Dorsey’s band with brother Jimmy Dorsey. He then formed an American orchestra for British bandleader Ray Noble.
While he first recorded under his own name in 1935, Glenn Miller struggled for several years before establishing himself as a musician and bandleader. He formed his own orchestra and then reconfigured it several times until he found the winning combination. It was his band’s gig at the famed Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York, in 1939 that helped put Miller on the map. Their performances there were broadcast on the radio, giving them great public exposure.
Miller scored his first hit with “Wishing (Will Make It So)” that same year. He penned his even bigger successful single, “Moonlight Serenade,” which climbed the charts in 1939 as well. With their distinctive swing jazz style, Miller and his orchestra became the country’s top dance band. They dominated the music charts with such tracks as “In the Mood,” “Tuxedo Junction” and “Pennsylvania 6-5000″ in 1940.
In 1941, Miller made his first film, Sun Valley Serenade, with Sonja Henie. The film featured another one of his signature songs “Chattanooga Choo Choo.” The following year, he appeared in Orchestra Wives (1942). That same year, Miller had to put his successful music career aside to serve his country. He was inducted into the U.S. Army, later transferring to the Army Air Force.
Miller headed up the U.S. Army Air Force Band, which gave numerous performances to entertain the troops during World War II. He was stationed in England in 1944 when he learned that his band was to go to Paris. On December 15, Miller boarded a transport plane headed to the newly liberated French capital. He intended to make preparations for his group’s new series of concerts there, but he never arrived.
What happened to Miller’s plane remains a mystery. Neither the plane nor Miller’s body was ever recovered. He left his wife Helen and their two children. Miller’s military band continued to play for months after his death, and the Glenn Miller Orchestra was revived after the war to honor his legacy. Collections of his greatest hits did well on the charts for several years after his passing as well. Jimmy Stewart later starred in the popular film The Glenn Miller Story (1954), which was loosely based on Miller’s life.