Jeff Gilbert | Special to The Sun
Back in the big band era, a hot venue for live music was the Boyes Hot Springs Mineral Baths dance pavilion. Known as “The Plunge,” it was a popular spot during the summer months where local orchestras and up-and-coming bands enjoyed big crowds. On one of those nights, in July of 1937 the audience witnessed history.
Trombonist Glenn Miller in early 1937 had saved up enough money to start up his own big band. Glenn had struggled through the 1920’s playing in theater orchestras and finding studio recording work where he could. Ben Pollack, the famous drummer and bandleader, hired Glenn to play trombone. Working with Pollack was a great experience, not only playing in the band but also arranging most of the band’s tunes. By 1933 Glenn was well known for his arranging skills.
The famous Dorsey Brothers, known for their studio work, decided to put a band together that would tour the U.S. Glenn was hired as musical director and arranger and to play trombone. The Dorsey Brothers Orchestra was a success and, in 1934, Brunswick Records recorded a novelty tune Glenn called “Annie’s Cousin Fanny. It caught on, and soon it was the most requested number in the band’s book.
Glenn left the Brothers Dorsey in 1935. The famous English composer and bandleader Ray Noble announced he was coming to America, thus marking the first musical British invasion. Ray hired Glenn as player and arranger, and he helped recruit the musicians, some of whom became household names: Claude Thornhill, Will Bradley, Bud Freeman and George Van Epps among them. The band was well received, but just did not have the success it had when in England. Glenn grew restless and left Noble in late 1936.
It was time to start his own orchestra. The first band would be known later as “The Band That Failed.” Always trying new things, Glenn had not yet found the sound that would later define his breakthrough orchestra. With the help of agent Cy Shribman, the band was booked on a string of one-nighters. The itinerary included a stop in the Sonoma Valley.
On that Saturday night in July of 1937, Glenn Miller and his first orchestra found themselves playing the Boyes Hot Springs Mineral Baths. Tourists from around the world and summering Bay Area residents would flock to Sonoma for vacation activities, and “The Plunge” in the Springs was always number one on the list of places to go for a swim during the day and music at night.
On this evening, the audience didn’t realize it was witnessing musical history.
It was a good band with good musicians. They recorded some sides for Brunswick and Decca, proving the band could swing, but something was missing. Sadly, the musicians was given notice on New Year’s Eve. Glenn’s paycheck for the year 1937 was $48. Never discouraged, he would try again. In early 1938 a new band was re-formed and Glenn finally found “The Sound” that would make him a household name.
“The Band That Hits Built,” by late 1939, was the number one orchestra in the country. Dozens of hit records followed and, two years later, Glenn was presented with the very first Gold Record for his recording of “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
In 1942, at the height of his popularity, Glenn gave up his orchestra and enlisted in the Army Air Force where he also made musical history directing the Army Air Force Band. In December of 1944 he left from an airfield at Twinwood Farm in England to fly over the English Channel and make his way to Paris to set up accommodations for the AAF Band that would follow in three days. Glenn was never heard from again.
That was 67 years ago and since that time the Glenn Miller orchestra has never been silenced; it has been led by Tex Beneke, Ray McKinley, Buddy de Franco and currently under the direction of Gary Tole. The music and the memories will live on for those who danced that night in July of 1937 in Boyes Hot springs to the first Glenn Miller Orchestra.
Jeff Gilbert hosts “Jeff’s Joynt” on SUN 91.3 FM weekdays from 3 to 4 p.m.