MOONLIGHT SERENADE – 75 Years and Counting

RCA Victor Studio #2, New York – April 4, 1939, 1:30-5:00 PM

Legh Knowles, Bob Price, Dale “Mickey” McMickle (tp); Glenn Miller, Paul Tanner, Al Mastren (tb); Hal McIntyre, Wilbur Schwartz (cl,as), Stanley Aronson (ts,cl) Tex Beneke, Al Klink (ts); Chummy MacGregor (p); Allen Reuss (g); Rollie Bundock (b); Frankie Carlson (d). Ray Eberle, Marion Hutton (vcl); Bill Finegan (arr).

035699-1      The Chestnut Tree (MH & Band vcl)          Bluebird 10201

035700-1      And the Angels Sing (RE vcl)           Bluebird 10201

035701-1      Moonlight Serenade (GM arr)         Bluebird 10214

035702-1      The Lady’s in Love with You (TB & GM vcl)           Bluebird 10229

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Sometimes magic does happen – and it happened to Glenn Miller on March 1, 1939. It was his 35th birthday and the band was rehearsing in Manhattan when word came from his agent that they had snagged a prize booking for the entire summer season, at the Glen Island Casino in Westchester. The Casino was known as a launchpad to success for bands like Casa Loma, the Dorsey Brothers, Charlie Barnet and Larry Clinton in previous years. Now Glenn would benefit from the big dancing crowds and frequent radio broadcasts, carried nationwide.

As a topper, when word of the Glen Island engagement got out, Frank Dailey, manager of the Meadowbrook Ballroom in New Jersey, quickly arranged to book the band prior to Glen Island. In fact, the band debuted at the Meadowbrook on March 7, which seems awfully fast to get all the contracts and details in place! The four-week Meadowbrook booking stretched to seven weeks and the band closed there on April 20, giving them a little breathing space before the Glen Island opening on May 17. The popular Meadowbrook also offered copious airtime, totaling three dozen NBC and Mutual programs!

So by the time the next Bluebird date came on April 4th, the band had been playing solidly for a month in the same place, giving them time to tighten and polish their performances, without the constant grind of one-night stands. Glenn must have been in heaven.

As the band had no guitarist at this point, Glenn hired freelancer Allen Reuss for the February and April sessions. Reuss had spent three years with Benny Goodman and would shortly join Jack Teagarden’s fledgling organization. Reuss was keeping very busy, as he did Victor record sessions with Lionel Hampton on April 3rd and 5th, squeezing this Miller gig in between.

Still having drummer problems, Glenn borrowed Frankie Carlson from Woody Herman just for the records and he brought a rhythmic solidity and crispness that the band had never shown before.   There would be more action on the rhythm front in just a few days!

Everyone would get a chance to shine on these four sides. Marion Hutton leads off the session with her best vocal to date, on THE CHESTNUT TREE, one of many popular songs built around children’s rhymes in the wake of Ella Fitzgerald’s blockbuster hit, A-TISKET A-TASKET. With a title taken from a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, the song originated in England and then was picked up the Hal Kemp band, though the Miller version swings much more. Newcomer Mickey McMickle, Tex and Glenn all take excellent solos. Tex is especially smooth here.

Ray Eberle is next at bat with another Johnny Mercer song that was written for Benny Goodman, lyricized from trumpeter Ziggy Elman’s Jewish-inflected FRALICH IN SWING.  The arrangement sounds like one of Glenn’s, with tightly muted trombone and trumpets leading off.  Ray is more relaxed than heretofore, singing in a quietly effective manner that was not typical for him.

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Then MOONLIGHT SERENADE. What more can be said about this iconic recording? Credit goes to Glenn’s evocative and effective arrangement, featuring reeds and muted brass, showing off the Miller Sound from the first beat. The reeds continue to sing, the brass takes off their mutes and Willie Schwartz soars majestically over the saxes during the repeat of the bridge melody, before merging with them again for the rapturous conclusion. Seemingly effortless and simple, yet fresh and clean every time you hear it.

Glenn wrote the composition circa 1935 as a musical exercise while he was studying with Joseph Schillinger, a Russian-born musical theorist and composer. He had developed the Schillinger System of musical composition, which used mathematical theorums to compose and arrange music. George Gershwin was another of his famous pupils.

Miller knew he had written a potential hit and arranged it for Ray Noble, but he never publicly played it. Several titles and lyrics were tried out as the years passed, but none stuck. Glenn began using the song as his band’s theme from the beginning, but it never had a title.   When it was time for the record date, the story goes, that since the flip side was going to be SUNRISE SERENADE, how about titling the theme, MOONLIGHT SERENADE?   Who knows how true this story was?

In any case, Mitchell Parish was assigned to write a lyric to go with the title. Parish was a natural for the job, as he specialized in writing successful lyrics for pre-existing melodies, like STAR DUST, SOLITUDE, SOPHISTICATED LADY, DEEP PURPLE and MOOD INDIGO.

After completing this most famous of Miller works, Tex Beneke makes his vocal (and whistling) debut on THE LADY’S IN LOVE WITH YOU, a Frank Loesser-Burton Lane collaboration from the film SOME LIKE IT HOT (not the Marilyn Monroe version!), where it was introduced by Bob Hope and Shirley Ross as a romantic duet. Miller swings it hot, speaking a cross-talk proto-rap introduction with Tex that would become a signature routine. The saxes play some nicely arranged punctuations to Beneke’s vocal and Carlson gets a drum break leading into the swinging final chorus. The end to an all-around winner of a session!

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