Gary James' Interview With
The Musical Director Of The Glenn Miller Orchestra
When you think about classic bands, you might think of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Led Zeppelin. Before any of those groups, there was The Glenn Miller Orchestra. They were The Beatles of their time. Glenn Miller was one of the most successful of all the dance bandleaders back in what is commonly referred to as The Swing Era. At the height of Glenn Miller's popularity, he disbanded his band in 1942. He joined the Army to lead The Glenn Miller Army Air Force Band. He took the band to Europe to entertain servicemen. On December 15th, 1944, Major Glenn Miller took off in a single engine plane from England, headed for France. He was never seen again and a year later the Army officially declared him dead.
In 1956, the Miller estate authorized the formation of The Glenn Miller Orchestra. Leading the orchestra these days, but not for long, (we'll explain in the interview) is Larry O'Brien. We talked all things Glenn Miller to the Musical Director of The Glenn Miller Orchestra, Mr. Larry O'Brien.
Q - Larry, where is the audience for The Glenn Miller Orchestra today? I see you're doing 300 gigs a year.
A - We're not doing 300 this year. We've done 300 in the past, but those gigs have dwindled down as everything else has in the economy we're in today. Everybody wants to hire us. Everybody wants to have us back. But nobody has any money.
Q - What does that mean for you?
A - Well, it means we do fewer jobs. We have more days off. We have more travel days between jobs. It means that places where we normally would play every year, we play every other year or don't play at all anymore. That's sad because I think this music is an integral part of the American spirit. I think it's like a lot of the elements of the American spirit. I think it's dying off. That's sad. You know, we're the only country in the world, we live in a throw away society. We throw everything away. We throw bottles and cans away. We throw our wives away. We throw everything away. As a result, we don't have any culture here. we don't have anything that's around long enough to become culture. So, that's where we fall way behind as far as Europe and Japan and places like that go. They do have a culture that goes back many hundreds of years.
Q - I agree with everything you just said.
A - (laughs) Most thoughtful people do.
Q - When the day comes when there is no more touring Glenn Miller Orchestra, how will the world be reminded of the man's music? Through radio shows?
A - Well, there are fewer of those radio programs too. The satellite radios are the only ones that carry us on a full-time basis. Where there used to be Big Band stations all around the country, I know 'cause used to do interviews with them, they've dwindled down considerably now. There's not only fewer of them, but they have fewer air time. We've synthesized radio down to Talk, Sports and Pop. And that's about it. Country too. There's nothing else out there. We're narrowing our sphere of vision. We're listening to the same stuff over and over again. We're not listening to anything 20 or 30 years ago even. Maybe the Doo Wop is the new nostalgia now. The Doo Wop groups and the groups from the '70s and '80s, but the '40s and '50s are pretty much forgotten. Just look at the quality of music today. Take any popular tune you want to name and compare it to something like "Skylark" or "Stardust" and there's just no comparison. Contemporary tunes today very seldom have a verse in front of the chorus, if you want to call it a chorus, and the lyrics are sometimes obscene. (laughs) Sometimes lack any social grace, any thought. It's all surface and there's no substance. The old tunes like a "Skylark" or a "Stardust", you could just recite the words and they would be beautiful or you could just play the melody and it would be beautiful. But, you put the two of them together and you have something that makes a statement about life, about experiences, about emotions, and something meaningful and that lasted all of these years. I wonder how many of the tunes around today are gonna be sung 40 or 50 years from today.
Q - I ask myself that question all the time.
A - (laughs) Not very many I'm sure. Which is not to say there isn't good stuff out there, there is, but it's hard to find when you have to weed through all the chaff that's around too. That's my read on it.
Q - So, how long have you been the Orchestra's Musical Director?
A - 25 years totally.
Q - What were you doing before you had this job?
A - I was playing in Big Bands.
Q - So, I guess it's safe to say you were a fan of Glenn Miller's before you got this job.
A - Oh, yeah. Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey. I really liked almost all of the Big Bands. I thought it was something I could enjoy in every one of the Big Bands, even Spike Jones. (laughs) There was a lot of good musicianship. It's really hard to do something like Spike Jones did and do it well and do it musically.
Q - So, obviously there are no original members is this version of The Glenn Miller Orchestra.
A - No. As far as I know, there's only one that's alive today. He lives in Southern California. His name is Paul Tanner. He's one of the trombone players who played with the orchestra in it's entire life and he's a good friend. He's quite elderly now. I think he's 90 or close to it. And he's getting a little frail.
Q - When did he last perform with the orchestra?
A - Oh, I think it was in 1944.
Q - The Glenn Miller Production Company is owned by a relative of Glenn Miller?
A - No. It's run by the son of the man who re-started the orchestra from Mrs. Miller in 1956.
Q - The Orchestra is booked well into next year. (2011)
A - Yeah.
Q - What if somebody gets sick? Can you replace that person?
A - We do the same thing they did back in the old days when somebody got sick. Somebody got sick then too or somebody's wife had a baby or they got in a traffic accident. You find somebody to fill in if you can. If you can't, you go without them.
Q - What is your favorite Glenn Miller song to perform?
A - (laughs) Everybody asks me that and it would be hard to limit it to five much less one. There's so many things in there that I like for so many reasons and I'm discovering new ones all the time. It's amazing that the Orchestra that was in existence for four years and change came up with so much great material and recorded so much in such a short space of time. But back then, the bands were the Pop artists of the day. All of the things the Pop stars today have, the bands had back then, only in the '40s milieu. Like for example, they sold 78 RPM records and they sold a lot of 'em. They sold a million, (laughs) which is in direct contrast to today when if they sell 180,000 albums, they think "Wow! That's great!" Well, it is, but back then they regularly sold a million records. Glenn was the first one to have a Gold Record for selling a million records. He wasn't the first one to sell a million, but he was the first one for getting a Gold Record that did so. That was "Chattanooga Choo Choo".
Q - What song seems to get the biggest response from the audience?
A - Well, the popular tunes that people love and remember. There are tunes we play every night. One of 'em is "String Of Pearls". "Moonlight Serenade" of course. "Little Brown Jug", "Tuxedo Junction", "Pennsylvania 6500". Glenn had more records in the Top Ten in one year than anybody else in recording history. I believe it was 1940 or 1941. He had 23. But see, back then they were the ones that the fans loved and adored. We play a place in Pennsylvania called The Sunnybrook Ballroom in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where Glenn holds the record for the most number of people attending his dance there. There were 7,000. There were so many people that nobody could dance. And if you were in the crowd and you passed out, you'd never hit the floor. All the people around you would hold you up.
Q - So, how long do you figure you'll stay with this Orchestra?
A - Well, I've already told the Orchestra that I'll be leaving at the end of the year (2010). When I leave, I'll be going to Hawaii with my wife and retiring there. I'm 77 now. My health is good. I'm still vital. I can still play. I can still think and talk. My wife has been home for many years and we deserve to spend some time together.
Q - Will you miss it?
A - Of course I'll miss it. You can't do something like this for fifty years and not miss it. I've been playing with bands for over fifty years. It has occupied a great deal of my time, not only traveling, but I've also been Road Manager for several bands and I've been a leader of this one as I said for twenty-five. That occupies a great chunk of your time. When that chunk goes away, there's gonna be a large, empty space which I hope to fill with sunshine, beautiful water and great times with my wife.
Q - Sounds good!
A - Sounds good to me too.
Q - You couldn't have picked a better place than Hawaii.
A - We've talked about where we wanted to retire when I did get off the road and where we wanted to spend the rest of our life. We looked at all of the places here in the States and every place we looked at came with some kind of baggage that we were unwilling to endure. Hawaii seemed to be the only place that was totally acceptable in every way.
Q - I wouldn't think it would be all that easy to find someone to take your place.
A - Well, there's lots of qualified people out there. I have recommended three or four of them to the Glenn Miller Orchestra. They'll probably find someone that will come out here and I hope he does a better job than I did. I hope he revitalizes the Orchestra. I don't want this music to die. I don't want this Orchestra to die. And just because I'm leaving, it shouldn't. I'm just one little, small part of the cog. I've done my share to keep it going, but now it's time for somebody else to step up and sometimes new blood brings new ideas and new revitalization and I hope that's what happens. So, don't write us off yet. We ain't going away. (laughs)