WTPB remember the music of Glenn Miller

March 1 is the 103rd anniversary of the birthday of undoubtedly the world’s best-known band leader, Glenn Miller. His music is enjoyed today by young and old alike, and historians are still probing into his mysterious disappearance in 1944.

“Veteran Chicago disc jockey Mike Rapchak once told me that old songs have stood the test of time because they were well written to begin with,” said local big band personality John Russell Ghrist.

Ghrist, who uses just his first two names on the air, hosts Musical Memories on Rockford’s new community radio station WTPB 99.3 FM. The station is an automated operation owned by Third Presbyterian Church in Rockford and plays all of its programs about every 20 hours.

Between 1939 and 1943, The Glenn Miller Orchestra scored 23 No. 1 hits, a record that contemporary artists can only envy today with their repetitive words, loud baselines and few chords. Miller recorded such classics as “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Tuxedo Junction” and “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo.” But today’s younger audiences are dancing to his more well-known hits like “In the Mood” and “Moonlight Serenade.” The band was also portrayed in three movies.

“This music never really went away,” said Ghrist, who regularly plays Miller’s hits from his large record collection. “I know dance instructors who tell me that half their new students are young people who want to learn how to swing dance, or even do a simple waltz when they attend weddings. It’s really cool to know how to dance properly at functions. TV shows like Dancing With the Stars have also brought back a renewed interest in big band music and ballroom dancing.”

Alton Glenn Miller’s music is unique in the fact that he really cared about his young audiences in the 1940s, and his live appearances sounded just like his records. He was an astute businessman, always setting his ticket prices below his competitors so his followers could afford to attend his dances. After Miller joined the service, his Air Force Band would play extra concerts to make sure all the enlisted personnel got to hear his music.

His band employed the very best up-and-coming musicians and arrangers, such as Jerry Gray and Billy May, who cranked out hit after hit. In addition, Miller was a side man in many other orchestras before starting his own band, which played every place across the country from one-night performances in road houses to famous ballrooms.

This renowned band leader, who was born in 1904 in Clarinda, Iowa, is remembered each year by The Glenn Miller Birthplace Society, who has preserved his childhood home for visitors. The organization also hosts a week-long festival in his honor each year during the second week of June. The yearly event features bands from all over the world playing Miller’s music, scholarship competition, workshops, picnics and a band composed of young people from Japan playing Miller’s music. This year’s event takes place June 7-11. People wanting to attend the festival can contact the Society at (712) 542-2461 or visit their Web site at gmbs@heartland.net.

Commercially, the music is still being played today by the new Glenn Miller Orchestra, directed by Larry O’Brien. The band is composed of many fine young musicians as well as singers Nick Hilsher and Julia Rich. The band has recorded several fine CDs, which are available at www.glennmillerorchestra.com. There is also a free Internet newsletter available that lists the band’s appearances.

During the first two weeks of March, John Russell Ghrist will host a two-hour recorded show on WTPB 99.3 FM that will feature many of Miller’s hits. The show will also include tunes the band first recorded that became big sellers for other orchestras of the time. Some of Miller’s classic recordings will be played, as well as renditions of Miller’s great songs by local and national big bands. The program will also include short interviews with vocalist Julia Rich and bass player Anthony Caceres, whose grandfather Ernie played alto sax in the original Glenn Miller Air Force Band.

The president of the Glenn Miller Birthplace Society, Marvin Negley, will also discuss two popular theories of what might have happened to Glenn Miller’s plane when it disappeared over the English Channel on Dec. 15, 1944. Historians today believe either weather-related conditions or friendly fire destroyed the aircraft.

Ghrist said: “Listeners will certainly be surprised that they already know the tunes, but may not remember that it was Glenn Miller who made them hits. Of course, you can always tell who the knowledgeable Glenn Miller fans are. They know that his first name is spelled with two Ns, not one like Glen Campbell.”

The two-hour special is part of WTPB 99.3 format of providing big band and easy listening music to the city, which is not offered by the area’s commercial stations. The station is owned and operated by Third Presbyterian Church in conjunction with Rockford College, and features some religious programs like The Lutheran Hour and information provided by the church’s pastor, Dr. Murray Hanson.

The station’s Musical Tribute to Glenn Miller will air daily at different times between Feb. 25 and March 10 on WTPB 99.3 FM. The station is automated and will play the program at least once a day.

From the Feb. 21-27, 2007, issue

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