Number One on Pearl Harbor Day

by Carl Zebrowski

If you look back at American music as the country headed into World War II, you’ll have a tough time looking past the imposing figure of trombonist and band leader Glenn Miller. Miller’s song “In the Mood,” recorded in 1939, may be the most recognizable of all big band tunes. The key riff is repeated so incessantly that even listeners who can’t tell the difference between a big band and a quintet without a dictionary and calculator must find the tune vaguely familiar.

While the war raged on overseas out of sight and willfully out of mindfor most Americans, there were scores of big-time outfits playing bigband music. So it was a big deal that Miller and his orchestra managed to record the quintessential romantic big band instrumental. The song, composed by Miller and cut to 78 in 1939, was “Moonlight Serenade,” an achingly nostalgic mood piece carried by a lush and silky saxophone section. It seems to have been created expressly to be played under a clear night sky in the summertime, in the soft bluish glow of the moon and stars.

The day America entered World War II, dragged into the fray by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Miller had the number one song on the charts. Well known to everyone of the Greatest Generation and probably to every Baby Boomer, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” was the first song ever to earn a gold record, the recording industry award for selling a million copies.

The sound was a bit different from the signature sound Miller had established in “Moonlight Serenade,” with the saxes playing smoothly, like an airy string section, punctuated by some appropriately restrained brass. “Chattanooga Choo Choo” was a train song, of course, which required more horsepower. So, after an intro with horns crying like a locomotive whistle in the distance and the rhythm section chugging along insistently, Miller pumped up the brass. Together with lyrics about a man taking the train to Chattanooga to see his girl, sung by Tex Beneke and the Texas Modernaires, that lively brass along with those trademark saxes made for another unforgettable Miller standard.

Miller and his orchestra put out a few other songs after “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” including the number one hit “Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else but Me),” released in early 1942. But soon after that, Miller petitioned his way into the US Army and then headed overseas to travel around with an army air forces band, performing for troops to lift morale. His recording and performing days ended December 15, 1944, when his plane disappeared while flying over the English Channel.

Carl Zebrowski is the managing editor and website editor of America in WWII. This article originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of America in WWII. Order a copy of this issue now.


Copyright 310 Publishing, LLC. All rights reserved.