Liner Notes: History
History: Geoffrey Butcher
After only three weeks in Britain entertaining troops via the BBC and playing at American airfields, Captain Glenn Miller and his American Band of the Supreme Allied Command were greeted everywhere with such wild enthusiasm that at an open-air GI concert in July 1944 to boost war savings General James H. Doolittle, Commanding General of the US 8th Army Air Force, mounted the makeshift stage and said to Miller,
"Captain Miller, next to a letter from home your organisation is the greatest morale-builder in the European Theater of Operations".
This was a graphic vindication of the American Armed Services' policy of giving the troops the best entertainment available. Miller was then at the height of his popularity and one of the biggest attractions in the entertainment world.
Propaganda, too, was a potent weapon in war - never more so than in World War Two. The allies as well as (or perhaps more than) the Germans made full use of it and as the D-Day invasion of German-occupied Europe drew near the propaganda offensive had increased alongside the military build-up. It was a short step to combine propaganda with music.
After three gruelling months of almost non-stop broadcasts and concerts the Miller Band - by then renamed the American Band of the Allied Expeditionary Force, with Miller a Major - joined the propaganda offensive, in addition to their existing duties, by broadcasting direct to German troops as part of the Allied effort to persuade them to give up the fight. In October 1944 Miller was asked to broadcast with the Band over the American Broadcasting Station in Europe (ABSIE), largely unknown to the public at the time, an invitation which must have pleased the patriotic bandleader who had given up a glittering civilian career to help the war effort.
ABSIE was operated in London by the Overseas Branch of the Office of War Information, the civilian propaganda outlet for the American Government, although OWI work in the ETO had become the Psychological Warfare Division of General Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). The ABSIE station first went on the air on April 30th, 1944, with technical assistance from the BBC and working from underground studios in Wardour Street, Soho. In almost every European language it broadcast news, talks and music for over eight hours a day preparing the peoples of occupied Europe for liberation, then waging psychological warfare on the Germans, and, as the Wehrmacht (the German armies) were driven back to the borders of the Reich, on the German troops urging them to surrender.
ABSIE's "pride and joy" (to quote Time magazine) was its music programmes. Already, civilian American stars including Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore who were in Europe entertaining Allied troops had helped ABSIE to project the Allied cause, introducing their songs by reading from phonetic German scripts.
The Abbey Road Recordings
On October 30th the full Miller Band reported to the HMV studios in Abbey Road, London, to rehearse and record a half-hour programme of their music, interspersed with messages to the German soldiers. The compere was a German-speaking girl known in the programme as Ilse, sharing the introductions and chatting with Miller whose halting phonetic German was much to the amusement of his colleagues.
After the Band's theme Ilse introduced Major Miller (in German) as a "magician of swing music" with a few words about his career, then announced the first tune - almost inevitably In The Mood - followed by Stardust and Volga Boatmen. Then Johnny Desmond sang Long Ago And Far Away in German, sounding much more relaxed and confident than Miller. Ray McKinley then sang Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby? wisely, perhaps, in English, although Ilse triumphantly announced it as "Bist Du Oder Bist Du Nicht Mein Baby"! The programme ended with one of the Band's newest Jerry Gray up-tempo arrangements, Great Day, and Ilse looking forward to the same time next week.
The talk during the programme was about music having no barriers between nations and plugging the American way of life and the freedom for people to listen to whatever they wanted to (most American jazz and popular music was banned in Nazi Germany), with Ilse helping Miller to improve his German. ABSIE were very pleased with the recording and over the next month the Band recorded five more half-hour programmes. All six were broadcast on Wednesdays starting on November 8th as "Music For The Wermacht".
Throughout the series the full Band and six singers, variously introduced by Ilse as "52 tough American soldiers", or "52 sharp-looking American boys", played a well-balanced mixture of famous pre-war civilian Miller hits and new arrangements for the Band by Jerry Gray, Norman Leyden and Ralph Wilkinson, many including the 20-piece string section. Despite its military status the hand-picked Band was first and foremost a Glenn Miller Band, a brilliant blend of Goodman/Miller dance music, Basie rhythm and the Kostelanetz/Rose string orchestra - undeniably Miller's greatest achievement. Apart from the strings (all former classical players) the greatest single improvement over his civilian Band was probably the wonderful all-star rhythm section with a lift and drive that provided a swinging foundation for the up-beat instrumentals and a restrained and gentle beat for the orchestral arrangements and the backings for the ballad singers.
The jazz soloists in the Band were 21-year-old pianist Mel Powell; Ray McKinley, former bandleader and veteran drummer whose all-round drive and infectious swing were responsible for the Band's unfailing beat, together with bassist Trigger Alpert and guitarist Carmen Mastren, two of the best in the business; and Peanuts Hucko, who besides being chosen by Miller as clarinet lead in the Miller saxophone sound also blossomed forth as another Benny Goodman, as well as occasional tenor saxophone solos.
The other tenor sax soloists, lesser-known as jazzmen, were Vido Musso-sounding Vince Carbone and smoother-toned Jack Ferrier; alto sax solos were usually by Hank Freeman. Trumpet soloists were Louis Armstrong-inspired veteran Bernie Privin, 20-year-old Bobby Nichols and occasionally Zeke Zarchy. Trombone solos were seldom heard with the full Band, but 19-year-old Nat Peck seized what chances there were. Violin solos (though not jazz) were mostly by George Ockner.
Singer Johnny Desmond was obviously more than just another dance band vocalist, known as the GI Sinatra though with more "body" in his voice, a very sensitive style and immaculate phrasing and diction. His singing in the ABSIE programmes was truly remarkable. When Johnny was ill with 'flu on November 20th Artie Malvin, lead singer with the Crew Chiefs, deputised for him in Where Or When and also made an excellent job of the German lyrics.
As the ABSIE programmes continued Miller's German apparently improved, aided by Ilse. The fifth programme presented for the first time a guest artist - Hollywood actress and singer Irene Manning, then in Britain entertaining Allied troops. Her latest film, "Hollywood Canteen", was then showing in Britain.
The sixth programme, recorded on November 27th, was unfortunately the last. Two days earlier, in Bedford, the Band had begun its marathon recording schedule for the BBC - 88 programmes in 18 days, plus all their regular live broadcasts - to cover their imminent six-weeks posting to Paris to play for Allied troops on brief respites from the battle fronts. No time now for ABSIE - the Wehrmacht would have to go without.
Post-war research revealed that despite German jamming much of ABSIE's broadcasting got through, especially to the Germans. Perhaps after all the Miller Band was really another Allied secret weapon.
Geoffrey Butcher 1995
(Geoffrey Butcher is the author of "Next To A Letter From Home : Major Glenn Miller's Wartime Band", revised edition, 1994. A Warner Paperback)