Miller was born on March 1, 1904 in Clarinda, Iowa. His family was poor, moving steadily westward during his childhood, first to Nebraska, and then to Fort Morgan, Colorado. Miller studied music during high school, and soon after graduation in 1921, he took his first professional job in the Denver area with Boyd Senter’s popular orchestra. He then enrolled at the University of Colorado, where he spent his time outside of class playing in fellow student Holly Moyer’s band. He left college in 1923 to devote full attention to his career as a musician and arranger.
Joining Ben Pollack’s band, Miller went to Los Angeles, to Chicago, and eventually to New York in early 1928, where he married his college sweetheart, Helen Burger. After leaving Pollack, Miller joined the Smith Ballew orchestra, then the newly-formed Dorsey Brothers band. He finally decided to launch his own band in January of 1937. At the end of the year, he disbanded it, discouraged and in debt. With financial help he tried again the following spring. This time he had the players he wanted to go with his gifts as an arranger, and he developed a clarinet-led reed section and created what came to be known as the “Miller sound.”
In 1938, Miller signed with Victor’s Bluebird label. “Little Brown Jug,” “In the Mood” and his signature, “Moonlight Serenade,” played both from jukeboxes and on radios across the country. By the fall of 1939, the Glenn Miller Orchestra was the nation’s hottest attraction. “Tuxedo Junction” and “A String of Pearls” reached No. 1 on the top-sellers chart, and Miller was awarded the first-ever gold record in 1942 for selling more than one million copies of “Chattanooga Choo Choo.”
With the onset of World War II, Miller, at 37, was determined to take part in the war effort. Entering the army in October 1942, he molded the nation’s most popular service band. That U.S. Air Force Band went to England in the summer of 1944, entertaining troops at 71 concerts in five months. On the afternoon of December 15, while flying from the south of England to newly liberated Paris to lead a concert to be broadcast on Christmas, the small plane carrying Major Glenn Miller disappeared over the English Channel, ending a brilliant and influential career in American popular music.