BEFORE HE hit the Big Band Big Time with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, "Tex" Beneke played tenor saxophone in swing bands in junior and senior high school. "We played country clubs, air bases. . . . anything we could get, we considered ourselves lucky," says Beneke, now 78, and still swinging from coast to coast with his orchestra, playing "Music in the Miller Mood."
Gordon Lee Beneke was a tender 23 when he hooked up his horn with the young, unknown Miller, then a studio player and arranger for NBC. "I was with the Ben Young band and we were working Detroit when drummer Gene Krupa was there looking for boys for his own new band," Beneke recalls. "It was 1938, and he had just left Benny Goodman's band. He came out and heard our band and took three boys with him to New York City. I was very disappointed because he didn't pick me.
"But it turned out he was impressed, and when he went back to New York, he told Glenn about this sax player he was certain Glenn would like. And that was me." Beneke received a personal phone call from Miller, who hired him for $52.50 a week. "Well, I figured that was my chance to get to New York City, and being a little greenhorn kid from Texas, I couldn't wait to get going. There were quite a few big bands around then. All the ballrooms were going strong."
Miller was a "very strict and stern businessman," Beneke recalls, "but he knew exactly what he wanted, how to get his particular sound from each instrument, even though he was strictly a trombonist. He taught each of us so much about our own instruments. He originated his own distinctive sound: lead clarinet with the melody on the top, the tenor sax section doubling it an octave lower and the other three saxes filling in harmony. Nobody else had that sound."
In addition to a start, Miller gave Beneke his nickname. "Of course, anyone who leaves Texas winds up being called 'Tex' wherever they go. So when I walked into rehearsal, Glenn said 'Hello there, Texas' and it stuck. Now when someone calls me by my given name, I do a double-take, and I know they must be from home."
During the Miller years the orchestra received the first gold record in history for their 1941 recording of "Chattanooga Choo Choo" (from the movie "Sun Valley Serenade," which the Glenn Miller Orchestra starred in with Sonja Henie). Beneke sang lead vocals on the tune, backed by Paula Kelly and the Modernaires. It sold 1.2 million copies, quite an achievement in the days before mega-marketing.
Maj. Glenn Miller was lost in an air crash over the English Channel on Dec. 15, 1944. "Before the war, Glenn wanted to give me a few players and start me off with my own group, but I said, 'Glenn, I don't think I'm really ready just yet.' So after he died, Helen, Glenn's widow, knew of his plans for me, and she turned everything over to me. Gradually, we began to play his name down."
Beneke says he's thrilled by today's second coming of swing. "We're finding that the young kids are rediscovering big bands. I think they're tiring of all this rock 'n' roll, tired of going deaf. And we launch into 'Chattanooga Choo Choo' and they'll get up and dance -- what they call 'touch dancing,' you know, instead of 20 feet apart. It's like if you keep an old necktie long enough, you can wear it again sooner or later."
The veteran jazzman says he still travels nine months out of the year, and still sings "Ida, Sweet As Apple Cider," "I've Got A Gal In Kalamazoo," and "Little Brown Jug" all over the country, but he flies these days, with a "nucleus of about three-four regular boys." He contracts the rest of his orchestra from groups of local musicians wherever he appears. When he's on the West Coast, he's joined by bass player Rolly Brundock from the original Miller orchestra.
"Some places you can't fly into, so we still wind up on buses or trains, like in the old barnstorming days. That gets to be a little rugged when you get older. I can't crawl back to Greyhound," Beneke says with a laugh. "But back then, it got so that our boys couldn't sleep in a hotel bed when they had the chance--because it wasn't rocking and shaking! But we enjoyed it. We were kids, it was an adventure, and every place we played was new to us.
"In order to get to play, I've got to travel, though. One goes with the other," says Beneke, who was inducted into the Shoreham Hotel's entertainment Hall of Fame yesterday. "I'll be doing it as long as I'm able."