Wednesday, February 10, 2010

I've Got My Fare

Magnet # 165: Chattanooga Choo-Choo

Material: Porcelain

Purchased By: Me

The first gold record ever awarded for a song selling a million copies was given on this day in 1942 to Glenn Miller for his song "Chattanooga Choo-Choo." It was a sign that, after years of trying, the musician and swing band leader had finally succeeded. Miller would go on to help define the music of his era and make a lasting impact on the industry before mysteriously disappearing.

Miller was born in on an Iowa farm in 1904 and took to music at an early age. Although his father once gave him a mandolin, he always held up the brass instruments as his personal favorites. And when he heard a new style called "dance band music," he soon realized he wanted to become a professional musician playing that particular style. Miller never finished college and instead left to tour with several orchestras. For more than a decade he would toil away, writing arrangements for some groups, performing with others, and recording a record of his own and another with a signer. He even appeared as a band member in the film The Big Broadcast of 1936. Finally, in 1937 Miller tried forming his own band, but they were unable to distinguish themselves from their many competitors and soon failed. The depressed Miller began to understand that he would have to develop a sound all his own. He created a new reed section sound by having a clarinet and tenor sax play the same melodic line as three other saxophones harmonized in a complementary line. It worked and no one was ever able to completely imitate the Miller style. By 1938, the band had a record deal and was booking venues at prominent locations on the East Coast that greatly increased their prominence. Soon, they had hit songs appearing in jukeboxes all over the country, were broadcasting regularly, and appeared in two motion pictures. Many times when they performed live, the band broke attendance records. Miller had gained the love of the masses, but critics always nagged him for being too commercial and not spontaneous as they thought jazz musicians should be. But fellow musicians like Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra were fans of Miller's music. Then, in 1942, he stunned the world by breaking up his band at the height of its popularity. World War II had broken out and Miller wanted to join the armed forces, but because of his age, could only do so by promising to lead a military band. He was placed in the Army Air Force and trained at my hometown in Montgomery, Alabama before heading overseas. With his 50 piece Army Air Force Band, he gave over 800 performances in England, and was one of the greatest morale boosters the military could have hoped for. On December 15, 1944 Miller boarded a military plane headed from London to Paris and vanished. No trace of his plane was ever found, and explanations for the disappearance have ranged from weather trouble to friendly fire all the way to a cover-up regarding Miller's supposed death in a Paris brothel. Miller's disappearance has only added to his legend.  Less than a decade later, Jimmy Stewart portrayed the musician in The Glenn Miller Story and his music has sold considerably well regardless of what format it's played on.  Miller even has several songs in the Grammy Hall of Fame and his own postage stamp - although he may have been lost, but he will never be forgotten.

As for the subject of the song, the Chattanooga Choo-Choo never referred to an actual train traveling in that city, it was an invention of the song.  But the Terminal Station in the city, which opened in 1909, has taken on the name.  When it was built, it was one of Chattanooga's largest and most impressive buildings, and after its final train departed in 1970, it was bought by local businessmen.  They officially renamed it after the song, and the building has transformed into truly impressive complex with a convention center, shops, and restaurants.  There is even a hotel whose guests can spend the night in part of a restored passenger car.  Visitors can enjoy even more train themed experiences by eating in a restored diner car and visiting the depot's Model Railroad Museum.  And, yes, they have old steam locomotives on display that looks like the one on this magnet.  If you're curious, check them out at  This historic locale is just one more sign of the impact Glenn Miller had on American society, and it's great to see how his legend lives on more than half a century after he left us.

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