Anyone old enough to remember how to do the jitterbug and fox-trot—and spry enough to remember why doing them is a good idea—should find this reissue set a happy rediscovery.
It includes 60 original, digitally remastered tracks by the Miller band. Miller, himself a journeyman trombonist, never filled his band with the kind of dazzling soloists who populated the outfits of his contemporaries—Goodman, Dorsey, Shaw, Bob Crosby. He particularly never had a drummer who could propel a band the way, say, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich or Dave Tough could, and until the Modernaires joined him in 1941, his vocalists were usually a notch below the Helen Forrest—Frank Sinatra—Ella Fitzgerald level of the competition.
But, thanks to arrangments by such people as Jerry Gray, Bill Finegan and Billy May, Miller’s band could generate a tight, compact swing mode (think of “Tuxedo Junction” or “Anvil Chorus”), and no band of that era, or probably of any other, could get dreamier and smoother on a ballad.
As a result, from November 1938 through April 1944, the Miller band had a record of popularity more than worthy of Elvis Presley, the Supremes or Michael Jackson. During that span an astonishing 125 Miller singles hit the Top 30, with 23 of them making No. 1.
This collection omits a few of the lesser-known Miller gems: “Johnson Rag” and “Silhouetted in the Moonlight” among them. But it includes most of the familiar tunes, such as Miller’s own composition and evocative theme song, “Moonlight Serenade,” “In the Mood” and “A String of Pearls.” There’s also a fair selection of the band’s pop novelty hits—”(I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo,” “Juke Box Saturday Night,” “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” (the first single ever officially accorded million-seller status)—and such effective ballads as “I Know Why (And So Do You)” and “Serenade in Blue.”
The sound quality is extraordinarily high, and the only problem with the set is that in the cassette format there are no liner notes; they have to be ordered through the mail. This is about the same thing as having to write in to get the mashed potatoes for a TV dinner, given the entertainment value of scanning the personnel lists and arrangers in a package like this.
It’s hard to quarrel with the music, though. The package does justice to the enduring music created by Miller, who enlisted in the Army Air Force in October 1942 and led an all-star service band until he died at 40 in a plane crash in December 1944. (RCA/Bluebird)