Although he subsequently found himself in dispute with the bandleader’s estate, Tex Beneke played a major role in establishing the trademark Glenn Miller sound as one of the most successful inventions of the big band era. His tenor saxophone solos and amiable vocals featured prominently on many of Miller’s biggest hits, including ‘In The Mood’, ‘String of Pearls’, ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’, ‘I Got a Girl in Kalamazoo’ and ‘Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree’, and he was a key member of the saxophone section in his four years with the band.
He joined in 1938, having been recommended to Miller by drummer Gene Krupa, and remained in the band until the trombonist disbanded the unit when he entered the armed forces in 1942. Beneke was never a member of Miller’s final Army Air Force Band, which was based in England prior to the bandleader’s still mysterious death when his aircraft disappeared over the English Channel while on a flight to France in 1944. Instead, the saxophonist toured in the USA with The Modernaires, the vocal group formerly associated with the Miller band, then led a Navy band in Oklahoma.
Glenn Miller’s widow approached Beneke to lead a reformed version of the posthumous Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1946. The band was an immediate success, touring intensively to wildly enthusiastic audience responses and racking up a sequence of hit records, all in the classic Miller mould. He led the band until 1950, but eventually rebelled against the strict managerial insistence on playing Miller’s music exactly as the trombonist conceived it, and he broke his relationship with the estate to form his own band, touring under the banner “Tex Beneke and His Orchestra Playing the Music Made Famous by Glenn Miller”.
It was a fine distinction, perhaps, but allowed Beneke to introduce some of his own ideas, and to experiment in a way prohibited by the Miller estate. The break led to his being left out of the the film version of The Glenn Miller Story in 1953, although he had appeared in two earlier films which featured the band, Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942).
He was born Gordon Beneke in Fort Worth, a birthplace which earned him the familiar nickname ‘Tex’. He played soprano saxophone as a child, and began his professional career playing in the so-called territory bands of the southwest, including two years with the Ben Young Orchestra (1935-37). He joined the Glenn Miller Orchestra the following year, where his own contribution brought him individual awards in the influential polls conducted by magazines like Down Beat and Metronome in 1941-2. He recorded with the Metronome All-Stars, an annual band made up of the winning musicians in the Metronome poll, in 1941.