Tex Beneke is quite possibly the most under-appreciated pop “voices” of the 1940s. By “voice” we’re referring both to his smooth, understated vocal style, as well as his flawless lead saxophone. And although he’s under-appreciated, his “voice” actually defined the pop sound of the early 1940s.
Unfortunately for Tex, his legacy is closely tied to Glenn Miller, and so he remains stuck in second banana territory. The purpose of this article is to provide a concise case for Beneke’s significance in the history of American Popular Song as an artist of the first order — on par with the Perry Comos, the Frank Sinatras, and yes, the Glenn Millers.
To understand the Tex Beneke story, one must first understand the long shadow that Glenn Miller cast. Miller was an accomplished trombonist working for the Dorsey Brothers in the mid 1930s. He was hired away to assemble an orchestra for Ray Noble, which he did quite successfully. Miller perfected this when he assembled his own orchestra in 1937, fine-tuning until he came up with a unique sound featuring a quartet of saxophones supporting a clarinet lead. Miller filled this in with strings and brass, plugged in his uncanny ear for melody, and by 1938 was quickly emerging as one of the top bands in the nation.
The Glenn Miller Orchestra became a cast of all-stars. Beneke was a featured saxophonist along with the legendary Al Klink, Wilbur Schwartz played clarinet, and the Modernaires were retained as vocalists. Beneke quickly showed his smooth singing style, and became a featured vocalist as well. Vocalist Paula Kelly joined the troupe. And since Beneke was often working the sax, Ray Eberle was brought on as well. Trumpeter Ray Anthony joined in 1941. At one point even the Andrews Sisters were part of the act. With perfectionist Miller running the show, the band cranked out hit after hit. The Glenn Miller Orchestra was the early 1940s version of Elvis or the Beatles, sans the hysteria.
Now imagine if, at the peak of his popularity, Elvis vanished during his military service. Miller did. Back at home the job fell to Tex Beneke to carry on, and he became the new leader of The Glenn Miller Orchestra.
The arrangement worked, at first. In terms of pure talent, Beneke was superior to Miller, and so the orchestra actually began to expand its musical horizons. As of 1946 the Glenn Miller Orchestra was bigger than ever thanks to Beneke’s leadership and a new arranger named Henry Mancini.
Unfortunately the Miller estate had RCA Records calling the shots, and by 1947 they were controlling almost every aspect of the performances. The musicians’ union strike soon made it difficult to maintain a full-blown orchestra, and the Big Band era ended seemingly as soon as it began. Beneke finally left the Miller umbrella, but could never totally disassociate himself from the name. He made a number of records post-Miller, charting some 17 songs on his own in the late 1940s. Through the 1960s and 1970s he even performed on recordings that ostensibly used the Glenn Miller name. He became something of a regular on The Tonight Show, paired again with Al Klink to recapture past Miller magic.
So that’s an abbreviated history. Now that you’re up to speed, let’s examine the significance of Tex Beneke in American Popular Song.
In terms of vocals, Beneke’s contribution is really one of style and vocal demeanor. He didn’t have the voice of a Bing Crosby or the artistry of Frank Sinatra, but he was actually better at filling the role of “vocalist” fronting a big band. Where a Crosby or Sinatra performance would overpower the orchestra, Beneke had no problem sharing the spotlight. He sang in a smooth, clear style that charted a course for a majority of pop vocalists in the later 1940s. Listen to these artists today: Crosby sounds like Crosby, Sinatra sounds like Sinatra, Beneke sounds like an era.
Two of the most notable songs featuring Beneke vocals are “Chattanooga Choo Choo” which topped the charts in November and December 1941, and “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo,” which topped the pop charts during 1942. Although the Glenn Miller version with Beneke leads were the biggest sellers, many people would’ve been hard pressed to name Beneke during the years following. His vocals on both these songs are unspectacular — yet they fit perfectly within the showcase of the big band format.
Backtracking just a moment, to give you an idea just how important Glenn Miller — and therefore Tex Beneke — was in 1941, “Chattanooga Choo Choo” reached number one by knocking Miller’s own “Elmer’s Tune” out of the top spot in November. “Chattanooga” then replaced “Elmer” by returning to the top, and stayed there until it was knocked out by still another Glenn Miller recording, “String of Pearls.” On “String of Pearls,” Beneke’s sax is the lead; some regard it as the best sax performance on a Miller record.
Although Beneke’s vocal style was extremely influential on the big band vocalists that followed, it was his saxophone that would provide longevity. Beneke’s saxophone work, in fact, is emulated on a daily basis by bands around the world.
The legacy of Beneke’s sax “voice” is in the pop standard “In the Mood.” On the original 1939-1941 hit recording (that isn’t a typo) the intro includes the fleet of saxophones, and the first solo is the famous tenor sax “battle” between Beneke and Klink. It is this break that sets up the rest of the song, and the dueling saxes are imitated to this day. In fact, we can safely assume that “In The Mood” is being performed at a wedding or other party somewhere in the world as you read these words. The song’s success is due to Miller’s uncanny skill at presenting a memorable melody, but the sound we know is the “voice” of Beneke’s saxaphone. It is the performances by Beneke and Klink that created a benchmark for generations of musicians; “In the Mood” continues to inspire sax players today. Some jazz musicians may look down their nose at such an overexposed song, unless of course they realize that the more obscure performances they claim to emulate were in fact influenced by “In the Mood.”
Unfortunately Tex Beneke became something of an oldies act after the demise of the Miller Orchestra. He was probably the biggest ambassador of swing music during the second half of the 20th Century, but he did not really break any new ground. His importance as a performer was from 1938-1942, and perhaps from 1946-1950 when he defined the Glenn Miller sound for posterity and had almost 20 hit singles on his own.
Despite the brevity of his time on the charts, Tex Beneke was influential both with his understated vocal style and his sax performances. Hopefully time will clarify his importance, and Beneke will receive the recognition he is long overdue.