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Glen Miller Hit, 'Chattanooga Choo Choo,' Marks Its 75th Anniversary

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Glen Miller Hit, 'Chattanooga Choo Choo,' Marks Its 75th Anniversary

Performing Arts

Glen Miller Hit, 'Chattanooga Choo Choo,' Marks Its 75th Anniversary

Glen Miller Hit, 'Chattanooga Choo Choo,' Marks Its 75th Anniversary

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On 8/21/41, the movie "Sun Valley Serenade" had its world premiere and featured the song, "Chattanooga Choo Choo." Playwright Murray Horwitz tells NPR's Scott Simon why the song became a monster hit.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUN VALLEY SERENADE")

TEX BENEKE: (As character, singing) Pardon me, boy, is that the Chattanooga choo choo?

THE MODERNAIRES: (Singing) Yes, yes, track 29.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This weekend is the anniversary - and you know how we love those - of the premiere of one of the most popular songs in American musical history. August 21, 1941, "Sun Valley Serenade" had its world premiere in Salt Lake City - John Payne, Milton Berle and Sonja Henie. The film presented a number by the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Tex Beneke, Paula Kelly, The Modernaires, the Nicholas Brothers and Dorothy Dandridge. "Chattanooga Choo Choo" by composer Harry Warren, lyricist Mack Gordon - it became one of the biggest hits of all time, the first gold record, selling more than a million copies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUN VALLEY SERENADE")

PAULA KELLY: (As character, singing) Shovel all the coal in, got to keep it rolling.

THE MODERNAIRES: (Singing) Woo-woo (ph) Chattanooga, there you are.

SIMON: We're joined now by Murray Horwitz, the playwright and lyricist and host of "The Big Broadcast" on member station WAMU and online, if you've run out of all other possible diversions. Murray, thanks very much for being with us.

MURRAY HORWITZ: Or if you're having trouble sleeping. Good to be here, Scott, as always.

SIMON: How big was this song?

HORWITZ: It's hard for us to imagine what a giant hit this was. As you said, it may not have been the first record to sell a million copies, but it was the first one certified to have done so. And so RCA had a gold record struck, presented it to Glenn Miller, and the Record Industry Association of America liked the idea so much that years later, they started giving gold records. And so thanks to "Chattanooga Choo Choo," we have the expression going gold.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN MILLER SONG, "CHATTANOOGA CHOO CHOO")

SIMON: What do you think made it - sorry for these - this choice of word. What do you think made "Chattanooga Choo Choo" such a runaway success?

HORWITZ: As a songwriter, one of the things that strikes me about the song, and I'm sure this is part of what made it a hit, is there are three stories in the lyric. I mean, first of all, it's a guy looking for the right train, and he has this dialogue with the shoeshine guy. And then there's the story of the train trip itself from New York's Pennsylvania Station to Chattanooga, Tenn.

And then the third story is the love story, what happens when he gets off the train and asks the girl to marry him. So it's really engaging that way. And plus the rhythmic qualities of the song - "Chattanooga Choo Choo," which just sounds like a train. And Jerry Gray's terrific arrangement for the Glenn Miller Orchestra, which has all those train motives going in it. You know, (imitating music). It's irresistible.

SIMON: It must be said the song begins with a lyric that nowadays has to be identified as racial, racism.

HORWITZ: Yeah. Is it racist? I'm not to say. Is it racial? Absolutely because, you know, you - the opening line is the boy in pardon me, boy in question was I'm sure understood by everybody to be African-American. Interestingly, the song is performed twice in that movie, "Sun Valley Serenade." First by the all-white Glenn Miller Orchestra with the all-white Tex Beneke and Paula Kelly and The Modernaires, and that segues immediately into an all-black version with the gorgeous and divine Dorothy Dandridge and the extraordinary Nicholas Brothers.

And at one point, the Nicholas Brothers are dancing in the foreground with the Miller Band in the background. Now, I checked with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem to make sure, and it turns out I was right. This was unusual for a Hollywood movie in 1941. Usually, if there was a racially integrated musical scene, it was shot so that the scene could be excised for exhibitors in the South. And that didn't happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SUN VALLEY SERENADE")

DOROTHY DANDRIDGE: (As character, singing) When you hear the whistle blowing eight to the bar...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, singing) ...Then you know that Tennessee is not very far.

DANDRIDGE AND THE NICHOLAS BROTHERS: (As characters, singing) Shuffle all the coal in, got to keep it rolling.

DANDRIDGE: (As character, singing) Chattanooga, there you are.

DANDRIDGE AND THE NICHOLAS BROTHERS: (As characters, singing) Chattanooga choo choo, there you are.

HORWITZ: I am going to say something now, Scott Simon, and you are going to answer. And what I'm going to say is pardon me, boy, is this the Transylvania station?

SIMON: Oh, track 29, und (ph) can I give you a shine?

HORWITZ: Right. I will not burden our listeners with the joke, the punch line of which is pardon me, Roy, is that the cat that chewed your new shoes?

SIMON: Oh, there's a whole family of these jokes, right?

HORWITZ: A dysfunctional family of these jokes.

SIMON: Murray Horwitz, our good friend, the playwright, the lyricist and Mary Kay cosmetics salesman. Thanks very much for being with us.

HORWITZ: (Laughter) If - I'd be making a living if I were doing that.

SIMON: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN MILLER SONG, "CHATTANOOGA CHOO CHOO")

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