No Blue Notes at Tex Beneke Farewell; the Band Plays On
The song was empty without words, and the band members knew it as they played inside the Santa Ana union hall on Saturday. There was no “pardon me, boy,” or “dinner in the diner,” but “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” somehow still felt right.
It was Gordon Lee “Tex” Beneke’s signature arrangement--a song for which he earned the first gold record in history when it sold 1.2 million copies. During Saturday’s memorial service for the band leader, people closed their eyes and tapped their feet as if it were the last time they would hear it.
Beneke’s May 30 death “is a sad loss to our culture,” said Art Depew, who first played with Beneke 50 years ago, and has been in the band ever since. More than 100 people who gathered at the Musicians’ Assn. union building in Santa Ana to remember Beneke nodded in agreement. Beneke, 86, died of respiratory arrest at a Costa Mesa rest home after several months of declining health. A saxophonist, he led the Glenn Miller Orchestra after Miller died in December of 1944. That role was a springboard to find his own fame, playing Miller tunes such as “Choo Choo,” “In the Mood” and “Moonlight Serenade” and massaging the Miller sound of saxophones and clarinets.
Beneke’s old friends and bandmates took turns at the dais, sharing stories of road trips and musical blunders and triumphs.
“He just reeked of humility,” said Chip Allen, the orchestra’s business manager for the last 15 years. He pointed to the band and quipped, “He had to be humble, because they weren’t.”
The service was not somber, mostly because of Beneke’s orchestra, which sounded smooth as red velvet in the music hall of fluorescent lights and paneled ceilings. Two people started to dance during “In the Mood,” regarded as the most recognizable big band tune.
Sandi Beneke, the bandleader’s wife, told the audience, “I chose this place because this is how Tex started, in a small union hall . . . shooting pool,” she said. “This music will live on. It’s never played quite the same.”
Beneke told stories about her husband’s remarkable humility, something friends say must have come from being the band’s leader. It was his job to make his band, and not himself, shine. She swept her arm over the audience of older people in suits and younger women in sun dresses: “He didn’t want this. He never realized how much he touched everybody’s hearts.”
The band, instead of playing “Moonlight Serenade” as planned, then stood and performed “In the Mood.” A young girl danced by herself and tried to sing the words to a different song, “Pardon me boy, is that the Chattanooga Choo Choo?” and the words seemed to fit anyway.