Revered jazz clarinetist Michael “Peanuts” Hucko, who played with Glenn Miller’s band during World War II and briefly led the band in the 1970s, died Friday in Fort Worth after a long illness. He was 85.
Known for his version of “Stealin’ Apples,” Hucko also played with some of America’s greatest musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Eddie Condon, Benny Goodman, Al Hirt, Ray McKinley, Jack Teagarden and other bands, and was a featured player on the Lawrence Welk television show in the 1970s.
He appeared as a soloist at the Newport Jazz Festival for many years and at other national jazz festivals. Hucko celebrated his 80th birthday in 1998 with Tex Beneke and many of his old peers when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush declared the first Texas Big Band Jazz Festival in honor of his birthday.
A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Hucko said he fell in love with the saxophone at a church dance when he was 11. “The sound coming out of it was magical,” Hucko told the Post-Standard of Syracuse in 1995.
The first song he played on the sax was “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Soon he was playing in the Blodgett Vocational High School band, where two taller players endowed him with his lifelong nickname.
Hucko went to New York City in the early 1930s, playing with many bands and later joining the ABC Studio Staff doing national radio broadcasts and commercials.
When World War II began, he was inducted into the Army Air Force, where he continued playing. It was while stationed near Syracuse on a base set up for desert training where he had to march through sand that he decided to switch to the clarinet. “I didn’t want to ruin my tenor,” he told The Times in 1987. He soon found he preferred it.
He later played lead alto saxophone and clarinet with Miller’s band throughout Europe. He was with the band on Dec. 15, 1944, when Miller’s plane went down in the English Channel while the bandleader was on his way to set up arrangements for Hucko and other band members to play in Paris.
In an interview with Peter Solomon for a National Public Radio broadcast on the 58th anniversary of Miller’s death, Hucko recalled that he and the band waited for hours for Miller’s arrival at Orly airfield. Finally, they were called together and told Miller’s plane never reached Paris. “There was complete silence, you know, complete silence,” Hucko said. “We didn’t know what are we going to do.”
The band members talked about breaking up, but decided against it because “this would have been absolutely against Glenn’s wishes,” Hucko said. “That’s why he enlisted in the first place; he wanted to play for the troops. If you break the band up, you’re not going to be able to play for the troops.”
The band stayed together, he said, and every afternoon it would play a concert at a big hotel for servicemen who were passing through.
After the war, Hucko played with Armstrong’s All Stars and for a time led the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
Hucko, who lived for a while in Sherman Oaks, is survived by his wife, Louise Tobin, a big band era singer who continued to perform with her husband; two stepsons; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.