Saxophonist and singer Gordon Lee "Tex" Beneke was such a standout with the Glenn Miller Orchestra that he was asked to re-create the band after the famous leader's death in World War II.
A native of Fort Worth, young Tex acquired his nickname when he played soprano saxophone, and later tenor sax, with the Ben Young Band, which toured Texas and Oklahoma. After drummer Gene Krupa recommended Beneke, Miller asked the saxophonist to join his group in 1938.
"It was one of the greatest experiences I had ever had," Beneke told a nostalgic audience at the Irvine Mariott hotel in 1984 at a salute to Glenn Miller performed by the Tex Beneke Band. "A young greenhorn kid from Fort Worth heading for New York City to be with what was going to be the greatest band, I think, of all time."
He remembered those early days with Miller's then-struggling band as a time of being "on the road, flat tires, ice, snow — you name it — and going seven nights a week all over New England."
Beneke proved a natural for the Miller sound, with its emphasis on saxophones and clarinets, and quickly became what jazz critic and historian Leonard Feather called "the band's best-known sideman."
He glittered in tenor sax solos for such Miller classics as "String of Pearls" and "In the Mood," adding a tinge of jazz to Miller's swing style.
Beneke also became a popular singer for Miller, particularly known for such hits as "Chattanooga Choo Choo" and "I've Got a Gal in Kalamazoo." The orchestra earned the first gold record in history, selling 1.2 million copies of its 1941 recording of "Choo Choo" from the motion picture "Sun Valley Serenade."
He further enhanced his following, topping polls by Downbeat and Metronome magazines, with a second Miller-based movie, "Orchestra Wives," which showcased him in "Kalamazoo." (Ironically, Beneke was omitted from perhaps the most popular film about the bandleader, "The Glenn Miller Story," in 1954.)
The saxophonist also sang with Miller's vocal group, the Modernaires, at the beginning of World War II.
When Miller disbanded his orchestra in 1942 to head the Army Air Force Band, Beneke freelanced briefly, performing for a highly publicized five days with the Horace Heidt big band.
Then Beneke too joined up and led a Navy dance band in Oklahoma for the war's duration.
In 1946, two years after Miller's plane was lost over the English Channel during the war, Beneke was asked by Miller's widow, Helen, to reassemble and lead the band. For four years, he fronted "The Glenn Miller Band With Tex Beneke," and it flourished with him in charge.
"With Miller a fallen hero," a music writer once said, "demand for the Miller sound was bigger than ever, and the band played to capacity audiences everywhere."
Later, Beneke led bands solely under his own name, but continued into the late 1980s playing concerts in tribute to the Miller sound. Typically, he opened the 1984 Irvine concert, near the 40th anniversary of Miller's death, with Miller's theme song, "Moonlight Serenade."
"That song, 'Moonlight Serenade,' always gets people up for dancing," he told The Times. "I can get to work feeling lousy, and it gets me feeling good again."
Beneke took "Music in the Miller Mood" across the country, traveling with a small corps of regulars and hiring contract players in different cities, and frequently appeared on television's "Cavalcade of Bands."
"In order to play, I've got to travel. One goes with the other," he told the Washington Post in 1982 when he was inducted into the capital city's Shoreham Hotel Entertainment Hall of Fame. "I'll be doing it as long as I'm able."
At that time, he said he was delighted to see young people awakening to "the second coming of swing," adding: "It's like if you keep an old necktie long enough, you can wear it again sooner or later."