McVay helps keep spirit of Glenn Miller alive

GLENN Miller may no longer be with us, but the famous wartime band bearing his name is very much alive and kicking. Indeed, the Glenn Miller Orchestra today is among the most sought-after big bands in the world - just as it was in the days when swing was king.

Now capably led and directed by Ray McVay, the orchestra will take a nostalgia-hungry audience of big band aficionados on a joyful journey of classic Forties hits and wartime tunes at the Usher Hall on Thursday night.

"My heart was always with the Big Bands, and I yearned to direct the music of Glenn Miller," recalls band leader McVay, who prior to forming the orchestra in 1988 worked with stars like Georgie Fame, Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent.

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"I had the initial idea to form a British Glenn Miller Orchestra with one principal aim in mind. Having heard various bands play Glenn Miller-type music, I was disappointed when their phrasing, tuning and arrangements were not correct, so I contacted Miller's American office with the idea of forming a Glenn Miller Orchestra in the UK."

McVay was swiftly invited to New York to discuss his plans and within six months the Glenn Miller Orchestra UK had taken to the road in Britain. That was 18 years ago, and while the orchestra is now a name that is world renowned, McVay says its early success took him by surprise. "The spring of 1999 saw the band commence their first trip to Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay," he recalls. "Then in the autumn we were off to Miami on the QE2, performing all the way. This was just another step in keeping the name alive and it's really nice to be involved with the music of a man like Glenn Miller."

Born in Glasgow in the late 1930s, McVay became a professional musician at the age of 13 as a saxophonist. In the 50s he became a music director for many big names such as Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Conway Twitty and Billy Fury. His name got bigger and better known in the industry when he fronted his own show band, the Ray McVay Orchestra, and he became a familiar face in the UK when he was featured on the TV series Come Dancing.

In 1960, at the end of a tour in the UK with Cochran and Vincent, McVay was preparing to head to Heathrow airport when fate intervened.

"We were all very jovial at the end of a very successful tour," recalls McVay. "Eddie decided he wanted to take his amp back to the United States to be repaired but the driver of the car said that there was no room for it unless someone got out. I volunteered and travelled with the other boys from the group in my Dormobile."

An hour later, following a horrific car crash, Cochran was dead. The taxi McVay was supposed to have taken crashed into a lamppost on Rowden Hill in London. Songwriter Sharon Sheeley (Cochran's fiance) and singer Vincent survived the crash.

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"Fate had obviously kept me alive," recalls McVay. "The seat I had given up was the seat that Eddie Cochran had sat in. As we all know, he later died from his severe head injuries."

Today, McVay leads the Glenn Miller Orchestra UK, which boasts a repertoire of hundreds of original compositions, from jumping jive to slow and sweet, everything to bring the brassy big band era boisterously to life

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Just like the original, the core of the band's catalogue is based in the classic swing era of the 1940s, with all those golden hits including Little Brown Jug, Pennsylvania 65000, American Patrol and Anchors Away.

This year's show will include a special tribute to the Rat Pack - Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr - as well as a festive selection to toast the season, Joy to the World, The Christmas Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

"Quality music always stands the test of time, ageing gracefully and mellowing over the years," beams McVay. "If anything, we believe that the authentic Glenn Miller music is now more popular than ever. And we owe it to Glenn to keep it that way."

• The Glenn Miller Orchestra UK, Usher Hall, Lothian Road, 7.30pm, Thursday, 12-26.50, 0131-228 1155

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