Bill Finegan: Arranger of 'Little Brown Jug'

Bill Finegan was probably the finest ever arranger in the popular music field and was snapped up to work for two of the richest bandleaders, Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey. "Glenn Miller was not a nice guy," said Finegan. "I didn't like the way he treated people. We sort of had an armed truce when I was with him."

Miller signed Finegan up to write for his band in 1938 and in 1939 Finegan created the famous version of "Little Brown Jug" for his boss. Finegan resented the fact that on the band's weekly broadcasts Miller always allowed it to be announced as "from the ace arranger himself, Glenn Miller". In fact, Miller had stopped writing for the band when Finegan joined. When Finegan remonstrated with the bandleader, Miller always promised to put the matter right. Finegan became resigned to the fact that he never would.

The maudlin Hollywood tearjerker The Glenn Miller Story was predicated on the idea that, when at the end of the film Miller's plane disappeared over the English Channel, he had left behind as a present for his wife his newly written arrangement of "Little Brown Jug." It was in fact Finegan's 1939 arrangement.

Starting as a pianist and trumpet player, Finegan began writing for a jazz band with three trumpets and three saxophones that he put together whilst he was at school. He played as a semi-professional with several bands in the New Jersey resorts and didn't become fully professional until he joined Miller. In 1938 he wrote an arrangement of "Lonesome Road" and sent it unsolicited to Tommy Dorsey.

"I threw everything into it but the kitchen sink," he told me. Dorsey recorded the arrangement and it became a hit. When Miller heard it, he was so impressed that he tracked Finegan down and put him on the band's payroll.

"I had to write two arrangements for the band every week," Finegan said. "That was a lot of hard work. By the time I left him in 1942 I'd written about 300 charts. 'Little Brown Jug' put the band on the map. The clarinet lead that he was so famous for drove me nuts. He used to tell me what to write and I ignored him and wrote what I thought was right."

Finegan arranged many of Miller's greatest hits including "Song of the Volga Boatmen", "Sunrise Serenade" (a popular song from 1869), "Stairway to The Stars", "Rhapsody in Blue" and "Serenade in Blue". He also wrote the music that the band played in the films Sun Valley Serenade (1941) and Orchestra Wives (1942).

After working for Horace Heidt and Les Elgart between 1942 and 1946, Finegan was called in by Dorsey and, although not full time with the band, became its main arranger. By now he was much influenced by two other writers, Sy Oliver, who had become a close friend, and Duke Ellington.

"Bill could write rings around me," Oliver said modestly. "With Tommy again I wrote what I call show-off arrangements," said Finegan. "He was really great and went along with whatever I wanted to do."

Finegan studied with the German composer and teacher Stefan Wolpe in New York. "I lived in Paris from 1949 to 1951," he told me in a radio programme for the BBC. "I was studying composition, but I used to fly over to London regularly to rehearse arrangements that I wrote for Geraldo's orchestra. He had a fine band, and I remember many of his musicians with much affection. People like Laddie Busby, Keith Bird and the arranger Angela Morley. In 1952 my friend the composer and arranger Eddie Sauter wrote to me on the back of a rejection slip he'd received from some dumb bandleader and casually suggested that we should form a band. He wasn't serious, but the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra came out of it."

Sauter-Finegan was an extraordinary 21-piece band, the like of which has never been seen before or since. The music was so complex that it depended on first-class musicians, many of whom contributed on three or four instruments each . The exquisite music of Sauter and Finegan frolicked in every range of the band, with fife and piccolo at the top and tuba and bass trombone at the bottom.

Although never a raging success, the band was able to go on tour between 1952 and 1957 and it recorded a dozen or so albums. Its biggest hit was "The Doodletown Fifers", based on an old Civil War song. "Midnight Sleigh Ride" called for horse's hooves as an introduction and backing, and Finegan achieved this sound by stripping to the waist and beating his chest before the microphone.

"From the time Eddie and I formed the band, everything went wrong but the music," said Finegan mournfully. Finances stretched and then snapped, but the band did make a short film, The Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, on its last tour in 1958.

When the band broke up, Finegan and Sauter continued to work together writing commercial jingles that were destined for television.

In 1970 Finegan wrote some arrangements for the Glenn Miller "ghost" band and, more interestingly, was commissioned by his pal, the drummer Mel Lewis, to write for Lewis's contemporary band. In 1985, four years after Sauter's death, Finegan directed a 30-year reunion of the Sauter-Finegan band in concert at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.

He was revered and befriended in his later years by many sensitive musicians such as Bob Brookmeyer and Ruby Braff. Although he was immobilised for the last 20 years or so of his life by continuous pain in his spine, he continued to write and teach music.

Steve Voce

William James Finegan, arranger, composer, bandleader and teacher: born Newark, New Jersey 3 April 1917; married Rosemary O'Reilly (deceased; one son, two daughters); died Bridgeport, Connecticut 4 June 2008.

Suggested Topics
Jacqueline Bisset has claimed that young women today are obsessed with being 'hot', rather than 'charming', 'romantic' or 'beautiful'
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvDownton Abbey review: It's six months since we last caught up with the Crawley clan
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
techNew app offers 'PG alternative' to dating services like Tinder
Greg Dyke insists he will not resign as Football Association chairman after receiving a watch worth more than £16,000 but has called for an end to the culture of gifts being given to football officials
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
premier league
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
Plenty to ponder: Amir Khan has had repeated problems with US immigration because of his Muslim faith and now American television may shun him
people''Women's rights is too often synonymous with man-hating'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Science Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: Science Teachers needed for s...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: QTS Maths Teachers needed for...

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Reading: English Teachers with QTS nee...

PMLD Teaching Assistant Required - Nottingham

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: We are currently looking to ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments