Bill Finegan: Arranger of 'Little Brown Jug'

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The Independent Online

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.