One Night, One Stage, Four Decades of Music
Nick Hilscher was born in the late 1970s, about four decades after the Great Depression and World War II. But the 38-year-old Atlanta native spends 300 days — or 46 weeks — a year treating audiences across the globe to the music of an icon from that era: Glenn Miller.
Hilscher is the latest leader of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, an incarnation of the bandleader’s group that has been playing shows non-stop for 60 years, with a rotating set of musicians.
And to him, there’s a simple reason Miller’s music endures.
“It’s timeless in a way,” Hilscher explains. “This is the music that was kind of the beginning of recorded music. The melodies, the harmonies, and the rhythm — the three essential elements to any music — were very special.”
On Friday night, they’ll play famous Miller tunes — like “Moonlight Serenade” and “In the Mood” — at the Mayo Performing Arts Center in Morristown.
And they’ll share the bill with an act from yet another generation: The Diamonds, a vocal quartet that populated the Billboard chart with doo wop and early rock ‘n’ roll hits in the late ’50s and early ’60s. The title of the dual concert: “Jukebox Junction.”
Formed in 1938, the Glenn Miller Orchestra was The Beatles of the swing era. At a time when recorded music was booming, songs like “Tuxedo Junction” and “Chattanooga Choo Choo” were major hits — and eventually classics.
“When you see the show, the way they do meld together is really quite nice,” says Gary Owens, the lead Diamond. “The audience for both groups definitely crosses over. Nobody gets up and walks out when we come on and vice versa.”
“It’s the sound of that era,” Hilscher says. “Coming out of the Great Depression and into the Second World War.”
But in 1942, at the height of his popularity, Miller broke up the orchestra, joined the U.S. Army, and formed his Army Air Force Band.
Then, in 1944, he boarded a plane to Paris to play for soldiers serving in Europe — and was never seen again. It’s assumed his plane crashed over the English Channel.
His orchestra reformed in his honor in 1956 and has been playing ever since. Those who buy a ticket to the Morristown show will see an 18-member ensemble, with a vocal group, playing songs from the Miller catalogue and swing versions of modern songs.
“It’s interesting that Glenn Miller’s music has been able to go on so long without Glenn Miller,” Hilscher says. “He’s been away since 1944. But in a sense, that was kind of the magic of his band. When he fronted it, it was not based around him. The band itself was the star.”
Despite being born in the Disco era, Hilscher formed an early love for Miller — and technically, it started because of Jimmy Stewart. Hilscher became enthralled with the actor when he saw “It’s A Wonderful Life” as a kid.
“For some reason, Jimmy Stewart connected with me,” he remembers. “I just enjoyed his acting and personality. I started watching as many Jimmy Stewart movies as I could.”
In middle school, his family got cable TV, and AMC ran a Stewart marathon. One of the films in it was 1954’s “The Glenn Miller Story.”
“I then rented the VHS from the local video store and just became a fan of Miller’s music,” Hilscher recalls. “I started to get in my possession as many Glenn Miller recordings as I could.”
Soon, he began listening to other orchestras from the era — including those led by Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey. And Hilscher started patterning his singing style on Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra.
In college, he studied classical piano, but after sophomore year, he sent out a demo of his singing to the Glenn Miller Orchestra.
“I heard from them pretty much immediately,” Hilscher says. “They wanted me to audition live.”
He started singing with the band at age 21 in 1998. After a little while, Hilscher went back to school and in 2000 earned a degree in piano music performance at Samford University in Alabama. But he was back on the road with the band in 2005, and after another break, he became the group’s musical director in 2012.
“It’s been a big part of me,” Hilscher explains. “So much so that it doesn’t get to me as much when I’m at different hotel every night.”
Hilscher has also seen the band’s audience evolve. He says it used to be “almost 100 percent Greatest Generation” folks. But now, he explains, the crowds are filled with Baby Boomers and their kids.
“Maybe they discover the music on their own or in a high school band program,” Hilscher says.
As for the Diamonds, the Canadian singers had 16 Billboard hits from 1956 to 1961, including the Top 10 smashes “Little Darlin’” and “The Stroll,” both in 1957.
The Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion knocked acts like The Diamonds off the charts by the mid-’60s. But the group has continued through the years, performing at night clubs, casinos, festivals and theaters.
None of the original members are still in the group. But Owens joined in 1973 — even though he was more a fan of later-period rock.
“I was familiar with it,” he says of The Diamonds’ music. “I guess I was more of a ’60s kid. But it’s kind of a universal music.”
Owens first encountered the Glenn Miller Orchestra when they played on the same cruise ships.
“I just thought: ‘Wow, this could be really something fun singing in front of a real big band,’” Owens recalls. “So I came up with the concept of the Jukebox Junction. Next thing we knew, we were doing shows.”
They’ve been performing together on and off for two years now.
Their typical set begins with an hour from The Diamonds, with Miller’s orchestra backing them. Then the orchestra plays a set. And often, the Diamonds and the Moonlight Serenaders — the orchestra’s vocal group — will sing together.
Usually, Hilscher says, he finds that slightly older Diamonds fans are won over by Miller’s 1940s sound.
“That generation — they’re people who are not familiar with Glenn Miller,” he explains. “But inevitably, I’ll come out to the lobby at the end of the show and see we’ve made some new fans.”
Don't miss Jukebox Junction with The Glenn Miller Orchestra and The Diamonds on Friday, April 29 at 8 p.m. at the Mayo Performing Arts Center, 100 South Street in Morristown.