Skip to main content

One of the last members of Glenn Miller Orchestra is dead

By Tom Watkins, CNN
updated 11:34 AM EST, Thu March 7, 2013
  • "Everybody was trying to survive" during the Depression, his stepson Dick Darnall says
  • Glenn Miller offered the fellow trombonist a job after hearing him perform
  • He left the band when Miller joined the military and started a military band
  • Tanner's work included the Electro-Theremin, featured on "Good Vibrations"

(CNN) -- Paul Tanner, one of the last surviving members of the Glenn Miller Orchestra, died February 5 at an assisted-living facility in Carlsbad, California, his stepson said.

Tanner was 95 and died of pneumonia, said Dick Darnall in a telephone interview.

Tanner was born in Skunk Hollow, Kentucky, in 1917, but soon left to tour the country with his five brothers and their father, all of them musicians, during the early 1930s.

"Everybody was trying to survive during the Great Depression," Darnall said.

After one gig, Miller, who scouted his own talent, came up from the audience and "asked Paul to become part of his band."

The trombonist went on to play with Miller, who also played trombone, from 1938 until 1942. But when the band leader joined the military and started a military band at military wages, the civilian band broke up. For the next few years, Tanner stayed in Hollywood, where he did studio work, Darnall said.

Previous versions of this story incorrectly identified Paul Tanner as the last surviving member of the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

At age 39, he enrolled at UCLA, which offered him a teaching job and advanced degrees upon his graduation four years later; he went on to teach music there for 23 years, Darnall said.

Tanner was also working with the ABC Orchestra, where for 16 years he played with the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Andre Previn and Arturo Toscanini, Darnall said.

His interests included early forms of electronic music, and he developed the Electro-Theremin in the 1950s, said Darnall. The device, which is mechanically linked to an audio oscillator, produced the eery, almost human sounds showcased by the Beach Boys on "Good Vibrations" and on the TV series "My Favorite Martian."

The Electro-Theremin also was used in movies, including 1964's "Strait-Jacket," with Joan Crawford. "She was accused of chopping off everybody's heads," Tanner said in an interview in 1997 that is posted on his website.

"So, she was a psycho, they thought. There was one spot in the picture where she was to go up the wall, and they put her in a little small room, and then she got more and more and more excited and then she gradually got limp and passed out. And all through that, I'm the only thing playing.

"So, I told the guy who was going to conduct me, I said, 'Just raise your hand up when you want more intensity, and lower it when you want less intensity, that's all you got to do,' which was mainly a case of widening the vibrato. There was no music for that, I was just to make an effect, that's all."

Though Tanner did not invent the device, "He enhanced on it and made it easier to play," his widow, Jeanette, said in a telephone interview. "He made it more like piano keys."

But the device proved to be so simple that he put it into an elaborate container to make it look nicer. "Otherwise, it would look like an oatmeal box," he said.

During his teaching years, Tanner wrote a number of textbooks, and his classes proved popular, his widow said. "He used to crowd the auditorium area where he had his classes, and it got so full that the fire department closed the doors and wouldn't let any more in," she said.

Though he stopped teaching more than 30 years ago and moved to Carlsbad, "I still get letters from people that were his students," she said. "They said that he changed their life."

Tanner wound up giving his Electro-Theremin to a hospital, where it was used to measure hearing, she said.

In addition to his wife and stepson, Tanner is survived by another stepson, Doug Darnall. Tanner's first wife, Alma, died in 1981 or 1982 after four decades of marriage, according to his family.

People we lost in 2013: The lives they lived

Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:30 PM EST, Sun January 5, 2014
Click through our gallery to remember those we lost this year.
updated 7:55 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
Actor James Avery, who played the beloved Uncle Phil on the hit 1990s sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," has died. He was 67.
updated 2:59 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
Dr. John W.V. Cordice, the surgeon who operated on Dr. Martin Luther King after he was stabbed in Harlem in 1958, died in Iowa. Cordice was 95.
updated 8:28 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
Joseph Ruskin died of natural causes in a Santa Monica, California, hospital. He was 89.
updated 4:19 PM EST, Wed January 1, 2014
Jeffrey Ian Pollack, who directed the popular 1990s films "Booty Call" and "Above the Rim" and produced "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" has died. He was 54.
updated 6:00 PM EST, Mon December 23, 2013
Mikhail Kalashnikov, the Russian gun designer whose AK-47 rifle became the weapon of choice for many national armies and guerrillas around the world, died.
updated 6:53 AM EST, Sun December 22, 2013
Ned Vizzini, who shot to fame at a young age for his teenage novels focusing on youth depression and anxieties, committed suicide at age 32.
updated 4:37 PM EST, Thu December 19, 2013
Al Goldstein, the foul-mouthed publisher of Screw magazine and pornography pioneer died in New York. He was 77.
updated 3:53 PM EST, Tue December 31, 2013
Actor Daniel Escobar, who played a teacher in "Lizzie McGuire," died from complications of diabetes in Los Angeles. He was 49.
updated 7:41 PM EST, Wed December 18, 2013
"Great Train Robber" Ronnie Biggs -- one of the most notorious British criminals of the 20th century -- has died, his publisher told CNN. He was 84.
updated 8:17 PM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
Ray Price, the Nashville star whose trademark "shuffle" beat became a country music staple, has died at age 87, his agent said.
updated 9:23 PM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine died, her longtime friend Noel Beutel said. She was 96.
updated 7:40 AM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
Actor Peter O'Toole died peacefully in a hospital at 81 years old.
updated 7:38 AM EST, Mon December 16, 2013
Tom Laughlin, the actor who wrote and starred in the "Billy Jack" films of the 1970s, died at age 82.
updated 7:56 PM EST, Wed December 11, 2013
Jazz guitarist Jim Hall, who played with the jazz greats of the 20th century and influenced the younger ones, has died, his family said. He was 83.
updated 8:46 AM EST, Tue December 10, 2013
Actress Eleanor Parker, nominated for three Oscars and known for her "Sound of Music" role, died Monday at 91, her family said.
updated 11:40 PM EST, Thu December 5, 2013
Freedom fighter, statesman, moral compass and South Africa's symbol of the struggle against racial oppression.
updated 9:18 PM EST, Wed December 4, 2013
Bill Beckwith, who co-hosted HGTV home-improvement show "Curb Appeal," has died. He was 38.
updated 9:58 AM EST, Mon December 2, 2013
Actor Paul Walker, who shot to fame as star of the high-octane street racing franchise "Fast & Furious," died in a car crash in Southern California. He was 40.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Sat November 30, 2013
Paul F. Crouch, co-founder of the Trinity Broadcasting Network, died at age 79.
updated 6:42 PM EST, Fri November 29, 2013
Jane Kean, who played diverse roles during a long career but was best known as Trixie on the TV revival of "The Honeymooners," has died. She was 90.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Mon November 25, 2013
Singer Wayne Mills, whose "outlaw country" songs center on honky-tonk life, died in a Nashville bar shooting.