A 1917 Graduate of Roanoke High School
Who Changed Popular Music
Gray was born to Lurdie P. and Agnes (Gray) Knoblauch in rural Woodford County on June 7, 1900. His father, who was a lifelong railroad worker, died when Glen was two years of age. His mother then married George H. DeWilde. When he was 13 years old, Gray, who had the nick name of Spike, formed his first band known as Spike’s Jazz Band. After graduating from Roanoke High School in 1917, Glen served two years in the United States Army. He later attended Illinois Wesleyan University but left to work as a bill clerk for the Santa Fe Railroad.
In the late 1920s Glen moved to Detroit and began playing saxophone in the Jean Goldkette and the Orange Blossoms. After performing at the Casa Loma Hotel in Toronto for eight months, the musicians quit the Orange Blossom Band and reformed as The Casa Loma Orchestra and selected Glen to lead their band.
Music historians credit Glen Gray and The Casa Loma Orchestra as the first “swing band” which changed the style of popular music during that era and paved the way for later swings bands such as Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Glen Miller, and Benny Goodman. In an era when the Dorseys ,Benny Goodman and other swing band were all competing for audiences, Glen Gray and The Casa Loma Orchestra was ranked as one of the top big bands in the United States. Glen and his orchestra not only performed at the top venues in the United States and Europe, but also appeared in a number of Hollywood movies during that time period.
On February 8, 1960 Glen Gray was given a star on the prestigious Hollywood Walk of Fame. Glen Gray died on August 23, 1963 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. In 1990, realizing the historic significance of the band, Time-Life reissued recordings of Glen Gray and the Casa Loma Orchestra.
Although not well known today, Glen Gray was, without a doubt, a major influence in popular music. Throughout history, current trends in popular music have always been influenced by the popularity of previous styles. The influence of Roanoke’s Glen Gray Knoblauch on popular music goes well beyond one single style of music he played.
In 1940, Glen Gray was nationally recognized by winning the Best Bandleaders Award from Down Beat magazine. Glen Gray’s reputation lasted well past the big-band era. After the band stopped touring in the early 1950’s, Glen continued to record with Decca and Columbia Records.
Roanoke High School Class of 1917
Glen Gray is pictured at the bottom center