The link between Glenn Miller and “Beach Boy” Brian Wilson is trombonist Paul Tanner who played in Glenn Miller’s big band in the nineteen-thirties and forties.
In 1966 Paul Tanner (born 1917) played on Brian Wilson’s milestone composition “Good Vibration”. But he didn’t play trombone, he played an electronic device called “The Box” (also called “Electro-Theremin”) that sounds like a Theremin. You can hear it on “Good Vibrations” about 25 seconds after the beginning at the start of the first chorus (”I’m picking up Good Vibrations …”). If the sound should remind you of classic science fiction and suspense movies your feeling is right. The sound of the Theremin was very popular on film soundtracks in the fifties and sixties. Its eerie and longing sound is ideal for these genres.
The Theremin is an electronic instrument that is played without being touched. The player has to move his hands in front of it to master the pitch and to control the volume. In 1919 the Theremin was invented by Leon (Lev) Sergeyevich Termen (1896 – 1993) in the USSR. Termen lived in the USA from 1927 until 1938. His life story is more exciting then a suspense movie. Some sources say, that he was a soviet spy. Why he left the USA in 1938 is unclear. Some say, he was kidnapped, others claim he was in financial trouble or homesick. After his return to the USSR he became a political prisoner for a while. On this amateur video (from Paul Lansky’s page) you can see a demonstration of the Theremin by Leon Termen himself.
Back to trombonist and inventor of “The Box” Paul Tanner. When the big band area came to a halt he started working as trombone studio musician in Los Angeles. During one recording session with a Theremin player, Tanner noticed that the Theremin was hard to play. So he developed together with Robert Whitsell “The Box” which was easier to play than a Theremin. From then on he was often hired whenever the Theremin sound was required.
You can here Paul Tanner playing his “Box” on the TV shows “The D.A.’s Man” and “My Favorite Martian”, and on the movies “The Giant Gila Monster” and “Strait-Jacket”. Listen to a piece of soundtrack from The Giant Gila Monster (WAV format from Badmovies).
Tanner recorded an LP with his “Box” called “Heavenly Bodies” in 1958. Listen to Somewhere (Real Media format – taken from www.electrotheremin.com). Paul Tanner is not only famous for his trombone playing and “The Box”, but he was also a professor at UCLA, wrote many educational books about jazz and a biography (”Sideman”) about Glenn Miller.
For more information about Paul Tanner please go to Electro-Theremin, RS Theremin Homepage and Space Age Pop.
More information about Lev Termen’s unbelieveable life story: 120 Years of Electronic Music and Thereminvox.
Theremin on YouTube: A BBC TV report and Theremin live TV performance from 1953.
Lost & Sound writes about Theremin’s grand-niece Lydia Kavina, a Theremin virtuoso: Theremin Artist Lydia Kavina