Bill Finegan towers among the premier arrangers of the big-band era, masterminding classics for bandleaders Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey before teaming with fellow arranger extraordinaire Eddie Sauter to found the pioneering Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. Born in Newark, NJ, on April 3, 1917, Finegan studied trumpet as a teen and toured with an award-winning high-school jazz combo -- Dorsey was so impressed with his arrangement of "Lonesome Road" that he recommended him to Miller, who hired Finegan in 1938. Finegan's arrival coincided with the struggling orchestra's return to New York City and Miller's decision to refine its sound, instructing new lead clarinetist Wilbur Schwartz to hold the melodic line while tenor saxophonist Tex Beneke played the same note, with harmonic support from three other saxophones. Finegan was instrumental in enabling Miller to crystallize this radical, richly appointed approach, and in September 1938 he arranged the orchestra's breakthrough RCA Victor hit, "Little Brown Jug." Virtually everything Miller recorded over the next year and a half bore Finegan's stamp, and as time went by, the famously humorless bandleader grew so confident of his cohort's abilities that he extended to Finegan the latitude to write and arrange whatever material he so chose.
Finegan was called to U.S. Army duty in 1940, and after Miller's December 1944 death in a plane crash, he signed on with Dorsey, remaining with his orchestra until it dissolved at the end of 1946. Finegan spent much of the next two years studying under avant-garde composer Stefan Wolpe, in late 1948 relocating to Europe to attend the Paris Conservatory. There he began corresponding with Sauter, who arranged perennials like "Benny Rides Again" and "Clarinet a la King" for Benny Goodman -- their commiseration on the creative decline of the big bands soon evolved into discussions about forming their own group, and in 1952 the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra signed to RCA. Assembling a superb collection of first-call sidemen including Ralph Burns and Kai Winding, Sauter and Finegan set about forging a unique and unconventional sound bolstered by progressive arrangements and oddball instrumentation -- in a public statement issued to the leading jazz magazines of the day, they promised "pop music that is danceable, listenable, and lookable," while renouncing the "too convenient rationalization to dub the public as moronic." Despite their forward-thinking approach, Sauter and Finegan adhered carefully to musical tradition, especially classical antecedents, and their repertoire leaned heavily on symphonic compositions and American folk songs.
At times, the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra counted as many as 21 musicians and 77 instruments, among them piccolo, flute, oboe, bass clarinet, harp, English horn, recorder, tuba, glockenspiel, timpani, kazoo, and xylophone. For their famed recording of Prokofiev's Troika, Finegan even evoked the sound of horses' hooves by pounding out the rhythm on his own chest. In an interview with The New York Times, multi-instrumentalist Wally Kane cited Sauter and Finegan's informal approach, noting they didn't distinguish among first, second, or third chairs but instead spotlighted each member of the group in equal measure, composing each arrangement with individual musicians in mind. In the wake of the smash "Doodletown Fifers," RCA pressured Sauter and Finegan to take their act on the road, and in late 1953 they mounted their first tour. With the big-band era now entering its irrevocable commercial decline, the tour proved a financial disaster, and left both men deeply in debt. By the late '50s the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra was forced to dissolve, and while Sauter landed a job as a German radio arranger, Finegan turned to freelance work, for a spell joining a latter-day incarnation of the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Although Sauter died in 1981, in early 1987 Finegan and Kane assembled a revived Sauter-Finegan Orchestra for an appearance at New York City's Town Hall. Finegan died of pneumonia on June 4, 2008, in Bridgeport, CT.