Gary: “When I was growing up, there was always some music in my house. Certainly not the fidelity of today’s capabilities, just 78′s and AM radio. My dad loved up-tempo music, especially Honky Tonk and Boogie Woogie Piano.
Sometime in 1955 I heard an old song re-done by a thirties something Boogie piano player named Chuck Miller. I found out later that he would be instrumental with getting Jimmie Rodgers (Honeycomb) a contract with Roulette records, but this one song I still love today. So lets go back approximately 55 years and listen to Chuck Miller:
1. The House of Blue Lights/ Mercury 70627/ June 1955/ # 9 (I love the song and his version)
It was a hit in 1946 for Freddie Stack.
Born Charles Nelson Miller, 30 August 1924, Wellington, Kansas
Died 15 January 2000, Lahaina, Maui, HawaiiIn the pantheon of artists who helped to midwife the difficult birth of the Big Beat in the early 1950s there are many who have been subsequently forgotten.
Even huge, encyclopaedic “History of Rock” style tomes inevitably concentrate on the younger, sexier, more commercially successful artists of those halcyon days and neglect the experienced older performers – some of whom had been playing in a style approaching rock ‘n’ roll for many years before its official birth in the mid 1950s.
One case in point is the much-maligned Bill Haley and his Comets, who fortunately spent too long on the charts on both sides of the Atlantic to allow them to be ignored completely, but that hasn’t stopped many of the Sixties-centric rock historians trying to minimize The Comets contributions to the beginnings of their chosen genre.
Another such artist, who sadly didn’t enjoy the immortality bestowed by a run of chart hits, is the now obscure Chuck Miller who, like Haley and his gang, was slightly older than the likes of Presley, Vincent, Cochran and Holly. He was already a veteran musician before those named made their debut, and – with the trio he fronted for bass-player Robert Douglass – they had already begun to weave the elements of the older music of their generation into something new, exciting and danceable for the restless teenagers of the 1950s.
Charles Nelson Miller was born in rural Wellington, Kansas – “Wheat Capital of the World” – on 30th August 1924 and little is known of his early life. One of four children, he learned to play piano as a child and by the mid 1940s had become a professional musician in the Los Angeles area, alongside other singer/pianists such as Nat Cole and Charles Brown.
He became friendly with saxophonist Big Dave Cavanaugh and formed a bond with Cavanaugh’s bass-player, Robert Douglass, who would become instrumental in helping Miller form his own trio for personal appearances and became the group’s chief arranger as well as playing the bass. They began touring as the Chuck Miller Trio in the late 1940s, but California was awash with similar groups and record deals were hard to come by.
As luck would have it, in the early 1950s their friend Dave Cavanaugh became employed as A&R man for Capitol Records, and he was swift to sign his talented old friends to a recording contract. Chuck Miller began recording for Capitol with Cavanaugh’s band and the first singles, released in 1953-54, were firmly in the MOR pop and novelty moulds, heavily inspired by Miller’s twin influences of Bing Crosby and Dean Martin.
Chuck’s third release however was a cover of Wade Ray’s “Idaho Red” – a hillbilly truck-driving song written by a real truck driver, Frank Kauzlaric. Wade Ray’s original recording had been in the western swing style, but Miller’s more urbane arrangement sold well too and caused Capitol to swiftly scour their stockpile of unissued tracks for a lively follow-up.
Chuck’s self-penned “Hopahula Boogie” had been cut by the trio in a break from the usual orchestral fare and, although it wasn’t a big seller, it set the style for much of what Miller would produce in the next few years.
In early 1955 Chuck Miller left Capitol for a new recording contract with Mercury Records. His debut with the label paired his own classy pop song, “Can’t Help Wonderin’“, with the hip revival of Freddie Slack’s old swing-era classic “The House of Blue Lights” – both arranged by Robert Douglass – which would soon prove to be his most successful single.
“The House of Blue Lights” did so well during the summer of 1955 – spending 14 weeks on the Best Seller chart, peaking at #9 – that Capitol Records rushed out a fifth single from their stockpile, but the sides remaining with his debut label were a bit corny compared to what Miller was then laying down for Mercury.
Having proven his success with cover versions, Mercury next had Chuck cover Bobby Lord’s jaunty country rocker, “Hawk-Eye” written by Boudleaux Bryant, which they paired with another solid Miller-penned ballad “Something To Live For“.
This single was nowhere near as successful as the first, so for the follow-up they decided to expand the sound of the Chuck Miller Trio to include horns and the resulting single was quite spectacular, with another rocked-up swing-era classic, Gene Krupa’s “Boogie Blues” coupled with an eldritch novelty full of voodoo symbolism called “Lookout Mountain“.
The latter was so unusual that RCA’s chief A&R executive, Steve Sholes, sent the record to the young singer he had just signed (but not yet recorded) to consider for his upcoming debut session. Sadly, as far as is known, Elvis never recorded the appealingly sinister song written by one Seymour Lazar, even though “Heartbreak Hotel” had been cast from the same mould.
By 1956, due mainly to that boy Elvis, rock ‘n’ roll was running rampant and Miller was now teamed in New York City with Hugo Peretti’s small studio orchestra to sample the charts and run the gamut from the out-and-out motor-head madness of “Bright Red Convertible“, the Tennessee Ernie-like “Baltimore Jones“, the MORish “Good Mornin’ Darlin’” and the bubbly “Baby Doll“, the latter composed for the controversial Elia Kazan film of the same name.
Hugo Peretti also arranged Chuck’s fine cover of Leroy Van Dyke’s country novelty hit “The Auctioneer“, which gave him his only other taste of national chart success when it peaked at #59 on the Hot Hundred in December 1956.
On another occasion in Chicago in 1956, with support provided by David Carroll’s orchestra, Chuck covered Bob Temple’s King rocker “Vim Vam Vamoose” (which alludes to Presley and “Heartbreak Hotel“) and the minor rock ‘n’ roll classic “Cool It Baby!” which had been featured by The Treniers in the movie “Teenage Rebel” and would achieve celluloid rock excellence with Eddie Fontaine’s version in the mighty “Girl Can’t Help It” movie later in the year.
During that year Mercury honoured Chuck with his first LP; an album called Songs After Hours With Chuck Miller (Mercury LP MG-20195), on which he and his trio indulged their love of swing-era music (“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love“, “Cow Cow Boogie“, “September In The Rain“, etc.) as well as cutting loose with a couple of breakneck eponymous rockin’ boogies and a very nice version of “Re-Enlistment Blues“, famous for the rendition by Merle Travis in the 1953 Columbia film From Here To Eternity.
In 1957, with support from Carl Steven’s studio band and the Dick Noel Singers, Miller covered another Boudleaux Bryant song; the Everly Brothers’ smash hit “Bye Bye Love“, and a surprise success by The Cellos vocal harmony group, “Rang Tang Ding Dong (I’m the Japanese Sandman)“.
The penultimate Mercury release was among his best; “Plaything“, was a good cover of an obscure Phoenix rocker by Ted Newman, which was also covered by Bobby Helms and Nick Todd in the US and by Terry Wayne here in the UK, while “After Yesterday” was an early effort from the combined pen of Diane Lampert and John Gluck, who would go on to write Eddie Fontaine’s rock ‘n’ roll classic “Nothin’ Shakin’ (But The Leaves On The Trees)” amongst others. During this year Miller was also instrumental in introducing Jimmie “Honeycomb” Rodgers to Hugo Peretti, helping to broker the young singer’s contract with Roulette Records.
Chuck Miller’s swansong for Mercury Records was another old Freddie Slack boogie woogie classic from the early 1940s, no doubt recorded in an attempt to recapture the glory days of his “House of Blue Lights” from three years earlier. Miller’s pounding version of “Down the Road A-Piece” was backed by an energetic take on “Mad About Her Blues“, a gender-switch on a song made famous by Dinah Shore in 1942.
Inexplicably, like his previous releases, the single went nowhere and he was dropped by Mercury at the end of his contract, but was swiftly snapped up by California-based Imperial Records where he cut a variable LP called Now Hear This! Songs Of The Fighting 40s (Imperial LP 9072(mono)/12017(stereo)) which presented dreary versions of “For Sentimental Reasons” and “Lili Marlene” rubbing up against sparkling, teenage-friendly tributes to Louis Jordan (“G.I. Jive” and “Saturday Night Fish Fry“), Ella Mae Morse (“Shoo Shoo Baby“), and his other favourite crooners (“How Many Hearts Have You Broken?“, “Swingin’ On A Star’” and “Five Minutes More“).
Another hero, Hoagy Carmichael, was celebrated with an affectionate “Heart and Soul” and a quirky “Up a Lazy River“, on which Miller impersonated the likes of Louis Armstrong, Vaughn Monroe and Nat “King” Cole.
The Imperial deal seems to have contracted for just one album and subsequently Chuck Miller faded into obscurity. After relocating to Boise, Idaho, for a long residency, the Miller trio – still featuring Robert Douglass on bass – broke up in 1959, and the leader moved to Anchorage, Alaska, in the 1960s, before retiring to Hawaii where he lived in Lahaina, Maui.
He died aged 75 in the Maui Memorial Hospital on 15th January 2000, where a very modest obituary appeared in the local Honolulu Star Bulletin newspaper, in which he was described as a “self-employed entertainer”. So perhaps he played that fat boogie woogie until the very end.
When his greatest success was climbing the Billboard Pop chart in 1955, even the venerable Time Magazine was forced to report on it: A boogie-woogie in uptempo, with some nonsense words about boogie-woogie. The disk is a bestseller. Does it herald the decline of rock ‘n’ roll? Of course it didn’t, but Chuck Miller’s stock-in-trade was good, well-played, well-performed teenage dance music with a great beat, which is why his recordings have been rock ‘n’ roll club staples since the 1970s revival. (rockabilly/nl)