Chuck Miller!

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:

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)

–o–

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20 responses to “Chuck Miller!

  1. Is there anyone in Lahaina, Maui alive who remembers Chuck playing at any club or venue there at all? He was one of the keyboard masters , along with Freddie Slack, Merrill Moore, and Moon Mullican along with others who most definitely influenced Jerry Lee Lewis. He appears to have been one who really valued his privacy. I never tire of hearing his piano style or deep, clear resonant voice for that matter. I sure can’t blame him if he felt a little bitterness in being overlooked in the late fifties.

    • I can not believe what I m reading here. I am currently working on a book. We had a Chuck Miller that would come to the Childrens home where I grew up. I still have a picture of him standing in front of a Cessna 195 at the Manhattan Kansas Airport. He would come to the home and play the piano. Ive listened to some of the recordings on the web , it has to be the same Chuck Miller, and the picture that I have matches one of his that I just saw on the web. What a deal, little did I know how much influence he had on my life. Music and Aviation.

      • Here is the photo I received from Bruce Olsen.
        Thanks, Bruce!

      • Billy Helveston

        Hello Bruce,

        This posted photo you have, do you think you could send me a copy of it, so that I can better see it? It doesn’t look like him to me, the man I called “my grandfather” for 32 years… but then again the signature is his. Do you think he could have signed/autographed this picture of someone in front of their plane?

        Best Regards,

        Billy

      • Hi Billy
        I sent you the photo via my private email.
        – Russ

  2. Is there any way of getting a list Chuck Miller’s Brothers name’s? he may be my Grand Uncle! and would love some help in figuring this out! My Grand father’s name is either Henry “Hank” Miller his ,the Brothers went by the name Bob and Bill! Dad was Floyd Miller! all from Wellington Kansas! I hope he’s the right one! Thank You!

  3. Merle Simpson

    I believe one of Chuck Miller’s brothers was Dwight Miller who owned Dwights Mens Wear in Wellington for many years. I graduated from Wellington High School and recall Chuck appearing at the high school in the mid 50s. which I attended. Of course he played “House of Blue Lights” I later worked with Dwight’s wife Sara after I graduated from college.

    • Hi Merle
      I remember House Of Blue Lights was a very cool song back in the mid 50s when I went to high school too. “You wanna spend the rest of your brights Down at the house, the house of blue lights…” Those were the days!
      – Russ

  4. I Showed the photo of chuck to a friend of mine and she said We look a lot alike! So I do believe With all all my heart he is my Grand Uncle! Finally Got the CD that was compiled of his works, My one regret is, is that I did not find it before my Grandmother passed away, She was desperately looking for it for years!

  5. Chuck Miller is my cousin. My mother was Betty (Miller) Briix. Her father was Clyde Miller. Clyde’s brother was Everett Miller. Everett’s son was Floyd Miller. Floyd’s son was Chuck Miller. My parents and grandparents lived at Hennessey, Oklahoma. I remember visiting Wellington, Kansas when I was a small boy and meeting Chuck. I have a photo of my father, Fred Briix, wearing Chuck’s toupe. They were having fun joking around. I remember someone calling the local radio station, telling the disc jockey that Chuck was in town and asking if he would play one of Chuck’s songs. The disc jockey played, The Auctioneer. I remember my grandparents Clyde and Cecil Miller traveling with Floyd and Dorothea to Florida on vacation. Chuck was playing and singing there at the time. I remember how thrilling it was for my grandpa to go to Florida and see and hear his nephew perform. I remember when there was a TV show called, This Is Your Life. The show was featuring Jimmie Rodgers. Chuck was a special guest on that episode because he was influential encouraging Jimmie Rodgers getting started in the music industry. When my mother saw Chuck on TV she jumped up and sat in the middle of the floor right in front of the TV. She was so excited with her yelling that I never heard a word he said on the show. I have tried to acquire a copy of that episode but have not been able to find one. I never met Chuck again and I do not know any of his siblings’ descendants. It would be great to have that information. My family and I visited Lahaina Maui Hawaii in 1993. I discovered later that he was living there at the time. If I had known that he was there I would have visited him. I found a brochure from Maui dated March 15, 1978 that has his photo on the front of it. It reads, “Chuck Miller – Composer of Hits, The House of Blue Lights, at the Piano Bar from 7:30 at the Whales Tale Restaurant in Lahaina, Maui.” I am a retired elementary school principal who lives in Holliday, Texas with my lovely wife, Pam.

    Don Briix

    • Billy Helveston

      Hello Don,
      I’ve never posted anything or contacted anyone, (other than a few record labels) about Charles “Chuck” Miller, who I referred to as Grandpa or Gramps my entire life, (still today in talking about him). I stumbled a crossed your post in listening to his music online tonight and I was touched by all that I’ve read, in which you wrote; I felt compelled to write you. The majority of what I’ve read online about him is half there, The Great “Chuck Miller” indeed played another 40 years! In Honolulu, HI., Seattle/Tacoma, WA., Anchorage, AK, (where I was born in 1968) and indeed Lahaina, Maui, HI at the Whales Tale Restaurant & Bar, which you mentioned, I’m sorry you missed him play. The other reason I’m writing you, is that I currently live in the Frisco, TX area now, (going on 4 years), not to terribly far from Holliday, TX. My name is Billy Ray Helveston III, and I’d like to share more factual stories/events about him, however grand or small they my be… if you’d like? As I would love to hear other’s tell me their stories about him as well… that’s how he remains living… in our heart and minds.

      You, or anyone reading this post can contact me at: bhelveston@cox.net for additional contact info.

      Take Care all,

      Billy

      • Shane Conrad

        Billy,
        Did your father own a construction company in Anchorage in the 70s?
        I am pretty sure I worked for him. One of the projects was The Mining Company.

  6. It certainly would be wonderful to find any information about that TV episode of “This Is Your Life” relating to how much Chuck Miller was a positive influence to Jimmie Rodgers… so many fragments of the story of life that seem to be falling through the cracks. I can just see your mom in the middle of the floor in front of the old TV set going nuts with excitement. I love those stories. Thanks for your comment, Don.

  7. From what I remember, a talent show was being held in NYC. Chuck encouraged Jimmie Rodgers to enter the talent show. Jimmie did enter and he won. This was the boost Jimmie needed to kick start his career. (About Dwight Miller, who owned a clothing store in Wellington, KS) Chuck’s grandfather, Everett, was the oldest of 14 children. Yes. 14 children. One of his sisters was Ione. She married a man named Julian Miller who was no relation. They had two sons named David Dwight and Kenneth Wayne. In the fall of 1965 I was a Junior at Lacy H.S., a small country school located 10 miles west of Hennessey, OK. I heard that Dwight had a slick black 1955 Chevy for sale. My dad and I drove to Wellington and purchased the car for $300.00. It was a swell car, my first. I had met Dwight at various family reunions throughout the years. He was a very friendly man and from what I heard, a good businessman. (More about Chuck) In the brochure I acquired from Maui Hawaii, it stated that Chuck was Arthur Godfrey’s longtime radio accompanist and was a former “Big Bands” musician. I have a lot of Chuck’s records including his LP albums and 2 Cd’s which were introduced in recent years. I have listened to almost all of his songs dozens and dozens of times. I still enjoy his music so much. If anyone is interested, one of the cd’s is entitled. Chuck Miller Vim Vam Vamoose which has 35 of Chuck’s songs. The other is entitled, Chuck Miller Boggie Blues which has 27 of Chuck’s songs. There are only a few of the songs on Boogie Blues that are not on Vim Vam Vamoose.

    Don Briix

  8. Chuck had such a unique way of singing.

  9. After additional research, I found that Chuck appeared on “This is Your Life” tv show honoring Jimmie Rodgers on January 21, 1959.

    Don Briix

    • I sure do enjoy reading these comments regarding Mr. Miller. You know we had free outdoor movies in Randolph and Cleaburne when I was a kid. Someone taught me how to thread those machines. Im thinking Chuck had something to do with those free shows. I can still see him , however, playing the 12th Street Rag on that old upright in the playroom at the Childrens home.

  10. I found Chuck’s obituary on-line. It was printed in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin Hawaii News. It states: Charles N. “Chuck” Miller, 75, of Lahaina, Maui, a self-employed entertainer, died Jan. 15 in Maui Memorial Hospital. He was born in Kansas. He is survived by his brothers Bob and William, sister Sue, and caregiver Gary Golden. Private services.

    Don Briix

  11. Pingback: Early Female Singers Influenced Rock And Roll | Russ & Gary's "The Best Years of Music"

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