Post Mortem October 2006

Making Sinatra Sinatra

Bill Miller (1915–2006)

Miller was born across the water from Sinatra, in Brooklyn, just months earlier. At sixteen, he was billing himself as “Bill Miller, the Ace of Jazz.” At eighteen, he was the pianist for Larry Funk and His Band of a Thousand Melodies, and then came Red Norvo and Charlie Barnet. Heading home from a gig at the 1940 World’s Fair, Miller and the gal he was dating had the car radio on. “Hey, listen,” she said, “doesn’t that sound good? That’s Dick Haymes.” Miller said, “No, it’s not Dick Haymes. Dick Haymes doesn’t sing that good.” He had to wait till the end, and the disc jockey’s announcement: “All or Nothing at All,” by Harry James and His Orchestra, vocal refrain by Frank Sinatra.

A decade later, Sinatra had had it all and was on his way back down to nothing. Miller was the man at the keyboard as Sinatra rebuilt his career. He became celebrated for the saloon piano on a trio of Johnny Mercer three-in-the-morning numbers: “One for My Baby,” “Drinking Again,” and “Empty Tables.” But he was also indispensable to the other side of the singer: the swingin’ Sinatra you hear on his up-tempo “Way You Look Tonight.” The bassist Chuck Berghoffer once asked Sinatra, “How do you swing so hard? What do you think about?” Sinatra answered, “I just get a cuckoo rhythm section and stay out of the way.”

Not exactly. Rather, he rode on top of it, like a surfer coming in on the perfect wave. Miller was always the heart of that side of Frank, playing the rhythmic piano intros that kickstart The Lady Is a Tramp,” or “Lonesome Road,” or even “Ol’ MacDonald.” Yes, that “Ol’ MacDonald”:

Ol’ MacDonald had a farm
Ee-i-ee-i-o
And on that farm he had a chick …

You can pretty much guess how things develop from there. Plenty of Sinatra scholars loathe that record: why would a guy who could sing Rodgers and Hart record “Ol’ MacDonald”? As the detractors see it, it was because he could; it was a power trip, a way of saying “Screw you” to the world. Say what you like about gangsta rap, but even Snoop Dogg isn’t arrogant enough to give us “Ol’ MacDonald had a farm / And on that farm he had a ho …” But I love that “Ol’ MacDonald.” It builds wonderfully, and Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s lyrics, despite boxing themselves into the nursery rhyme’s with-a-little-this-here-and-a-little-this-there structure, manage to top each verse with the next:

With a promenade here and a promenade there
At a square dance, boy, this chick was no square.

That said, with the best will in the world, “Ol’ MacDonald” isn’t exactly an interesting tune, and that’s where Miller comes in. His piano helps make it such a wild ride. He’s like the mechanical hare at the greyhound track, if a mechanical hare could swing: he sets off, and Sinatra takes off too.

In 1964, the pianist’s home in Burbank was washed away in a mudslide. The Millers were swept away with it: their teenage daughter, Meredith, made it to the top of a hill, and Bill was rescued hanging from a car, but his wife, Aimee, was only found the following night. Sinatra identified the body and then went to see Miller in the hospital. “If it’s any consolation,” he said, “there wasn’t a mark on her.” As the laconic Miller liked to tell friends, “It wasn’t any consolation.” But Sinatra paid the medical expenses and got Miller a new place. And, when they inevitably busted up, in the late ’70s, Sinatra hired other pianists but stayed away from “One for My Baby” altogether. Anyone can conduct “My Way” (as Miller did on the hit recording), but Sinatra understood that the truly definitive Sinatra song depended on the presence of another man, Bill Miller. In 1985, Miller returned for “One for My Baby,” and one more decade for the road.

There was one last classic recording. The final cut on Sinatra’s 1993 Duets isn’t really a duet at all—or at least not a celebrity duet. Take a chisel to the CD and remove Kenny G’s syrupy drooling of “All the Way” on the front of the track, and then sit back as the strings recede and Bill Miller begins his barroom-piano noodling. It’s the best duet on the album—just Frank and Bill—and the latter doesn’t even get a credit on the sleeve, just a tiny namecheck deep in the interior of the small print as “Mr. Sinatra’s pianist.” The voice is rough, its vulnerability deliberately exposed, especially on the last line’s long good-bye. But, raw and harrowing as it is, it’s a final Sinatra masterpiece. The piano dies away, and the last saloon singer lays down his burden: one for us and one for that long, long road.

Well, that’s how it goes
And, Joe, I know you’re getting anxious to close
So thanks for the cheer
I hope you didn’t mind my bending your ear.

Five years later Miller played it at Sinatra’s funeral. The familiar introduction, but no voice came in, no “It’s quarter to three …” In all the years Bill Miller had accompanied the familiar words, for the first time ever there was no one in the place except him.

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