I’ll try to give the story the best I can. My dad’s family were farmers: grandad was a dutch/german immigrant and grandma was cherokee indian. When my dad was old enough, he couldnt wait to get off the farm, so towards the end of the second world war, he joined the air force where he worked in the hospital and was involved with the u.s.o. My mom and dad met in the service; mom had just returned from being in Japan for four years as part of the occupation force. They met, fell in love and got married, mom became pregnant and I was born at Bowlings Air Force base in Washington, DC. My dad wanted to break into the music business, as he already had been doing u.s.o. shows for the troops, so it was decided to get out of the service and head to southern California: it was 1951 and the beginning of hillbilly and rockabilly, although they didnt call it rockabilly, they called it country and later as the honky tonks started poppin’ up everywhere, they began to call it honky tonk music and because many of the artists themselves came from the country and the hills, they also called it hillbilly, for the purest though I call it honky tonk music. Papa nicks, the blue room, the hitching post, jubilee ballroom, the palomino are just a few of the many honky tonks, that my dad and others like him played everynight, dad drove a truck for his day job and worked the honky tonks at night. As at two a.m. in the morning all the bars in southern california close, so its grab a bottle and everybody head over to the house for a jam session. I can tell you they all came through our house at one time or another, everyone from Little Jimmy Dickens to (Ralph) Mooney on steel to Eddie Drake, Ferlin Husky to Hank Snow. In the garage they would play until the sun came up, those were the days when they created what they call today the Bakersfield sound, working in those small recording studios like Aggie and Toppa, two of the labels my dad was on as well as M&M and Mercury and Sundown. I remember this old honky tonk piano my dad got somewhere, it had a very unique sound and they had it in the garage, so they could jam all night after the honky tonks closed. So when it was time to record « Make Room For The Blues », my dad wanted that true honky tonk sound, so they took the piano to the studio and that’s the one you hear on the song as well as on « World’s Champion Fool », I really loved that old piano and always will wonder what became of it. In 2008 Dick Miller passed away, but what he left us is something that we can all cherish, good old honky tonk music that you can still dance to today. God bless and thanx for your interest & love of this wonderful music, feel free to edit this to suit your needs at your blog, also have many more pics and have 8 tunes on my hard drive and a big cardboard box full of reel to reel tape from the old days, am working on a best of compilation of Dick Miller and his band to release on compact disc in the very near future. Please stay in touch, am always around and love to chat, Roger.
This is the long message Dick Miller’s son Roger sent me in July 2011. Since then, I have been compiling information and tracing recordings of this good, completely unknown singer, although he contributed for his part to the emerging Bakersfield sound. He was born (Roger not told where) on July 24th, 1929. So he was only 17 when he joined the USAF at the end of W.W.II. So below are the pictures Roger sent me, and the label shots of Dick Miller’s records – the first being issued in the second part of 1954 on the Stanchel label, (# 3029). It’s a fine hillbilly record, typical of the honky tonk California sound: « Door Step Of Love » is the best of the two tracks, Miller ( « with The Sun Down Troubador » – sic) is in good voice, steel and fiddle are prominent (long fiddle solo), propelled by a powerful rhythm guitar; I’ll forget the tamer slower « You Called Collect« . Stanchel is famous for Roy Kelly‘s great « Dragen-it Boogie » (# 3028), cut the same year, or for the 1946 original version of « Oakie Boogie » (# 501) cut by Johnny Tyler.
Late 1955, we find Miller on the Pasadena, Ca., M&M label. Having seen the numbering sequence (# 3031) and (# 3034), one can wonder if this label and Stanchel are not the same label renamed. Alas I can’t comment « New Tennessee Baby » which escaped to my broad ears until now. « Humpty Dumpty Love » is a gentle fast hillbilly bop over a loping bass. « A Church, A Courtroom, Then Goodbye » (# 3034) is a slowie ballad, the steel is prominent, but the tune is forgettable. Its flipside, « Haven’t I Seen You Somewhere Before« , is a pleasant mid-paced duet with the female Sonny Bingo, and has a good piano break. The last three tracks were to be found on the rare Hometown Jamboree LP 800, luckily reissued recently by The Hillbilly Researcher (# 26).
A gap came in Miller’s recording career also in music tastes, as the next record he cut in 1958 was firmly settled in a Rockabilly/Rock’n’Roll fashion, and that is why he’s still renowned today among fans and collectors. His « Now I’m Gone » on South San Gabriel, Ca., Aggie label (# 1002) is a fast rocker, and Miller seems at ease with the new style. Twangy guitar all along and a heavy bass. Indeed the fiddle is gone, but remains what sounds like a steel guitar in the background. But, boy, that guitar! For the flipside, « I’ll Take Your Love« , we got a real surprise: fiddle is back on the front, and the song, as fast as the A-side, is a strong Hillbilly bop, in a stop-and-go manner (fiddle is playing pizzicato during the spoken breaks). A great record! Aggie also issued the fabulous Gene McKown‘s (a story is intended for a future feature on this interesting artist) « Rock-a-Billy Rhythm » (# 1001).
1959 sees Dick Miller really attempting at the burgeoning Bakersfield sound, even putting his hands on a Wynn Stewart song, « Wishful Thinking » on the Pico, Ca. Sundown label (# 121). The tune is well done, it’s an uptempo ballad well sung, over a prominent piano (is this the garage’s instrument which Roger refers to?) Roger sent me an interesting alternate version of the song, fully emotional and fiddle present (to be heard in the podcasts below). The flipside, « Headin’ Down The Road Of Love Again » is faster, fiddle returns, and the steel player is very reminiscent of Ralph Mooney. Miller has a very confident voice, and the whole band is backing him perfectly.
Miller appeared it seems frequently on the Compton, Ca. « Hometown Jamboree » famous radio show, and several of his earlier tracks, along with unissued (?) M&M/Aggie sides were released on a Hometown LP 800.
Let’s begin with the classics that Miller revisited in 1956-57. « Your Cheating Heart » is a very honourable version, as « Walkin’ The Floor » – in which the lead guitarist even successfully tries musical wreaths a la Billy Byrd. « Worried Mind » (apparently the Jimmie Davis’ number) is pleasant honky tonk, with heavy drumming, and Miller doubles here his voice, as in Faron Young’s « Sweethearts Or Strangers », where he is joined by a fine tickling piano. The last new track, « New Tennessee Memories » is an agreeable sincere ballad (no drums apparently).
All these tracks were recently reissued by the indefatigable Allan Turner in his « Hillbilly Researcher » serie (HBR # 26).
The Youtube site does contain treasures, as all of you know. Roger Miller actually posted a segment of Dick Miller performing the Ray Price/Guy Mitchell then current hit « Heartaches By The Numbers » in 1959 (Club Mainger). Nice, very solid rendition. Miller is in very fine voice, backed by a tight orchestra (steel, drums, bass, lead guitar). At the end of the song, Miller introduces the star of the show, Gene O’Quinn (whose career was then on decline). Indeed I’ve added this live jewel in the podcasts. Let’s hope Roger post other goodies of this calibre.
Just as I was finishing this feature, Roger Miller sent me a lot more material of this type. A long 30 minutes show where Dick is backed by Wynn Stewart’s band at George’s Roundup in 1959. He does five songs I didn’t recognize, without doubt country minor standards of the moment. More Club Mainger 1959 recordings : « Blue, Blue Day » and « A Fallen Star ». Plus a radio cut of George Jones’ « I’m Ragged But I’m Right ». In the batch there was also a very nice alternate version of « Wishful Thinking » (Sundown recording). All these recordings have taken place in the podcasts.
Roger sent me several pictures too, I postponed (lack of space in the main text) at the end of the article.
In rapid succession early 1960 Miller had two releases and I don’t know which came first. On Aggie 1007, he did a rerecording of his « New Tennessee Baby« , coupled with « Cold Hearted Stranger« . The latter is a nice Honky tonk ballad, but I cannot comment the A-side. Then he signed with the emerging Covina, Ca. Toppa label, which gave him the biggest successes of his career. Toppa 1016 « Make Room For The Blues« / »My Tears Will Seal It Closed » is a fine Bakersfield sounding record: « Room » is an uptempo ballad, with Miller partly dubbing his voice, on a heavy rhythm and a piano well to the fore. The song reminds me of what was doing one or two years before Skeets McDonald on Capitol. It seems this release was a big regional hit, so much so a larger label, Mercury, cashed in and reissued it for national distribution (# 71658). The flipside is equally good, and the steel player, to my ears at least, could well be Ralph Mooney.
Then in 1961 Dick Miller had his last record, again on Toppa (# 1048), « World’s Champion Fool« / »Back Into Your Past« . Both songs do sound exactly the same as the 1960 issue (uptempo ballads, prominent steel this time), and one can wonder if the four were cut at an unique session.
After that, Dick Miller disappears from my files. A good, underrated singer, whose contribution to the Bakersfield sound, although not so successful in terms of hits, could make him proud. Even when he succumbed to current trend (Rock’n’Roll) with « Now I’m Gone« , he did it very well, without giving his honky tonk and hillblly roots up. Now he deserves after more than 50 years a fuller recognition, and I hope a reissue label over thre in Europe could handle his studio cuts as well as the fabulous unheard 1958-59 live recordings. Thanks to his son Roger for the many and patient informations he sent to me. Hope Dick Miller will be better known from now on.
All personal pictures provided by Roger Miller. Label scans from various sources: popsike or RCS. Music from Youtube (Starday channel). Thanks to Uncle Gil’s Rockin’ Archives for the « Hometown Jamboree » CD.
Also, a Dick Miller cut an instrumental (« Cherokee song ») for the Wisconsin based Cuca label (# 1049) in 1961, but I don’t think this is the same person. Finally another Dick Miller is reported to have recorded on the Michigan Happy Hearts label, details unknown, although again I suppose it’s another.