ONE MORE FOR THE ROAD
On Tuesday, Bill Miller died. He was 91 years old. You probably wouldn't recognize his face, and you may not even know his name, which is understandable -- in his 70-plus years in the music business, he never released a single record under his own name. But his best-known recording is instantly recognizable by millions of music fans. Put on Frank Sinatra's "One For My Baby" and check out the smoky, melancholy barroom piano that kicks the recording off. That's Bill Miller. And if you own any Sinatra CD, odds are that Bill Miller's playing on it.
Sinatra's career had hit bottom when Miller, who'd already played with Red Norvo, Charlie Barnet and Tommy Dorsey, to name a few, signed on for a gig as his accompanist at the Desert Inn in late 1951. It was the very first Las Vegas engagement for both of them, and except for a couple of years in the early '80s, Miller was in Sinatra's band until Frank's last public performance in 1995. Even after Sinatra's retirement, when Miller would come to visit, Frank would say "We should rehearse." "For what?" Miller would ask.
Just because his boss was out of commission didn't mean that Miller was through. Starting in 1998, he hit the road with Frank Jr., and could be counted on to send chills down fans' spines when the spotlight hit him and he started playing "One For My Baby" or "Angel Eyes." As recently as two weeks before his death he was still on the road; he needed to be helped from his wheelchair to the piano bench, but once he sat down to play it may as well have been 1958 again.
What made Bill Miller such an incredible accompanist is also why he was never a household name -- he supported the singer brilliantly, but his playing rarely if ever drew attention to itself. In the end, though, he was as much of a contributor to the Sinatra "experience" as anyone apart from Sinatra himself.
A GUIDE TO THE GENIUS OF BILL MILLER ON CD
To really appreciate what a great accompanist he was, check out 1954's classic album Songs For Young Lovers and In The Wee Small Hours from 1955, both of which feature the piano as prominently as any Sinatra album. 1958's Only The Lonely has two of Miller's finest moments, "One For My Baby" and"Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out To Dry." The 1962 live album Sinatra & Sextet Live In Paris is proof that Miller was as great onstage as he was in the studio, and shows off his jazz chops like no Sinatra studio recording. An amazing pair of voice-and-piano duets from 1976, "Empty Tables" and "Send In The Clowns," are only available on pricey box sets, but both tracks -- even "Send In The Clowns" -- are among Sinatra's best recordings of the '70s, and are well worth tracking down. And for proof that the pair could make magic even at the end, listen to the 1993 remake of "One For My Baby," one of the few listenable tracks on Duets, even with the insipid overdubbed tootling by Kenny G.