Unsung heroes: They made Sinatra great

Bill Miller, who played piano for 'Ol Blue Eyes for more than four decades, has died aged 91. He was one of a number of key influences who helped make him the legend that he was. Rupert Cornwell and Andrew Buncombe pay tribute to them
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For the best part of five decades Bill Miller, who died last week at the age of 91, was the man who played piano for Frank Sinatra. From 1951 until the singer's final performance in 1995, Miller was the man who would introduce new songs to Sinatra and help interpret them for his style. He then went on to perform with the roadshow of Sinatra's son, Frank Sinatra Jr.

Sinatra Jr told The Los Angeles Times: "Bill Miller was the greatest accompanist that any popular singer ever had. There was no one who had his touch, no one who had his taste." He added: "All the songs that Sinatra recorded in those days that became famous - Bill was the man who in essence introduced them to him. Songs would be submitted and Bill would play them for my father to hear.

"He was there when they were recorded and when they became famous. He would perform them on the road with Sinatra. In several of the movies when Sinatra is supposed to be playing the piano, that was Bill Miller you were hearing. He knew the music better than anyone."

Miller, born in New York, was a largely self-taught pianist who first played for money when he was aged 16 and was hired to play at bar mitzvahs. He went on tour with Larry Funk and his Band of a Thousand Melodies, Joe Haymes and Benny Goodman. In 1951 he was playing at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas when the songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen took Sinatra to hear him. About to relaunch his career, Sinatra asked Miller if he would join him for a forthcoming performance on The Frank Sinatra Show on CBS television. The nonchalant reply of Miller was a simple "yeah".


Sinatra was still a teenager when he first heard Holiday perform in jazz clubs on 52nd Street, New York, in the early 1930s. He was enthralled, and later paid her the ultimate tribute, calling her "the greatest single musical influence on me". Holiday, he said, "could make a song her own, she lived inside a song".

The jazz influence, the improvisation that was the hallmark of Sinatra's greatest work may be traced to "Lady Day". From her, he learnt "shading, phrasing, dark tones, light tones and bending notes" - everything in short that made Sinatra arguably America's greatest interpreter of popular song.

Holiday herself had a troubled life, reflected in her sad-sensual, bitter-sweet style. She was born in Philadelphia in 1915, and arrived in New York in 1928 where she worked, among other things, as a prostitute, before starting to sing in Harlem night clubs to earn a few dollars.

According to legend the moment that launched her was when she sang "Body and Soul" in a Harlem nightspot one night in the early 1930s, and reduced the audience to tears. There was no looking back. Over the next decade she produced a fabulous work, recording with Benny Goodman and fronting the bands of Count Basie and Artie Shaw. By the mid-1940s, however, she was sliding into the twilight world of alcohol and drug abuse that would ultimately take her life. Her voice coarsened and her health deteriorated. Holiday made her last public performance on 25 May 1959, and died in hospital of cirrhosis of the liver on 17 July 1959 at the age of 44. She had just 70 cents in the bank.


It is hard to overestimate the importance of Dorsey's influence on Sinatra's career. When the singer joined the trombonist and band leader's outfit in the early 1940s he considered it the "number 1 in the United States, in fact in the world; the General Motors of the band business". Dorsey, the brother of musician Jimmy Dorsey, would lead Sinatra on a gruelling schedule, with his band playing as many as nine shows a day and then travelling 400 miles overnight to the next day's performances. Sinatra referred to him as "the Old Man". But it was a relationship that benefited both men - with Sinatra's technique and skill being grounded in this early stint and Dorsey's band receiving an input of youthful punch and vigour.

Sinatra later revealed that it was by watching Dorsey play trombone that he learnt to perfect his breathing technique. "I used to watch Tommy's back, his jacket, to see when he would breathe," Sinatra said. "I'd swear the sonofabitch was not breathing - I couldn't even see his jacket move. I thought he's got to be breathing somehow." Dorsey, who died in 1956, eventually revealed he breathed from the corner of his mouth and Sinatra set upon a routine to help improve his own breathing technique. "I did lots of exercises, breathing exercises. I did running and that kind of stuff ... [swimming] mostly underwater to keep the bellows as strong as I can." It was estimated that Sinatra improved his range by three whole notes as a result of such training. In 1961 Sinatra released a tribute album to Dorsey entitled I Remember Tommy with arrangements by another former Dorsey band member, Sy Oliver.


He was the man behind the Sinatra renaissance - the man under whose guidance Sinatra was transformed from a washed-out and more or less broke pop star into a genius of popular song. Their association began in April 1953, and for the singer, everything suddenly came together. Riddle shared some characteristics with Sinatra. Both were New Jersey boys, both were philanderers and heavy drinkers. Their professional paths crossed at Capitol Records, where Riddle was the in-house arranger. The artistic chemistry between them was instant. The Riddle sound was swinging, loose and upbeat, and Sinatra's voice was perfect. "He could practically have talked the thing for me and it would have been all right," Riddle said later.

Between 1953 and 1962 nine Sinatra-Riddle albums were produced, including much of the material that has made Sinatra immortal. They included Songs for Swinging Lovers, In the Wee Small Hours, A Swingin' Affair and Only the Lonely. They represented the golden age of Sinatra's career. Ultimately it was Sinatra who called the shots, deciding on the title, the mood and pacing of the album, sometimes pushing Riddle aside to instruct the orchestra himself, in sessions that would continue into the small hours. As a rule however, he listened intently to - and most often accepted - the arranger's offerings. Over the decade they worked together, he rejected only eight of Riddle's proposals, and praised him as "the greatest arranger in the world", with "the biggest bag of tricks" of any orchestrator he knew.


"He can say 'I love you' with more conviction than anyone I know," the composer Freddie Karger once said of Sinatra. "They're not simply words for him, they convey something he really feels." Sinatra's sexual appetite was famously vast. But if any single individual could be identified with the "you" and the "something" in the above sentences, that person was Ava Gardner.

His affair with the movie star beauty began in 1949. It helped destroy Sinatra's first marriage, and contributed to the early 1950s slump in his career. Their passion was consuming - they loved, they fought, they married, they divorced, but until her death in London in 1990, at the age of 67, Sinatra was obsessed with her. "She was the greatest love of his life and he lost her," said the arranger Nelson Riddle.

Over those four turbulent decades, she inspired some of his finest songs. "I get along without you very well/of course I do ... I've forgotten you just like I should, of course I have ... except to hear your name," he sang on the Wee Small Hours album recorded with Riddle in 1955, during one break-up in the relationship.

Sinatra only sent a wreath to her funeral, attended by 3,000 people, but showed his feelings at a concert the next day in New York. According to Tony Summers and Robyn Swann in their biography, Sinatra: A Life, the singer "appeared confused, distraught at times. As he was walking round the stage and started doing 'One for My Baby,' the ghost of Ava Gardner was there on the stage with him ... Make it one for my baby, and one more, for the road."