Bill Miller

Sinatra's arranger and accompanist
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Bill Miller, pianist and conductor: born New York 3 February 1915; married (one daughter); died Montreal, Quebec 11 July 2006.

Bill Miller worked with Frank Sinatra from 1951 until 1995 - apart from a gap of a few years - either playing the piano or conducting the orchestra. Sinatra rehearsed his material with him and would rely on Miller, who could read music while he couldn't, to convey the technical details to arrangers. Sinatra used Miller on all his stage appearances and most of his recording sessions. Their rapport is at its best on the more reflective albums such as In the Wee Small Hours (1955), Only the Lonely (1958) and No One Cares (1959). Miller also helped Sinatra conduct an album for Peggy Lee, The Man I Love (1957).

In June 1958, Sinatra was very taken by Miller's pensive piano accompaniment for the saloon song "One for My Baby". It captured the essence of a man brooding about what he had lost and drowning his sorrows in alcohol. Sinatra asked Nelson Riddle to write an arrangement around Miller's accompaniment and thus a sublime but melancholic masterpiece was created. Sinatra once remarked, "Bill's talent is quiet but it is always there."

Bill Miller was born in Brooklyn, New York, in February 1915 and so was 10 months older than Sinatra, although he would refer to him as "the old man". Miller was largely self-taught on the piano; he started playing professionally when he was 16, joining an orchestra two years later. During the 1930s, he played in a small ensemble led by the vibraphonist Red Norvo and singer Mildred Bailey and also in Charlie Barnet's big band. He had time with both Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman.

Although Miller met Sinatra in 1941, it was not until 10 years later, when Miller was playing with a jazz trio at the Desert Inn, Las Vegas, that they had any professional contact. The songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen recommended him to Sinatra, and Sinatra was so impressed that he invited Miller to be his accompanist for a television special.

At the time, Sinatra needed some good news: he had had a stormy relationship with the actress Ava Gardner and he was desperate for something to kick-start his career. In 1953, Miller accompanied Sinatra on a European tour: at the Blackpool Opera House, Sinatra was far enough from home to say what he liked and, when the performance was issued on CD in 2003, his isolation from the American mainstream is all too apparent.

When Sinatra and Miller returned to America, his career improved. Sinatra received an Oscar nomination for his role in From Here to Eternity (1953) and he began several years of superb recordings for Capitol Records.

Sinatra would drink with Miller after the shows and, because Miller had an ashen complexion, he would introduce him as "Suntan Charlie". Miller accepted Sinatra's moods. Once Sinatra found that the stage setting for a television show was not to his liking and he pounded on the piano. Miller sat by until he had finished and then said, "Try not to upset yourself, Frank."

Miller lived in a house on a hill in Burbank, California. In 1964, his home was washed away in a mudslide in which his wife, Aimee, was killed. Miller was found clinging on to a car, while his daughter made it to the top of the hill. Because of Miller's injuries, it was Sinatra who identified Aimee's body at the morgue. He told him, "It it's any consolation, there wasn't a mark on her." "It wasn't any consolation," said Miller.

Sinatra established his own Reprise label in 1960 and Miller was involved in all his recordings, often contracting and coaching the orchestra. Sinatra did not like multiple takes and wanted everything to be ready when he arrived.

In 1966 Miller appeared with Sinatra at the Sands in Las Vegas. During one number together, the piano creaked and the right leg gave way. Miller held the instrument up with his knee and continued with the music. At the end of the song, the piano toppled over and Sinatra asked, "You having a little trouble back there?" before quipping to the audience, "Look at this: a $20m hotel and a $1.98 piano."

The following year, Miller accompanied Sinatra on a First World War song, "My Buddy", which was intended to relate to Vietnam. They returned to saloon songs, too, with "Drinking Again" (1967) and, in 1968, Miller conducted the orchestra for the million-selling "My Way".

Miller regularly conducted for Sinatra on tour, including The Main Event - Live from Madison Square Garden in 1974 and the Royal Festival Hall and the London Palladium in 1975. They fell out in 1978 - because, Miller said, they had been around each other too long. He returned to Sinatra in 1985 and by then both men were touching 70. Miller defended Sinatra in interviews but he would add this telling joke, "It didn't matter whether you were right or wrong with Frank, you were wrong."

In 1995, when Sinatra sang his last notes on stage, they were from the song "Angel Eyes". Miller played the piano as Sinatra sang, " 'Scuse me while I disappear."

When Sinatra died in 1998, Miller played "One for My Baby" at his funeral. He was coaxed out of retirement for Frank Sinatra Jnr's appearances, but he had to be helped to his piano from a wheelchair. Despite his advanced age, he had continued working with the younger Sinatra ever since. Earlier this month, Miller fell and broke his hip while they were on tour in Canada. After the accident, he had a heart attack which led to his death.

Many of the performances which feature in the current successful stage show Sinatra at the London Palladium are taken from a trial recording for a television special featuring just Sinatra and Miller. From this it has been possible to add live musicians and dancers.

Spencer Leigh

Comments