Searching for the Groove
by J.P. Gelinas
"One thing that producers and engineers tend to have in common is their undeniable love of music, and it is the highs they experience in the recording studio--those exhilarating moments when the blending of artistic effort, musical material, and technical input produce great results." --Richard Buskin, from the introduction to Inside Tracks (Avon Books 1999)
Who was Jimmy Miller? Even if you don't recognize Jimmy Miller's name, chances are that you've heard his work as a producer on many classic rock tracks over the years. His studio production on such classic rock albums as Mr. Fantasy, Let It Bleed, Blind Faith and Exile on Main Street illustrates that he was one of a handful of individuals, including Phil Spector and George Martin, who defined the sound of sixties and seventies rock & roll.
Miller was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1942, and his early roots were in show business. His father, Bill, was an entertainment director in Las Vegas and was responsible for booking Elvis Presley's memorable return to live performances at the International Hotel in 1969. Miller's earliest musical experience consisted of performing with local bands as a drummer. In an interview with Richard Buskin, Miller described his developing musical career: "Around '63, '64, I went on the road as a singer and got a recording contract with Columbia, and when I went into the studio I realized that that was what interested me most. So, I soon started writing songs with a young arranger friend of mine and cutting demos of other artists performing our material."
In the early sixties, it was standard practice for fledgling songwriters and producers, such as Miller, to create their recordings independently and then attempt to lease the songs to a major label for distribution. One such song Miller produced, "Incense" by the Angelos, came to the attention of British record label impresario Chris Blackwell, who was in the States looking for suitable material to release in England. Blackwell, impressed with Miller's production work, released the song to great success in the UK in 1965. Shortly thereafter, Blackwell, who was having difficulty establishing the Spencer Davis Group (which featured the young Steve Winwood) in the United States, hired Miller to work with the band.
When Jimmy Miller arrived in England, his first task was to remix the Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin." The song, now a rock classic, had been recorded and released in the UK, but Blackwell felt it needed something more to have a chance at making the charts in the States. Listening to the song today, one hears the magic of Jimmy Miller's production technique: a driving bass line reinforced with the slap of a drum hit, cascading percussion throughout the track, and a beefed-up chorus of voices (some provided by members of Winwood's next band, Traffic). The song was a big hit in America, and the band quickly followed up this success with "I'm a Man," which echoes a lot of the production elements in "Gimme Some Lovin." It's interesting to note that Miller's friendship with Steve Winwood had developed to the point that Miller was credited as a co-writer of "I'm a Man." This sort of involvement would become commonplace throughout Miller's career--he often participated in the recording studio not only as a producer but also as a musician. After "I'm a Man," Winwood left the Spencer Davis Group to form Traffic and asked Miller to come on board as the producer of their first album, Mr. Fantasy.
It's important to understand the musical climate that existed in the fall of 1967, when the album was recorded. The record's ambiance is one of mystical sweetness and druggy references that reflect the halcyon days of the "Summer of Love," which had just ended. Songs like "Dear Mr. Fantasy," "Heaven Is in Your Mind," "Paper Sun," "Smiling Phases," and "Coloured Rain" captured the psychedelic fever of the day. Miller performed as a percussionist on many of the tracks, and on the jazz instrumental "Giving to You" he speaks the line "You know where I'm at, but I mean jazz."
Mr. Fantasy was one of the first projects at Olympic Studios, one of the first independent recording studios in London at the time. This studio would function as a creative workplace for Miller over the next several years. Phil Brown, one of the original engineers at Olympic, states in an interview at prosoundweb.com that "the kind of producers I worked with originally were people like Jimmy Miller who were producers who set up a situation and controlled things but they were vibe merchants. Jimmy Miller was this incredible kind of energy and drive and force. He made the session feel like you wanted to be there and make music. But he wasn't a hands-on producer. There was more of an overall control, a bit of a vibe." In the book Inside Tracks, Miller explains his view of the producer's and engineer's roles: "As a producer I pretty much let the engineer get the sound together, and I might add my own suggestions if there's a particular sound I'm after or if there's something that I would like to change." Statements like this give credence to the theory that Miller's genius lay in listening to the band and musically participating in the session as opposed to working the mixing board.
In a 2003 interview at mixonline.com, Eddie Kramer, the engineer on Dear Mr. Fantasy (later to become Jimi Hendrix's producer), gives a clear picture of what it was like to watch Jimmy Miller at work in the studio: "Jimmy Miller was my mentor. He just had the most amazing ability to take a group of musicians, rehearse them, get them in the studio and get them so excited about what they were doing and make it all seem so much fun that I realized that this is the way that records should be produced. He was just a terrific catalyst. He had a great sense of humor. And he was unstoppable in the sense that his energy level was always up. He really, really dug the music; he was always so into the band: ‘How can I get you guys to feel this track the way I'm feeling it?' He would sing parts. He was like a master of ceremonies."
Kramer goes on to describe the session that produced the song "Dear Mr. Fantasy": "We had the band set up on a riser at one end of the studio, which is a big room--maybe 65, 70 feet long by about 45 wide with about a 30-foot ceiling. They were set up as if they were onstage and I recorded them live, straight to 4-track. I can remember with such clarity the time when we were actually cutting ‘Dear Mr. Fantasy': We were in the middle of a take and there's a part where the tempo changes--it jumps--and I look around and Jimmy Miller's not in the control room. The next thing I see out of the corner of my eye is Jimmy hauling ass across the room, running full tilt. He jumps up on the riser, picks up a pair of maracas and gets them to double the tempo! That, to me, was the most remarkable piece of production assistance I'd ever seen. They were shocked to see him out there, exhorting them to double the tempo. Their eyes kind of lit up. It was amazing. That was Jimmy!"
After his success with the Spencer Davis Group and his ongoing work with Traffic, there was a buzz in the rock & roll community about Miller. He was beginning to get a reputation as a "feel" producer, a guy who knew how to find the groove. During the sessions for the first Traffic album, Mick Jagger, at the suggestion of the Rolling Stones' recording engineer, Glyn Johns, dropped by one of the sessions to observe Miller's work up close. Shortly thereafter, Jagger asked Miller to produce the Rolling Stones' upcoming album, Beggar's Banquet. This album marked the beginning of a long studio collaboration between Jimmy Miller and the Stones.
At the start of 1968, the Rolling Stones were in trouble. In an effort to keep up with the style of the current rock music scene, the band had just released Their Satanic Majesties Request, an album heavily influenced by the psychedelic sounds of the San Francisco bands and the Beatles' recent release, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Satanic Majesties had caused the Stones to lose touch with the heart of their own music and their overall fan base. Needing to rehabilitate their image, they decided to record an album based in the blues, a genre that previously had defined the band musically.
In Inside Tracks, Miller describes the beginning of his relationship with the Stones: "Musically they were just coming out of their psychedelic period, which hadn't been too successful for them, and I think that was lucky for me, because I didn't insist that they change direction but they were ready to do so, as was evident from the new songs that they played me. What they had written was rock and roll, yet I subsequently received a lot of credit for getting them back on course, so I benefited a lot from being in the right place at the right time. There again, I think it's fair to say that being American also helped, because--as was the case with many successful British bands during that era--they had been raised on American records. As things turned out, it was not always easy--they could take a long time over certain things--but it was always a pleasure, especially when they'd eventually hit those magic moments as they inevitably seemed to do. The first of those just happened to be on the very first track that I produced for them, ‘Jumpin Jack Flash.'" This song features the element that was fast becoming a trademark of a Jimmy Miller studio production, layers of percussion, which fill the song with energy and momentum. Excited by the recording, the Stones scheduled it for immediate release as a single rather than holding it back for inclusion on the album.
A remarkable blend of blues, old-style country music, and rock & roll, Beggar's Banquet is arguably the best-produced album of 1968. Miller's studio expertise gave added depth to many of the album's tracks. For example, he chose to record the basic track for "Street Fighting Man" (guitar and drums) on a cheap cassette because the song needed a raw feel to capture its violent political leanings. "Sympathy for the Devil," with a samba-like groove that is reinforced with layers of percussion, is a perfect blend of dark lyrics and sensuous rhythm.
In December 1968, after finishing Beggar's Banquet, Miller worked with the Stones on Rock and Roll Circus, a television special intended to promote the new album. This project remained unreleased until 1996.
Earlier in 1968, Miller produced Traffic's second studio effort, Traffic. His production work sparkles on the ethereal "Forty Thousand Headmen" and what is now considered a staple jam song, "Feelin Alright." This album would be the last time Miller worked closely with Traffic in the studio, although he oversaw the production on Last Exit (1969), a pastiche of studio outtakes and live material, and on the live album Welcome to the Canteen (1970), both projects instigated to fulfill the band's contractual obligations to their record label and both largely forgettable.
In 1969, sessions began for the next Stones album, Let It Bleed. Miller's contributions during these recording sessions were plentiful. "Honky Tonk Women," which would be released as a single in advance of the album and ultimately withheld from Let It Bleed, features a brilliant opening cadence of cowbell played by Miller. "Gimme Shelter" has an urban soul music feel bolstered by Merry Clayton's dramatic vocal and Miller's percussion contributions. Miller's production helps "Midnight Rambler" blend the sinister overtones of "Sympathy for the Devil" and the Chicago blues style of the Stones' earliest records. The album's final track, "You Can't Always Get What You Want," which can be interpreted as an elegy for the sixties, features a celestial choir directed by noted arranger Jack Nitzsche, keyboards and French horn by Al Kooper, and Jimmy Miller playing the drums. Miller jumped behind the drum kit when Charlie Watts began having trouble with the song's quirky tempo. Miller's presence on this recording is felt in another way--many sources claim that the "Mr. Jimmy" referred to in the lyrics is Jimmy Miller.
Due to his work with the Stones, Miller's services as a producer became much in demand. During 1969, he worked on a variety of projects. Among these were the Move's magnificent single "Blackberry Way" and Spooky Two by the fledging outfit Spooky Tooth. Perhaps Miller's most significant project in 1969 was Blind Faith.
Blind Faith was one of the first bands to be called a "supergroup." Featuring the talents of Steve Winwood (Traffic), Eric Clapton (Cream), Ginger Baker (Cream), and Rick Grech (Family), the band evolved out of a series of casual jam sessions held at Clapton's country estate. When the group entered Olympic Studio, Jimmy Miller was on hand to add his production expertise. One of his most important contributions to the Blind Faith album occurred when he convinced the band that the track "Can't Find My Way Home" would sound better if it was re-recorded using acoustic rather than electric guitars; this proved to be a crucial element in making that song shine. Sadly, Blind Faith did not survive the tremendous audience expectations placed on it, and the band dissolved shortly after touring America in support of this album. Building on the relationships he had established with the various members of Blind Faith, Miller was soon involved in production duties on the recordings Ginger Baker's Air Force and Delaney & Bonnie on Tour with Eric Clapton, both projects taking place in 1970.
In the summer and fall of 1970, Miller and the Rolling Stones were busy crafting the album Sticky Fingers. This project would take Miller and the Stones out of Olympic Studio, as the album was recorded largely using the Stones' mobile recording truck at Mick Jagger's country estate, Stargroves. Sticky Fingers has a more textured sound than the previous Stones albums Miller worked on. Stargroves' wooden floors and high ceilings might have added a natural ambiance to the recordings' overall sound. Among the tracks that feature Miller's unique contributions are "Brown Sugar," "Moonlight Mile," and especially "Can't You Hear Me Knocking." Like "Jumpin Jack Flash" and "Honky Tonk Women," "Brown Sugar" is an instant Stones classic that benefits from Miller's ability to integrate crisp layers of sound and rhythm within the music. "Moonlight Mile" features layers of instrumentation that provide a certain airy quality. In "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," Miller's use of percussion establishes a funky soul groove that helped the Stones enter new stylistic territory.
During this same period, Miller worked on Sailor's Delight, an album by a new band called Sky. The band featured a young musician named Doug Fieger, later to re-emerge with the Knack and the hit song "My Sharona." In an interview at classicbands.com, Fieger describes his experience with Jimmy Miller: "I grew up in Detroit, yeah. I had a band called Sky, which I have a funny story about. I wrote a letter to the producer of the Rolling Stones and Traffic and Blind Faith, a guy named Jimmy Miller, when I was in high school. I said if you're ever in Detroit, come and hear my band. He answered the letter and came to my house and signed us. A week after I graduated from high school, he took us to London and we recorded our first album. There aren't very many producers around today of the caliber of Jimmy Miller, I'll tell you that. That's how I got into show business. I was seventeen years old."
At the start of 1971, Miller was involved in the production of Refugee, a blues- and gospel-influenced album by the Danish progressive rock band the Savage Rose. By the spring of that year, the Rolling Stones had been forced to live and work outside of England to avoid paying high taxes. To record their next album, Exile on Main Street, the band set up recording facilities in the basement of Nellcote, Keith Richards' villa in the small French town of Villefranche-sur-Mer. Unlike the pristine surroundings of London's Olympic Studio or the natural-sounding environment of Stargroves, the basement of Nellcote proved to be quite a challenge for Miller. In Inside Tracks, he sheds some light on the primitive conditions there: "For Exile, we suddenly found ourselves in this concrete basement with very little ventilation during a hot summer in the south of France. The sound was really harsh, and no matter how hard we tried, no matter how many different microphones we tried and no matter how many different positions we tried, we could never get it right." Besides the acoustical problems that Miller was dealing with, Keith Richards' growing addiction to heroin and Mick Jagger's frequent absences while spending time in Paris with his new wife, Bianca, added additional obstacles that had to be worked around as the chaotic sessions dragged on for the remainder of the summer. In retrospect, it's a testament to Miller's production abilities that he was able to salvage the album under such trying circumstances. In part, Miller pulled this off by using some tracks that had been recorded previously: "Sweet Virginia," "Sweet Black Angel," "Loving Cup," "Stop Breaking Down," and "Shine a Light" were originally created during sessions for the Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers albums. In November 1971, Miller and the band flew to Los Angeles to conduct extensive overdub sessions and to mix the final version of the album. Despite his professional and personal difficulties at the time, Miller's deft production touch is apparent throughout the album. Once again, many tracks are enhanced by his work as a percussionist. On "Happy" and "Shine a Light," he handles the drum kit. At the end of "Tumbling Dice," he reinforces the rhythmic breakdown to great effect.
Some sources claim that Miller's ongoing frustration with the recording situation during Exile led to the beginning of his own narcotics addiction at this time. Other forces may have been at work as well. In Robert Greenfield's Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones (2006, Da Capo Press), a comprehensive description of the album's making, Andy Johns, the engineer on the sessions, describes some of the difficulties Miller was having with the band: "When they first started working with him, he was a lot of help. Then after a year or two, they kind of used Jimmy for what they wanted, and learned Jimmy's tricks, and started shutting him out a bit. So by the time of Exile on Main Street, they weren't listening to Jimmy very much, and it did him in. They weren't really rude, but they would ignore him a lot more than he would have liked."
By the end of the project, Jimmy Miller was, in Andy Johns' words, "burnt out on the thing, and I didn't blame him." After his association with the Rolling Stones ended, Miller frequently disowned Exile, saying, "I was never happy with the sound of that album, especially after Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers." In a 2003 interview, Mick Jagger said, "Exile...is not one of my favourite albums, although I think the record does have a particular feeling. When I listen to Exile it has some of the worst mixes I've ever heard. I'd love to remix the record, not just because of the vocals, but because generally I think it sounds lousy. At the time, Jimmy Miller was not functioning properly." There is a certain irony in all this. Decades after its release, Exile on Main Street has achieved a legendary status. It is a complex album, filled with dense, raw sounds that seem to literally capture the restless cultural limbo of the early seventies.
Toward the end of '73, Miller embarked for Jamaica, where sessions for the next Stones album, Goats Head Soup, were underway. After the frenetic experience of making Exile on Main Street, Miller and the band seemed to take a lackluster approach during the sessions in Jamaica. Andy Johns, also the engineer on these sessions, describes what was taking place: "Because of drug habits, those sessions weren't quite as much fun. And there are a couple of examples on there where just the basic tracks we kept weren't really up to standard. People were accepting things perhaps that weren't up to standard because they were a little higher than normal." Keith Richards, in a 1975 interview, portrays Miller as having reached the end of the line creatively: "Jimmy Miller went in a lion and out a lamb. We wore him out completely. He ended up carving swastikas onto the wooden console at Island Studios." While Goats Head Soup seems anticlimactic after Exile on Main Street, there is some fine production work here. The textured nuances of tracks such as "Winter," "Angie," and "Coming Down Again," along with the hard hitting "Star Star," indicate that, while Miller wasn't at the top of his game here, he had not lost the ability to blend multilayered instrumentation on tape to capture the groove.
In 1974, when the Stones gathered in Munich, Germany, to record It's Only Rock and Roll, Miller was not invited to participate. A golden era for both Miller and the band had quietly drawn to an end.
Jimmy Miller's post-Rolling Stones career has been subject to his being written off as a drugged-out has-been who never produced any significant music again. This is false. While his projects following his involvement with the Stones did not have as much visibility and rock & roll cachet as albums such as Exile on Main Street, he worked as a producer until the end of his life. Following his tenure with the Stones, he signed a lucrative production deal with the ABC/Dunhill label and recorded with a wide variety of artists such as Genya Ravan, Beck Bogert & Appice, Henry Gross, Bobby Whitlock, Locomotive GT, and Joey Stec.
In the late seventies, Miller produced two excellent albums, Overkill and Bomber, for the heavy metal band Motorhead. In 1980, he worked on projects that covered two ends of a musical spectrum, producing New Hope for the Wretched, by the wild punk band the Plasmatics, and Billy Falcon, the self-titled debut album by a New Jersey singer-songwriter. In the late eighties, thanks to a production deal with his manager Joe Viglione, Miller was heavily involved in producing Boston bands. Especially notable is Miller's work on the song "Movin Up," on the 1992 Primal Scream album, Screamadelica. The sound of this track recalls the majesty of Let It Bleed and is solid evidence that Miller still possessed the chops of a great producer. In 1994, while producing sessions for a reissue of the 1975 Joey Stec album, Jimmy Miller passed away due to liver failure.
In recent years, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have been prone to revising history regarding Miller's importance as a producer, often belittling his contributions to what now stands as their band's finest work. To understand Miller's contribution, one need only compare the albums Jimmy Miller produced for the Stones with the albums the band has made without him. While a handful of songs might aspire to the level of quality that Miller brought to the proceedings, the Rolling Stones have made an overwhelming amount of mediocre music since Jimmy Miller's departure.
Concerning Miller's legacy, Greenfield may have said it best in his book: "Although Jimmy Miller certainly deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest rock producers who ever lived, virtually no one who listens to his music now on various greatest hits compilations has any idea who he was. Nameless and faceless, he has become just another name on the back of a repackaged CD case. Perhaps that is the way he would have wanted it. To be remembered for the music and nothing else."
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