What I’ve Been Listening to: Frankie Miller/The Rock

When Max from PowerPop blog recently posted about I Can’t Change It by Frankie Miller, I was immediately intrigued by the Scottish rock singer-songwriter’s soulful vocals. I also instantaneously recognized the name from an appearance on the German TV concert program Rockpalast I had watched in August 1982, though I still can’t remember any of the songs Miller performed during that show. Anyway, this is what prompted me to start listening to his music including his third studio album The Rock from September 1975.

Before getting to this gem, a few words about Miller are in order. He was born as Francis John Miller in Glasgow on November 2, 1949. Miller’s first exposure to music was his mother Cathy’s record collection. She particularly liked Ray Charles who interestingly ended up covering the above I Can’t Change It on his 1980 album Brother Ray Is at It Again, a song Miller had written as a 12-year-old and recorded for his debut album Once in a Blue Moon released in January 1973.

Going back to Miller’s childhood days, another music music influence were his older sisters Letty and Anne, who introduced him to Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Miller started writing his first songs at the age of nine after his parents had given him a guitar. While still being at school, he started singing in a series of bands. Eventually, he joined Glasgow outfit The Stoics. While Chrysalis signed them in 1970, the band broke up before making any recordings.

In 1971, Miller formed a band called Jude, together with former Procol Harum guitarist Robin Trower, ex Jethro Tull drummer Clive Bunker and James Dewar, a Glasgow bassist and vocalist. While the band got attention from the British music press, they dissolved in April 1972, also without recording any music. Miller ended up signing a contract with Chrysalis later that year and released his above debut album in January 1973.

Frankie Miller at Rockpalast, Germany, 1982

Until 1985, Miller recorded eight additional solo albums. After his second-to-last solo release Standing on the Edge from 1982, he mostly focused on songwriting, including film music. Miller’s professional career came to a tragic end in August 1994 when he suffered a massive brain hemorrhage while writing music for a new band he and Joe Walsh had formed with English keyboarder and drummer Nicky Hopkins and Ian Wallace, respectively.

According to a bio on Miller’s website, the brain hemorrhage should have killed him but he has shown remarkable courage to claw his way slowly back to health, after spending 15 months in hospital. With massive support from his partner Annette, Frankie is learning to walk and talk again and has even written a new song with lyricist Will Jennings called “Sun Goes Up Sun Goes Down”. But sadly, Miller has not been able to resume performing.

The Rock back cover

While Miller’s records apparently received positive reviews, they were not commercially successful. His singles did not fare much better. Only two of them reached the top 40 in the UK: Be Good to Yourself from May 1977 (no. 27) and Darlin’ from October 1978 (no. 6). Miller’s songs have won writing awards and been performed by an impressive array of artists, such as Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Bob Seger, Roy Orbison, Etta James, Joe Cocker, Joe Walsh and Eagles.

Time to get to The Rock, Miller’s only album officially credited to the The Frankie Miller Band. All tracks were written by Miller. Here’s the excellent opener A Fool in Love. Like other tunes on the album, it reminds me of Joe Cocker. The song was actually covered by Etta James on her 1990 album Stickin’ to My Guns.

The title track was inspired by the Alcatraz prison in San Francisco, which could be seen from the studio where the album was recorded. According to Wikipedia, Miller said that music saved him from prison. He dedicated the song to the plight of prisoners, apparently a reference to his second cousin Jimmy Boyle, a Scottish former gangster and convicted murderer who became a sculptor and novelist after his release from prison in October 1981. The Rock has got a cool Faces, early Rod Stewart vibe.

Another gem is Ain’t Got No Money. It’s probably not a coincidence that it became the album’s most covered tune, including by artists like Cher, Chris Farlowe and Bob Seger. Frankly, this would be a great song for The Rolling Stones.

Let’s slow things down with All My Love to You, a dynamite soulful tune. Why this didn’t become a hit beats me. Check it out this beauty!

Frankly, there’s no weak track on this album and I could have selected any other. Let’s do one one more: I’m Old Enough.

The Rock was produced by Elliot Mazer, one of the co-producers of Neil Young’s Harvest album. Musicians included Henry McCullough (lead guitar, backing vocals), Mick Weaver (keyboards), Chrissy Stewart (bass), Stu Perry (drums, percussion) and Miller’s former Jude mate James Dewar. The album also featured two ingredients for shaping its soul sound: The Memphis Horns and The Edwin Hawkins Singers.

Sources: Wikipedia; Frankie Miller website; YouTube

Clips & Pix: Procol Harum/A Whiter Shade of Pale

We skipped the light fandango/Turned cartwheels ‘cross the floor/I was feeling kinda seasick/But the crowd called out for more/The room was humming harder/As the ceiling flew away/When we called out for another drink/The waiter brought a tray…

I had not listened to this Procul Harum classic for several years and caught it by chance on the radio in the car earlier this evening- damn, what a truly magnificent tune! A Whiter Shade of Pale was the British rock band’s debut single that appeared in May 1967. And what an impact it made! Within just a month, the tune climbed to the top of the U.K. Singles Chart where it stayed for six weeks. In the U.S., it reached no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. And apparently all of it without much promotion.

A Whiter Shade of Pale was co-written by Procul Harum’s pianist and lead vocalist Gary Brooker, together with lyricist Keith Reid and Matthew Fisher, a singer-songwriter who played the beautiful Hammond on the recording. “It’s sort of a film, really, trying to conjure up mood and tell a story,” Reid told Songfacts. “It’s about a relationship. There’s characters and there’s a location, and there’s a journey. You get the sound of the room and the feel of the room and the smell of the room. But certainly there’s a journey going on, it’s not a collection of lines just stuck together. It’s got a thread running through it.”

Songfacts also notes the title came to Reid at a party, which gave him a starting point for the lyrics. Brooker and Reid formed Procul Harum in April 1967, together with Fisher, Ray Royer (guitar) and David Knights (bass). The band’s original manager Guy Stevens came up with the name, inspired by a Burmese cat, Procul Harun.

Between the amazing Hammond organ line that’s derived from a classical piece by German Baroque period composer Johann Sebastian Bach and Brooker’s soulful singing, I loved this tune from the very first time I heard it many moons ago. I still get goosebumps. Interestingly, A Whiter Shade of Pale became Procul Harum’s biggest hit by far. The band broke up in 1977, reformed in 1991 and exists to this day, with 75-year-old Brooker remaining as the only original member.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube

On This Day In Rock & Roll History: August 28

1964: The Beatles performed the first of two gigs at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in Queens, New York during the U.S. leg of their world tour that year. They played their standard 12-song set of original tunes largely drawing from the A Hard Day’s Night album, as well as rock & roll covers. The tunes included Twist And ShoutYou Can’t Do ThatAll My LovingShe Loves YouThings We Said TodayRoll Over BeethovenCan’t Buy Me LoveIf I FellI Want To Hold Your HandBoysA Hard Day’s Night and Long Tall Sally. After the show, The Fab Four met Bob Dylan who visited them in their suite at the Delmonico Hotel in New York City. Beatles biographer Jonathan Gould noted the musical and cultural significance of the meeting, saying within six months, “Lennon would be making records on which he openly imitated Dylan’s nasal drone, brittle strum, and introspective vocal persona”; and six months after that, Dylan began performing with a backing band and electric instrumentation, and “dressed in the height of Mod fashion.” While the fact that great music artists influence each other isn’t exactly surprising, based on The Beatles Bible’s account of that night, it seems to me John, Paul, George and Ringo primarily got stoned with Dylan who brought along some grass to smoke. Not really sure how much their condition allowed them to have meaningful conversations about music. Here’s some footage from the Forest Hills show, a great illustration of Beatlemania, which makes me wonder why The Beatles didn’t stop touring earlier.

1965: Exactly one year after The Beatles, Bob Dylan took the stage at Forest Hills Tennis Stadium, marking the first night of a 40-date North American tour. Following a solo section, Dylan played an electric set. This all happened only about a month after he had rattled the “folkies” at the Newport Folk Festival. On that night in Forest Hills, Dylan’s electric backing band featured guitarist Robbie Robertson and drummer Levon Helm, who were then associated with a band called The Hawks, a predecessor to The BandHarvey Brooks (bass) and Al Kooper (organ) rounded out the line-up. After the first two shows of the tour, Robertson and Helm insisted that their mates from The Hawks join Dylan’s backing band: Rick Danko (bass), Garth Hudson (keyboards) and Richard Manuel (drums). Dylan agreed, and until May 1966, they would be billed as Bob Dylan and the Band. Here’s a clip of Like A Rolling Stone, which supposedly was captured from the Forest Hills gig. The sound quality is horrible, but, hey, it’s mighty Dylan and it’s historical!

1968: Simon and Garfunkel’s fourth and second-to-last studio album Bookends hit no. 1 on the UK Official Albums Chart Top 100, starting a five-week run in the top spot there. Apart from the title track, the record featured gems like America and the no. 1 U.S. single Mrs. Robinson. Written by Paul Simon, the tune had become famous the previous year when it had been included in the American motion picture The Graduate. I’ve always loved the bluesy touch of that song.

1972: Alice Cooper topped the British singles chart with School’s Out, scoring his only no. 1 hit anywhere in the world. Credited to Cooper (lead vocals) and the members of his band at the time, Michael Bruce (rhythm guitar, keyboards, backing vocals), Glen Buxton (lead guitar), Dennis Dunaway (bass, backing vocals) and Neal Smith (drums, backing vocals), the tune was the title track of the band’s fifth studio album released in June 1972. School’s Out also became Cooper’s biggest chart success in the U.S., peaking at no. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. According to Songfacts, Cooper during a 2008 interview with Esquire said, “When we did ‘School’s Out,’ I knew we had just done the national anthem. I’ve become the Francis Scott Key of the last day of school.” It’s also safe to assume, Cooper shocked some school principals and parents.

1981: British DJ, producer and band manager Guy Stevens passed away at the age of 38 years from an overdose of prescription drugs he was taking to reduce his alcohol dependency – yikes! Among others, Stevens gave Procol Harum and Mott the Hoople their distinct names. He also co-produced The Clash’s fifth studio album London Calling from December 1979, together with Mick Jones, the band’s co-founder, lead guitarist and co-lead vocalist. Stevens also brought Chuck Berry to the U.K. for his first tour there in 1963. He also was the president of the Chuck Berry Appreciation Society. According to Wikipedia, Stevens introduced lyricist Keith Reid to keyboarder Gary Brooker and told Reid at a party that a friend had turned “a whiter shade of pale”. Supposedly, these words inspired the song with the same title that was subsequently recorded by Brooker’s newly formed band Procol Harum and became a major international hit in 1967.

Sources: Wikipedia, This Day In Music, The Beatles Bible, Songfacts, YouTube