STAGE DOOR JOHNNY
December 4th 2019 -Jersey Jazz review - by Joseph Lang
It will appear in the January-February 2020 print issue of the magazine.
Ten years ago, bassist JOHN MILLER, who is also active as a musical coordinator for Broadway shows, commercials, television, and films released a vocal album. He had been playing guitar and singing for his own enjoyment, and with the help of guitarist David Spinozza, his co-producer Stage Door Johnny: John Miller – Takes on Broadway became a reality. It is now rereleased on a special 10th Anniversary Edition. Miller and Spinozza arranged the 12 selections for musical groups of different sizes. Miller is vocally inspired by the likes of Mose Allison, Chet Baker and Antonio Carlos Jobim, each of whom, like Miller, had light expressive voices. The songs, with the exception of “Secret Love,” are from Broadway shows, and include ‘Why Can’t You Behave,” “Old Man River,” “Fugue for Tinhorns,” “Hernando’s Hideaway” and “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” This is an nicely unpretentious album that is easy on the ears throughout.
October 17th 2019 -Jazz Weekly review - by George W. Harris
John Miller sings, plays bass and acoustic guitar while serving up clever and original arrangements of classic Broadway songs. His mix and match team of musicians range from compact quartets to large orchestras. Miller’s voice and delivery are reminiscent of vintage 70s singer/songwriters like Kenny Rankin and Jim Croce-casual, relaxed and clever. Miller’s a hoot wit B3er Ted Baker on a fun role reversal read of “I Can’t Say No” and his electric bass bounces along with his voice on a funky “I Won’t Grow Up.” He gets frisky oh “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” and singing with Bob Dorough and Janis Siegel slinks into a C&W take of “Fugue For Tinhorns.” All of the pieces are re-invented, and work well, lasting past the initial sparkle.
September 29th 2019 -Sunday Show Tunes radio show with Paul Branch and Maureen Rejali
Rebecca Caine about the London Premiere of Dave Malloy’s, Preludes and John Miller - singer, bassist and Broadway Music Coordinator. All that and your favourites from stage and screen.
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From interviewing your favourite West End and Broadway performers, celebrating new writing on both sides of the Atlantic, as well as brand new releases and of course, some of your old favourites!
September 11th 2019 - A Conversation with Music Man John Miller: “Stage Door Johnny” Gives his Takes on Broadway - by Deb Miller for the DC Metro.
August 26th 2019 - Talkin Broadway Sound advice by Rob Lester:
I am very happy to see a low-profile 2008 recording by John Miller, with especially fresh interpretations of musical theatre gems, reissued independently. It's too good to miss; and it seems especially timely now by virtue of its inclusion of four songs from shows recently revived on Broadway: My Fair Lady represented by "Wouldn't It Be Loverly"; "Why Can't You Behave?" from Kiss Me, Kate; and two things from Oklahoma!.
An instrumentalist, handling bass and guitar, Miller also sings with an appealing, easygoing, and folksy style. He has long been a mainstay for major musical theatre productions in New York, concerts, films, etc., as a music contractor/coordinator. Once upon a memorable time, in the late 1970s, his first such Broadway assignment also included singing and playing bass as part of the chipper on-stage participants in I Love My Wife. If your memory goes back to the show or its original cast album, the thoroughly engaging Stage Door Johnny will recall that same familiar sense of playfulness.
Here's the kind of recording that invites frequent smile-inducing listens. Songs that may have been grandly presentational and declarative in their original contexts are now cozy and conversational. If you had a hammock and a lemonade, it would complete the ideal summer afternoon of relaxation for a Great White Way sway, with these winning and warm arrangements by Miller and participating band member, guitarist David Spinozza, who is among an impressive group of top-drawer instrumentalists.
The dozen delights here favor famous and older shows, Show Boat with a mellow "Ol' Man River" being the earliest, having first rolled along 92 years ago. Their age and familiarity only emphasize the triumph of how fresh, contemporary and colloquial the masterful Miller makes everything sound—with seeming effortlessness. Affection for the material is palpable, despite the retooling that places so much in settings and stylings that evoke folk, pop, country, American rootsiness, and jazz sensibilities. In the latter category, two stalwarts from that field are shining guest vocalists chiming in with Miller for an inventively jazz-tweaked blend on Guys and Dolls' contrapuntal treasure, "Fugue for Tinhorns": Janis Siegel and the late Bob Dorough.
While some of the material may come off as offhand, don't doubt the underlying sincerity. It comes through soft and clear when more seriousness is needed instead of the more frequent mood of contentment, such as "We Kiss in a Shadow" from The King and I. The two items plucked from the score of another Rodgers & Hammerstein classic, Oklahoma!, offer more pleasures. We're treated to a laidback glide through that score's opening number, "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'," that is the very picture of serenity. And—here comes the surprise—there's a cutely gender-switched selection: with some adjustments to the words, the comical character Ado Annie's "I Cain't Say No" takes on the point of view of a guy in his lust for the ladies. Have you ever heard this high-spirited confession of low resistance sung by a man? The gentler side of the same coin has Miller sweetly expressing shyness and awe as a guy having his first dance with "A Real Live Girl," with Little Me's little gem of a lyric by Carolyn Leigh set to the graceful melody by Cy Coleman, composer of the aforementioned I Love My Wife. By the way, two Broadway revivals each of Little Me and Oklahoma!, as well as the late-'90s return of The King and I, are among Miller's dozens of credits as musical contractor.
John Miller takes care to make John Miller Takes on Broadway a thoughtful and well-thought-out recital, and his "takes" on these old-timers are well worth the time to savor.
August 6th 2019 - The One Way Ticket Show -interview with Steven Shalowitz
“The One Way Ticket Show” features interviews with artists and thinkers about their “one way ticket” destination, which can be in the past, present, future, real, imaginary or state of mind. The only caveat is that there is no coming back.
July 28th 2019 - A Broadway Spectrum on WFDU 89.1 FM
You can listen to the July 28 broadcast here.
The full playlist of the episode is here: http://wfduhd2.radioactivity.fm/playlist.html?showoid=8670&date=07-28-2019
The track “Real Live Girl” appears at about the 6:23 PM mark.
“A Broad Spectrum,” hosted by acclaimed jazz vocalist Mary Foster Conklin since 2016, airs weekly on WFDU 89.1 FM – highlighting performances, music and lyrics by women. The show is broadcast live every Sunday from 3:00 PM to 7:00 PM EST and streaming on their HD2 channel, “Jazz and What’s More.” WFDU is broadcast from Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, NJ. More about Mary is at her website HERE <http://www.maryfosterconklin.com/no_flash.php> . An archive of previous programs of “A Broad Spectrum” is available HERE <https://www.mixcloud.com/ABroadSpectrum/> .
The TV Dudes Podcast - Interview
July 26th 2019 - WNYC - "All Of It" - radio interview
“All of It,” hosted by Peabody Award-winning journalist Alison Stewart, is a live daily conversation about New York City culture that airs Monday through Friday from 12:00 Noon to 2:00 PM on 93.9 FM and WNYC.org.
July 25th 2019 - The Straits Times - album review
July 5th 2019 - Cheddar TV - Interview
Cheddar, with over one million daily viewers, focuses on covering the most innovative products, technologies, and services transforming our lives.
The Sessions Panel -interview
The Sessions - Enrich, Educate, Empower! Enriching future generations! Artist Series of personalized interviews and panel presentations of accomplished musicians and Music Industry experts who have created a powerful and uplifting presentation so Artists can sharpen their business skills in the pursuit of their respective careers with in-depth and personal experiences and guidance from the panel and other guest panelists. Topics include contract negotiations, entertainment law, marketing, self-promotion, image maintenance and networking. The Sessions is offered in cities throughout the U.S.A. and the world! The Sessions has a jam session with panelists and attendees to finish an amazing day! Core panel includes Dom Famularo, Liberty DeVitto, Paul Quin, Carlos Guzman & Christine Ohlman. These powerful and informative events are offered at universities and venues world wide, at no cost to musicians! Don't miss one at a city near you and end in a jam session!
June 25th 2019 - The Broadway Radio Show Interview
Donald Feltham, host of the online program “The Broadway Radio Show,” has interviewed such stage stars and songwriters as Karen Mason, Kyle Riabko, Scott Frankel (co-writer of Grey Gardens and War Paint), Georgia Stitt and more.
June 22nd 2019 - Broadway Radio Network Interview
The Broadway Radio Network has 250,000 monthly listeners around the world. In 2017, Broadway Radio shows were downloaded or played on streaming services more than 2,000,000 times. Services that play Broadway Radio content include iHeartRadio, Stitcher, TuneIn, Google Play, Apple Podcasts, the Armed Forces Radio Network, and United Airlines In-flight Entertainment, as well as over 30 public radio stations around the world. You can find BroadwayRadio at BroadwayRadio.com, Twitter and Facebook @BroadwayRadio. Previous guests on the Broadway Radio Network include Brian Stokes Mitchell, Melissa Errico, Sheldon Harnick, Jonathan Groff, and many others.
June 22nd 2019 - RTVE/Spanish National Radio - Gary Gonzalez segment about Stage Door Johnny
June 20th 2019 - The Commentary podcast interview
The Commentary, the Vancouver BC based site and podcast hosted by Joseph Planta, began in 1999 and features audio interviews with unique and diverse guests from renowned bestselling authors, newsmakers and political figures, internationally-known journalists, academics, intellectuals, and noted artists.
June 21st 2019 - 10 year re-release review - Theatresensation.com -Kelli Curtin
There is a 10th anniversary recording of the album Stage Door Johnny: John Miller – Takes on Broadway. When I first received this recording I was unfamiliar with John Miller and the recording. I quickly fell in love with the recording because it is so unique and it is definitely an album that theatre lovers as well as those who appreciate good music will enjoy. Miller takes musical theatre songs that people are familiar with and arranges them in a way that makes the song come across in a totally new and unique way. I found myself in many instances listening to the songs many times over because I love the way that the music is arranged. Miller makes these classic songs sound fresh and new, and I immensely enjoyed listening to Stage Door Johnny.
John Miller is a Musical Coordinator for Broadway shows. He has worked on over 130 Broadway productions during the last forty years. He has worked on shows such as The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, Newsies, and Hairspray. Currently his work is represented in the shows Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, Oklahoma!, and in a few months, Tina: The Tina Turner Musical. If you are unfamiliar with the role a Music Coordinator performs, Miller did an interview with Playbill a few years ago and explained it as “I work with the conductor, the composer and the orchestrator to decide who would be perfect musicians for that show. Musicians who'd work well with that conductor, musicians the composer would want for the style of music, musicians who'd bring everything the orchestrator wants out of the instruments. You're sort of the conduit for all these musical parts of the show." Miller is also a bassist and Stage Door Johnny features Miller’s bass playing and vocals.
One of the things I adored about this album was the way Miller showcases how versatile musical theatre songs can be. What Miller does on this album is take music that everyone is familiar with such as “I Won’t Grow Up” from Peter Pan and turn the music into something that feels fresh and new. This is one album that is a welcome addition to my music collection as I found the music relaxing and a refreshing take on the songs I am so familiar with. One of the highlights on the album is “I Cain’t Say No” from Oklahoma! This song has a jazzy feel to it with the bass and piano, and I very much enjoy this particular arrangement. Another highlight of the album is “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from My Fair Lady. The sound delivered by this song is reminiscent of the music stylings of James Taylor. I found the song delightful and it is probably my favorite on the album. Another song that I found unique and also find myself listening to frequently is “Old Man River” from Showboat. The beginning has a very classical feel with a violin playing and then it evolves into a more up-tempo song. I found the arrangement of the song unexpected and I enjoy it tremendously. On a whole, I honestly adored the songs and music on this album. The 10th anniversary recording of the album Stage Door Johnny: John Miller – Takes on Broadway is a delightful album in which Miller spices up classic Broadway songs.
Stage Door Johnny: John Miller – Takes on Broadway is available for purchase through digital and streaming platforms, in addition the CD is available for purchase at JohnMillerBass.com.
Kelli Curtin is founding editor and writer for theatresensation.com. She has maintained a love of the performing arts since a very early age and she is excited to share her passion about theatre and the Arts with her readers. Kelli can be found on Twitter, Facebook and on Instagram.
So here’s John Miller, who grew up playing guitar, singing folk music, worshipping Pete Seeger and Janis Ian. And what songs does he choose to sing on his first-ever CD?
“Why Can’t You Behave?” “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” “I Won’t Grow Up.” “I Cain’t Say No.” “Hernando’s Hideaway.”
All songs from Broadway shows, all songs introduced by women, on the disc, Stage Door Johnny.
“I never gave the women thing a thought,” he says. “I did, of course, know that they all came from Broadway.”
He should. For nearly 30 years, John Miller has been the music contractor for many musicals in this town. All right, he hasn’t run the gamut A-to-Z, but he almost has: Almost Heaven, Beauty and the Beast, Cry Baby, The Drowsy Chaperone, Fosse, Grey Gardens, Hairspray, I Love My Wife, Jersey Boys, Kat and the Kings, Les Miserables, Movin’ Out, Never Gonna Dance, Oklahoma!, The Producers, The Rocky Horror Show, Smokey Joe’s Café, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Urinetown, Victor/Victoria, The Wedding Singer, Xanadu, and Young Frankenstein. All of them have had pit musicians hand-picked by Miller.
“The music contractor must hire the perfect musicians for that specific show,” he says. “You choose different musicians for 42nd Street than you would for Smokey Joe’s Café. You also try to get musicians that work well with a certain conductor’s temperament.”
It’s a job he never pursued, no more than he wanted to play in Broadway pits – which he’s also done. “Believe me,” he says, “when a kid who loves music is growing up, he never says, ‘My goal is to play in a Broadway pit.’ That comes later when Miles Davis hasn’t called and you’re not with The Rolling Stones.”
Miller grew up in Manhattan, and while his parents dutifully took him to Broadway, musicals made no impression on him. But when his brother’s friend left a string bass at his house, he did pick it up. “Soon after,” he says, “for the first time in my life, I told my parents, ‘I’d like to study.’”
He wound up at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1963, and if you’re thinking, great, just in time for the Detroit tryout of Here’s Love, no, he wasn’t there. Don’t think that the following year that Miller caught tryouts of Dolly or Fiddler, either. Miller was still very much the folkie, though he dabbled in bluegrass and jazz, too. Oh, he did play in the pit for the school’s production of West Side Story, but all that he remembers from that is being smitten with Connie Barron, who played Maria.
Once he was graduated and returned to New York, he joined Local 802 – and here, you assume, is where he starts playing Broadway. Not at all. “That’s when the studio scene was ridiculously busy,” he says. “The first-rank studio bass players couldn’t do it all, and so I got hired a lot. Now all that’s dried up because pop groups and singer-songwriters provide their own music, and because synthesizers and Macintoshes do the film scores and TV commercials that we used to do. Musicians who wouldn’t have given a thought to playing Broadway are now desperate for the work. People call me non-stop, send me e-mails and CDs, asking ‘Can you fit me in?’ They’re all unbelievably talented, highly skilled people with long and impressive resumes. I’d even use the word ‘artist’ to describe many of them.”
So how DID Miller segue into Broadway? From playing bass on a Cy Coleman pop album in the late ‘70s, when the famed composer-lyricist was readying I Love My Wife. The show about spouse-swapping revolved around two couples, but there were on-stage roles for four musicians who’d also play their friends. Though Broadway still held no fascination for him, when Coleman said he should audition, Miller listened. “You’d have to look far and wide to find any musician in any field who didn’t have great respect for Cy Coleman,” he says.
Miller agreed to audition – “but I also gave him the names of other bass players, drummers, piano players, and guitar-players, too.” He didn’t know it, but he’d just taken the first step on what would be his music contracting career.
But that certainly didn’t happen right away. “Before I auditioned,” he says, “I called my friend Fred who’d been involved with many Broadway productions. ‘What’m I supposed to do?” I asked, and he told me they’d ask me to sing and read. But then he added, ‘It’s not unreasonable to say you’d like to read the script and see the score.’ What he didn’t tell me is that I was supposed to bring sheet music and give it to the audition pianist. Instead, I brought down my guitar to the Winter Garden and sang a song my brother wrote about Henry David Thoreau.”
While that must be the only time that song has been heard on a Broadway stage, those listening – Coleman, librettist Michael Stewart, then-director Joe Layton, and the show’s three producers – decided Miller would do. But after they grandly said, “We’d like to offer you the part of Harvey the bass player and have you be the musical director, too,” Miller asked the questions that friend Fred had advised.
“When I said, ‘Can I see the script?’ they huddled, and when they broke I could feel their happy tone slightly change,” he recalls. “So then when I said, ‘Can I hear the score?’ their heads got closer together, the murmurs got louder, and the tone really changed. They said, ‘Thank you very much.’ I didn’t know that meant, ‘You’re history.’ But walking home, I had a feeling I’d done something wrong. So I called Cy afterwards and said, ‘Did I offend people?’ and he told me yes. I explained about Fred and apologized profusely.”
All was forgiven. He got the show, and played it from the first backers’ audition in 1976 to the final performance in 1979. En route, he and the show’s other three musicians won the Drama Desk Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – as “The Band.”
When Coleman was readying Barnum, he called Miller, saying that he needed a music contractor. “I said ‘Absolutely not,’” Miller recalls. “The feeling among fellow musicians was there was something slimy, cigar-chomping, cufflink-wearing about music contractors. Then Cy said, ‘I gotta give it to some shmuck, so I might as well give it to you.’”
With a compliment as lovely as that, how could Miller resist? Now he’s done the task for 100 shows. “But the choice of the musicians is not a one-person decision,” he reminds us. “Orchestrators and conductors know the people they’re comfortable with. I’m there to serve them, and we don’t argue about it. I also tell musicians with an ego that the sheet music has the name of the instrument at the top, but not their names on it.”
The biggest challenge, he says, is when an ethnic show is being readied, for there aren’t many musicians who play the arcane instruments that are required by the score. Such was the case with the Asian-flavored M. Butterfly. “Where do you find someone who plays something called the pipa?” he says. “I finally heard about a pipa player who worked at a Chinese restaurant, and the only number I could get for him was at a pay phone there. When I called and asked him if he wanted to get $150 for less than two hours work, he laughed and hung up. I had to call three times before he believed me and took the job.”
Unlike many in the business, Miller has fond memories of Butterfly’s director, John Dexter. “When he told me he wanted music that would shake up the audience, I suggested a montage of ‘Butterfly’ songs, and he went for it immediately. Of course, after finding ‘Poor Butterfly’ and Dolly Parton’s ‘Life is Like a Butterfly,’ it got much harder.”
Well, that’s what you get, John, for not going to see Dolly in Detroit – when the score included “Come and Be My Butterfly.” But he’s made up for it in his music contracting career, hearing enough songs from musicals that found their way into his consciousness, voice, and guitar-playing.
“I describe my guitar-playing as Quaalude-samba-folksy-jazzy,” he says. “I’m incapable of playing the guitar any other way. I just start playing around and let the groove lead me to a song. The first was “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” and that led to his doing 11 others – including “Hey, There,” “Real Live Girl,” and “Fugue for Tinhorns” -- in a nice ‘n’ easy does it, James Taylor-ish way.
“I just recorded it for myself,” he says, “but when I played it for Maury Yeston, he said, ‘You gotta get this to Tommy Krasker.’ I did, and he said he wanted to put it out on his PS Classics label.
So life is good for John Miller these days – and not just musically. That Connie Barron who played Maria in that Michigan West Side Story? They’ve been married a dozen years now. I Love My Wife turned out not only to be his first show, but also his feelings for a lifetime.
December 3, 2008 - American Theatre Web
CDs of 2008: A Retrospective
by Andy Propst
Equally notable is John Miller's Stage Door Johnny, where blues-y, folks-y and Latin sounds blend with Broadway classics in remarkable and often delightfully unexpected ways. It's hard not to be captivated by Miller's bi-lingual "Hey There" (from Pajama Game) and bemused by the new lyrics he uses for “I Can't Say No” (from Oklahoma!). A rendition of "Fugue for Tinhorns" (from Guys and Dolls) finds Miller sharing the microphone with Bob Dorough and Janis Siegel and when he gets around to delivering "Real Live Girl" well, the song's once again offered in two languages – this time English and Portuguese. For fans of Broadway classics reinterpreted, this is simply a must-have or must-give in 2008.
December 2008 - JAZZ TIMES MAGAZINE
CD Reviews: Vox
By Christopher Loudon
JOHN MILLER: STAGE DOOR JOHNNY
If at any point over the past three decades you've seen a Broadway or off-Broadway musical, John Miller likely influenced the experience. As musical director, Miller has worked on more than seven dozen productions, ranging from Tommy, Big River and The Will Rogers Follies to such current hits as Jersey Boys, Grey Gardens and Young Frankenstein. Away from the Great White Way, he has as a freelance bassist, worked alongside close to 100 of the biggest names in pop, rock, folk, and jazz, including Madonna, Sinatra, James Brown, Tony Bennet, Burt Bacharach, Les Paul, Gil Evans and
Now, at age 63, Miller has released his first solo album, built around a dozen vintage delights (the newest of the 12 pieces dates from the '60's) that, he says, reflect his "earliest memories and affections" for show tunes. Result: one of the smartest and most delightful Broadway salutes ever crafted. Miller's gruffly appealing voice carries obvious hints of Kenny Rankin and James Taylor (particularly on lilting, folk-rock readings of "Wouldn't it Be Loverly" and "We Kiss in a Shadow") with distinct undertones of Steve Tyrell, Dr. John, Peter Allen and Bob Dorough.
Not interested in standard interpretations, Miller works alongside guitarist David Spinozza (who assisted with arrangements and production) to shake things up in truly magical ways. With sparkling vocal assistance from Dorough and Janis Siegel, Guys and Dolls' "Fugue For Tinhorns," usually taken at a frenetic pace, is slowed to a leisurely lope. "Hey There," from the Pajama Game, and Little Me's "Real Live Girl" are transformed into shimmering sambas. Most intriguing are the transformation of the pouty Peter Pan lament "I Won't Grow Up" into a surly, hard-driving rock anthem (which, surely, is precisely how a 21st-centur Peter would express the lyric's defiant sentiments", and the startling reinvention of "Secret Love" (which, for the record , wasn't written from a Broadway show, but for the 1953 Doris Day film, Calamity Jane), complete with a pounding bassline that shifts to retro, horn-fueled Busby Berkeley grandiosity and back again.
NOVEMBER 2008 - BASS PLAYER MAGAZINE
Stage Door Johnny
Better than a hit musical revival, John Miller’s debut disc brilliantly reworks Broadway classics in a more contemporary light. “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” “Old Man River,” and “We Kiss in a Shadow” are charmingly staged as a folkguitar- led James Taylor meditations. “Hey There” transitions into a full-blown Nuyorican cha-cha, complete with brass and Spanish- translated vocals. “Hernando’s Hideaway” is awash in Steely Dan-style Rhodes comping and low-voiced horns that add perfectly to the leering lyrics.
As the Great White Way’s premier music coordinator and contractor, Miller assembles an ample, first-rate supporting cast, starting with guitarist and disc-producer David Spinozza. Miller’s fretted and fretless electrics and upright also get in on the act, channeling everyone from Lee Sklar to Gene Cherico, and take a starring role on “Fugue for Tinhorns” and “Secret Love.” The former rides a thumbed funk-shuffle figure, while the later alternates between a slapped upper-register subhook and an upright-driven, Don Sebesky-arranged big band shout chorus.
But the guiding creative light is clearly Miller, via his lead vocals and minimalist guitar playing (his late-night, fooling-around acoustic guitar riffs were the genesis for all of the arrangements). On the vocal side, especially, his musician-singer instincts—in the tradition of Mose Allison—are key to his offbeat readings. Your reactions while listening will be as varied as the 12 tracks themselves, but mostly you’ll smile.
NOVEMBER 2008 - OUTSMART MAGAZINE
by Nancy Ford
The renowned NYC bassist gives a dozen Broadway standards a jazzy yet folksy makeover on his first solo CD, prompting Paul Shaffer to call the collection "fresh, new, and invigotating." That is good enough for us.
10/28/08 - USA TODAY
This week's playlist: Elysa encompasses standards, seasonal songs and garage rock
Elysa Gardner's latest playlist contains an assortment of show tunes, which may not come as a big surprise to those who follow her work, and tracks from the likes of Rodney Crowell and The Stems, which might fall on the unexpected side.
Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’, John Miller: On Stage Door Johnny, veteran Broadway musician Miller bathes Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sparkler in sumptuous strings and gorgeously folksy harmonies.
10/5/08 - THE BUFFALO NEWS
John Miller, “Stage Door Johnny: John Miller Takes on Broadway”
Johnny Miller is a music coordinator on Broadway — that is, he hires musicians for pit orchestras, recordings, films, etc. In his off time, he sits around with his guitar. Years of Broadway tunes percolating in his head produced this charming disc, full of completely original interpretations. Miller’s voice is thin and humorous, something like Dave Frishberg’s. When he’s backed by a folk group, the whole package sounds a lot like James Taylor.
Miller takes songs you never think he would take and turns them on their ear. He puts “Secret Love” with an aggressive, almost Diddley beat. “Ol’ Man River” is easygoing and tender. “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” kicks off with a bluegrass chorus. “I Won’t Grow Up,” from “Peter Pan,” turns into a contrapuntal chorus with a bunch of other guys.
And it’s cute how he goes for songs a guy would normally never sing, giving us a sweet “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” and a hilarious “I Can’t Say No.” Who can say no to this? Not me. (Mary Kunz Goldman)
18 September 2008 - Broadwayworld.com
By Glen Roven
Stage Door Johnny and the Quaalude-Samba-Folky-Jazz Groove
John Miller is hardly a household name. Unless, of course, a member of that household happens to be a musician, and that household happens to be anywhere near New York City. Then, trust me, John Miller is very much a household name.
For John Miller is one of the premier Music Coordinators on Broadway, the man (there are no women that I know of) in charge of hiring musicians who play in the pit orchestras of Broadway musicals. Right now, John looks after Hairspray, Jersey Boys, Xanadu and Young Frankenstein. His list of past shows hovers around one hundered.
But this article is not about Johnny Miller, the Music Coordinator. This is about his new CD,Stage Door Johnny, which will be released September 30th, on PS Classics. With this CD, John steps out of the pit and into the spotlight, Center Stage. This is about John Miller: producer, arranger, musician and most importantly, artist.
Johnny’s performing skills come as no surprise to us old folk who witnessed his amazing performance in the musical, I Love My Wife. In addition to the four star actors, the smaller parts and, of course, the music, were performed by the band. (Take that John Doyle; Joe Layton was doing it in the sixties.)
Johnny’s performance of the Act Two opening is indelibly imprinted in my mind. The curtain went up and there he was with his bass, about to launch into the jaunty Cy Coleman bass line for Hey There, Good Times. But as it was snowing (on stage), before he started, he looked up, gently flicked a snowflake off the bass, dried off his instrument, and then hurled headlong into the song. Jack Benny could have learned a few things from John’s impeccable timing.
The audience roared and Act Two started with a bang. I remember watching a performance with Mark Bramble, Mike Stewart’s pal who wrote the book and lyrics. Mark exclaimed, “Now that’s how you open a second act.
GR: Would I be off the mark to say this is the Broadway album James Taylor could have made?
JM: Anytime anyone compares me to James, I’m unbelievably flattered! It’s like saying, I saw you on the basketball court and you have moves like Michael Jordon.”
GR: Which is highly unlikely. Neither of us crack 5’7.
JM: I’m talking metaphorically, of course. But I never try to sound like James. Or anyone, actually. That just seems to happen whenever I start to sing.
GR: Which is?
JM: I call it my Quaalude-samba-folky-jazz groove.
GR: I wonder if there’s a category for that at Barnes and Nobles?
JM: Do we have a shot?
GR: Tell me about the genesis of Stage Door Johnny, the album.
JM: I skillfully avoided doing this for a good 25 years. I used to sit around on the couch playing all these songs on the guitar, late at night. Not really knowing what I was doing on the guitar…
GR: Cause you’re a bass player.
JM: Correct. I didn’t even know the names of some of the chords I was making up. It reminded me of the time I played with Joni Mitchell. I looked over to Joni and asked her, “What’s that chord you’re playing?” And she said, “No idea.” I’d play my arrangements for guitar players and they’d say, “What the hell is that? What an interesting chord.” I guess ignorance is bliss.
I’d say fifteen years ago, I thought, hey, let me get a little home studio, work out the kinks, play around with the background vocals, the bass lines. I went with Bob Rose (another major NY musician) to Manny’s Music store and bought this Yamaha Eight track home studio. Bob came to my home, he set it up, put the speakers there, the wires, etc., and left. I looked at the manual and I realize I’m very, very good with the first sentence, which said, “Congratulations you just bought a Yamaha such and such home studio.” I realized very soon I wasn’t so good with the next 50 pages. I didn’t understand a thing. My spine started sweating. I became totally technophobic. So much so, that I couldn’t even go in the room! So I retreated to my couch and started strumming the guitar. I went back to playing the guitar on the couch for another ten of years.
Then, two or three years ago, I had a light bulb Zen moment of enlightenment. After so many years of playing these songs, I pretty much knew what I wanted to do. I said, let me by-pass the whole manual part. I realized I don’t have to learn all that stuff. At the same time, Connie, my wife said, “Enough already. It’s too depressing hearing you sing these songs for 12 years. Either do it or don’t. I don’t want to hear about it anymore.”
So, it was just time. And after such a long gestation period, I knew exactly who I wanted to co-produce it with me, I knew who I wanted to play on it with me, who would engineer it. And the next day, I put the team together, booked the studio and forged on.
GR: How the music came together?
JM: It was as organic as anything can be. The first song I did fifteen years ago was “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” I didn’t plan on doing it. I was just fooling around late at night, D9 Bm7 . Be gong, be, ba da, bi gong ging.
GR: (thinking) How the heck am I going to convey how cool it sounds having John Miller sing you a bass line?
JM: So I didn’t have a specific song in mind. I was just watching some Rambo movie late at night. Just grooving. And somewhere deep in my mind’s ear, without thinking of it, I came up with, ‘All I want is a room somewhere.’
GR: How did you pick the rest of the songs?
JM: In every single song the groove came first. I never looked at a list of songs. I never asked, “What song would I love to do?” There were all based on some guitar riff that I came up with. And the rest just flowed extremely naturally.
GR: I think this is the only Broadway compilation that I’d want to have sex to. You don’t want to have sex to Dear World.
M: No comment. But, I think I’m somewhat limited by my guitar playing. Cause there’s only one thing I sort of do.
GR: Tell me about your co-producer, David Spinozza.
JM: My choosing Spinozza to be a partner in crime was not casual. I thought for a long, long time. I’ve worked with him as a guitarist for years, knowing his sensibilities, and his sense of what I call right-eousness, what is pure, when there is a need for nothing, a need for air.
One of the most flattering moments for me was when Warren Odze (the drummer) turned to Spinozza and said, “David, that sounds great.” Spinozza pointed to me and said, “It was Miller.”
GR: You’ve been around Broadway for 45 years! An amazing career. And you’ve heard a lot of music. Tell me. What makes a great Broadway song?
JM: I don’t know if I’m smart enough to answer that like a smart person would answer; but clearly, any time you go to a show and walk out humming a song you’ve never heard before, that has a profoundly deep effect.
GR: You and I are primarily behind the scenes guys. Occasionally we step out, but only when necessary. What’s it like for you being in the spotlight?
JM: My friends and I have made long careers out of being sidemen. One of my best sidemen stories is, I was working with this singer and she had written a waltz. She said, during a recording session, “I’d like this to be a reggae.” Now, she was smart enough not to ask any of us, “Do you think this is a good idea?”
GR: That might fly in LA because the musicians are so sweet out there. That would NOT fly in NYC!
JM: We are trained to say, “You got it.” We give them the best we can do and then leave. It’s their baby. They wrote it, their project. It should be exactly how they want it.
I’ve received many CDs from friends of mine who are sidemen and I’ve always been moved by what a courageous thing it is for them to do. They are, in effect saying, here is the music I feel in my soul, here is how I feel music.
So, this album is how I feel about music. And I’m very comfortable saying that. But it was an extraordinary experience to finally be the person who could tell these great musicians, I want my waltz to be a reggae.
GR: Has it been a pleasant experience?
JM: You bet. It’s a great luxury for a musician to be able to do their own project without any upfront deal. There are no restrictions other than your own imagination.
GR: And the goal?
JM: I had one goal only: for me to love every note of it. If other people dig it, that’s great. If some people don’t, none of that would take away from the joy we I had doing it. I have loved every minute. There isn’t any part of doing the music that hasn’t been a peak experience.
Glen Roven is an Emmy award winning composer who recently made his Carnegie Hall debut conducting his Violin Concert. The CD was released on SONY/BMG with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. He is hoping Stage Door Johnny will one day hire him.
BASS PLAYER MAGAZINE
Recently, John Miller sat down with Bass Player magazine’s Chris Jisi to discuss the creation of Stage Door Johnny.
How did Stage Door Johnny come about?
Like many musicians, to relax, I pick up a different instrument than the one I play. For me, that casual instrument is the guitar. Over the past dozen years or so, my routine has been to sit around late at night, playing an acoustic guitar while watching some action movie on TV. I’d stumble on a little riff, not knowing what the chords were, but digging the groove and playing it for a good half hour watching the movie. Then, from somewhere deep in my memory gene pool, a song would bubble up that fit the pattern and I’d sing along. That’s how all of the songs on this CD came to be. There was no agenda to pick particular songs or even musical styles. I guess a lot of these Broadway tunes are rooted in our collective American psyche. Perhaps my gig as a Music Coordinator had something to do with it as well. But the grooves always came first, and the grooves led me to these classic songs. We ended up calling it Stage Door Johnny, John Miller Takes on Broadway.
I remember the chess masters saying the opponents they feared the most were un-trained players, because they were so free and unrestricted you never knew what moves they were going to make. Back in the ’60s I was doing a sound check with Joni Mitchell and I recall whispering in her ear “What chord is that?” She whispered back, “I have no idea.” That’s me on guitar. What I eventually realized, as I came up with more tune ideas, is that the through-line of it all is my guitar approach which I refer to as my “Quaalude samba” groove; it’s a very relaxed kind of samba, bossa, funky, folky groove that is the culmination of my musical influences—from folk to jazz.
How did you progress to the recording stage?
First I went to Manny’s and got a little home studio, thinking I’d record some of the songs to get the kinks out; see what does and doesn’t work until I’m ready to go into a recording studio. I opened the manual and I understood the first sentence: “Congratulations, you’ve just bought a little home studio.” After that, I was lost. I became intimidated and absolutely phobic about it, so it sat moldering for many years. At one point I brought an engineer friend to show me how to work it, and I could hear myself going “em-hmm, em-hmm” —and when he left I was still lost.
Finally, two things happened: Connie, my wife, said, “either record them or stop yammering about it, it’s too bloody depressing.” And I had an epiphany - let me bypass the manuals that terrify me and go directly into the recording studio.
The next morning I started assembling my team. I knew I didn’t want to produce it by myself because I felt I was susceptible to being myopic about the music. I wanted someone whose musical soul was in sync with mine and someone whose ears I trusted...so I called guitarist, David Spinozza, to co-produce it with me. I’ve always had a deep respect for his musicality and especially his sense of righteousness. Next I sought an engineer who would understand my concept and with whom I was comfortable: that was Michael Golub. I told them I had just one rule: that we each had to love every note before I would sign off on it.
How did you start tracking?
First we laid down my acoustic guitar parts. I had to get them as pristine as possible, because everything emanated from the guitar: arrangements, grooves, harmonies, bass lines, drum parts, etc. Usually I recorded bass next; drums and everything else would come after. It was a slow process, but I needed the attention to detail for the guitar and bass so they could work organically with each other.
My friend, Craig Snyder, insisted I use his Minneapolis Luthier James A. Olson guitar. I was honored to play it. I’ve never played an acoustic guitar that sounded and felt as great. No wonder its James Taylor’s choice. The acoustic bass I played is my 1863 Giuseppe Salvadori, which has a 39” scale length and a very large scroll. I use Weik Strings. My electric basses were a ’71 maple-neck Fender Precision-which has a J-Bass bridge pickup and a Sadowsky Stars Guitar preamp-and my ’88 Sadowsky four-string fretted and ’86 fretless Jazz Basses. All electric basses have Dean Markley Round Wound Medium Lite strings. Those were recorded direct, and my upright went direct from my bridge pickup, made by Rich Barbera as well as 2 Nueman U87’s mikes, one near the fingerboard and the other by the f-hole. We only used the direct for about 10% of the sound.
Had you been singing professionally?
Not really since I was in I Love My Wife on Broadway, in the ’70s. But I’ve always been comfortable singing. I think of myself as a bass player who happens to sing. I sing like an instrumentalist sings. My influences, in addition to James Taylor, are vocalist/instrumentalists like Mose Allison, Chet Baker, Hoagy Carmichael, Joao Gilberto and Jack Sheldon. I’ve always loved to hear composers like Cy Coleman sing their own tunes. Hearing the musical souls of “non-professional” singers is something I find very satisfying.
What was your bass approach?
Well, to be honest, it changed during the process of making the CD. Initially, I thought, boy, what a great opportunity to do some interesting things on the bass. But that very quickly shifted to what best and most simply supported the songs and grooves, ultimately leading to a far less bass-featured CD than I’d originally imagined. Here’s a prime example, and one of the many reasons why Spinozza was invaluable: after we recorded the guitar part and a reference vocal for “Hernando’s Hideaway,” I was excited to show David this virtuosic bass part that I’d been working on. After I played it, he looked at me and said, “Well, I guess we don’t need a drummer or a keyboard player, other guitars, or background vocals.” I looked at him sheepishly and said, “You’re one hundred percent correct.” So I kept it simple and built from there. I was always looking at the bass lines carefully to see how they complimented the guitar parts.
“Why Can’t You Behave” is usually done as a ballad.
That’s right, but for some reason I always heard it as a medium swing. I stumbled on the song during my guitar explorations, and it sort of evolved into a cross between swing and a shuffle with me on upright. One of the keys to the tune is Clifford Carter’s piano playing; his turnaround into the modulation is priceless. And I thought it would be nice to have a warm sound playing the melody, so I brought in Larry Farrell on trombone, who really made it his own.
“Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” alludes to your James Taylor influence and really sets the tone for the whole CD.
My goal was never to try to make it sound like a James Taylor track,but yes, James is a major influence, no question. Around 1983, a few of us N.Y. bassists got to audition for James when Lee Sklar was unavailable. I went to his apartment with my electric and upright and we jammed for three hours. I know every note of his songs and every bass note too. He asked me to come back again, but then his drummer, Carlos Vega, wanted him to hear Jimmy Johnson who got the gig, and how can you argue with that choice? But while I was at JT’s, I played him an early cassette version I had of “Loverly.” He said he really dug it and it made him think about covering similar tunes. I gave it to him as a gift for all the joy his music has brought me. So when folks say to me I sound like James, it’s like saying, I saw you shooting hoops and you looked like Michael Jordan. What greater compliment is there? My singing “A” instead of “ah” just comes out naturally; I’ve been doing that forever. As for the arrangement, again it all started with a late night guitar part, just jamming on D to Bm7. I wrote the added little instrumental bridge that happens twice, for which I heard harmonica, and I brought in Rob Paparozzi. I was really proud of the background vocalists; they were great at matching my phrasing. Bass-wise, I kept it simple and open on my electric, adding some personality with a few little fills, but nothing that sticks out.
“Hey There” really gets a fresh new take.
I thought it would be interesting to sing it in Spanish, to capture that real New York Latino feel. I asked guitarist Manny Moreira, and vocalist Kerry Linder, to translate the lyrics. Kerry helped me with my accent. Then the ideas started flying. I called John Benthal to play tres, Spinozza arranged the horns, and I decided to add Latin vocalists, Kevin Ceballo and William Duvall, to capture the real Latin flavor. Clint deGanon on drums, and Ted Baker added that subtle touch I was looking for. For bass, I played the Fender and rolled off most of the high end for a warmer slapping sound.
“Old Man River” is a challenge to take on.
More than you would think. The first challenge was how to do the rubato opening. I wanted to establish the feeling of a sea chantey, so I used guitar, accordion and fiddle. Then we modulated for the main groove. My concept was the Zen of a river; the calm but non-stop motion of a river. I like this. Using my fretless helped with that; adding some slides and overdubbing one section an octave higher. I re-harmonized the bridge the second time through. Again, the background vocalists matched my vocals so well, and the outro felt so good I could have played it for the entire CD.
“I Won’t Grow Up,” from Peter Pan, is fun and funky.
The idea for the slapped bass figure came to me in the shower soon after one of my late night sessions with the guitar. Soon after Larry Graham made slapping popular in the early-’70s, I called my friend Steve Gelfand for a lesson, as he was one of the first among the bassists in town to do it well. He had me sit in a chair and hit the low E string with my thumb over and over; then he had me do the same with my third finger popping on the G string. I thought he was nuts. He told me to go home and just keep doing that while I watched TV. Sure enough, a few days later I called him to show him all the moves I’d come up with. Like most bass players, I’m a huge fan of Victor Wooten, Marcus Miller and Abraham Laboriel, but I do have my own style...as do all bass players.
“Fugue for Tin Horns” is an interesting tune to cover.
It is, because the fugue is an unusual form in popular music. I’d always felt the tune would lend itself well to a Rickie Lee Jones “Chuck E.’s In Love” kind of shuffle groove. I formed the bass line from the guitar part. Ted Baker’s comping synth part and percussionist Roger Squitero’s subtle congas are key to the groove. My other idea was to get three distinct voices on it, so I wanted a female voice to sing an octave higher, and the third voice to have a completely different quality. I thought, who is more unique than Bob Dorough? So it’s me, Bob and Janis Siegel from Manhattan Transfer. As Spinozza said, the tune is a charming ditty, so the real challenge is to do it as honestly and righteously as possible—that, and getting the three voices to be distinct in the mix. Plus, we added a jazzy edge to it, especially at the end.
“Real Live Girl” gets a Brazilian twist.
I played in Cy Coleman’s trio since the 70’s. We used to do a regular fall benefit in Connecticut for Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang. I confessed to Cy that I had taken his waltz and changed it to a 4/4 bossa groove. We hunted down a little guitar; I played it for him, and he loved it and gave me his blessing.
Because the lyrics are basically about this schmegege guy, I thought it would be cool to have a woman sing it who sounds like a hot, young babe. Cy would have really dug that. I figured I’d match the vibe by getting a woman to sing in Portuguese; and that was Kerry Linder. Spinnoza and I added the Claus Ogerman-style strings and I played electric bass, just laying down a nice cushion—like Gene Cherico on the Getz/Gilberto album.
I miss Cy terribly and wish he could have heard the finished version.
“I Can’t Say No” has an ear-catching intro.
It’s rubato with my vocal, upright, and then - sort of like Supersax - four arco bass tracks that I overdubbed. For the main groove, I thought I was going for the Oscar Peterson Trio sound: piano, bass, f-hole guitar and no drums. As I was trying to explain it, Ted Baker smartly said, “You don’t mean Oscar Peterson, you mean George Shearing”, and he was right. This is the only track I didn’t play guitar on; Spinozza played f-hole guitar because it needed that real Freddie Green approach. Then we decided to have drums after all, which added to the swing. Another way I changed it from the original (which alternates between a fast two and a halftime bridge) was that I kept it at a medium tempo throughout. I took some jazz liberties with the lyrics because it’s written from the girl’s point of view. Fortunately, the Hammerstein estate liked my version.
“Hernando’s Hideaway” brings to mind Steely Dan.
Like most musicians, I’m a huge Steely Dan fan, but there was no plan to give the track that sound. That happened once I brought Ted Baker in, who coincidentally had worked with Steely Dan on keyboard.
For the recording sessions I brought in chord charts for the musicians, and told them each exactly what I wanted them to play. I knew if I got the right players I could explain it to them and then say, “Now that you know what I’m hearing, forget what I’ve said and add your own voice; that’s why I want you here.” That worked for the whole CD. That was maybe the most thrilling part of this process. Giving these artists my specific framework and then watching them create incredible music when they were unleashed. A good example is on the fade, where Ted said, “I have an idea I’d like to try,” and he added the Latin piano comping. Spinozza and I did the horn arrangements and we also came up with the idea to add upright bass playing the melody on the outro.
The sparse sound of “We Kiss in the Shadow” really brings out your guitar concept.
Right, and I must have gone through two Rambo movies just grooving on those two chords. It almost felt like a Polynesian kind of voicing and feel. When the song “We Kiss” finally came to me against the chords, I was so excited I woke Connie up at 4AM to play it for her. What came to mind was Dobro guitar and piano which Gordon Titcomb and Ted Baker provided. I added some re-harmonizations and I played a simple supportive upright part—very haiku. It’s not an easy song for me to sing, but the airy open feel of it makes this version work.
What was your approach for “Oh What a Beautiful Morning”?
Once I arrived at my guitar part, I had in mind a kind of O Brother, Where Art Thou vibe. I wanted a real Americana flavor—a combination of Aaron Copland, Stephen Foster and Randy Newman, so I brought in Robert Miller to write for strings and oboe. I told him what I had in mind, but wanted him to add his own touch. What we got was glorious. I had Gordon Titcomb play pedal steel and mandolin.
The most interesting part was the a cappella opening. I knew exactly what I wanted and wrote out every little note and inflection. The singers recorded everything I asked. I came back the next day to listen… and hated what I had written. I was tapped for ideas, so I passed the task on to Spinozza, who wrote his own vocal parts and they sounded great.
He and I also wrote different vocals for the choruses and on a whim while we were mixing, I said, “Let’s hear our versions together” and it worked well; so that’s what’s on the track.
“Secret Love” is probably the most striking track.
That was one of those songs I’ve always felt could work in two bags: a straight-eighth feel and swing; so that was my plan. This was the only tune that didn’t come from the guitar. Instead this was playing my Sadowsky electric bass late at night, doing some slapping and coming up with the funk pattern that opens the track. I played it for two hours and somewhere in the back of my mind I heard, “Once I had a secret love...” I had to fit the bass to the lyrics, so it’s just bass, voice and Clint DeGanon on drums. We came up with a great groove that’s both loosey-goosey and locked-down funk. From there, I knew just how and where I wanted to go back and forth to swing, and I thought who better to call than the great arranger Don Sebesky, with whom I’d worked as a bassist for years. I called him on a Monday and told him what I had in mind: a shout chorus, space for a quick upright solo in the bridge, and the outro. Then I asked, “Do you want to get together so I can lay it out, or should I send the outline to you?” And he said, “No need.” So I said, “Well, when do you think I can get it?” And he said, “By Wednesday.” I said, “You mean Wednesday of next week?” He said, “No, this Wednesday.” Sure enough, the charts showed up. For this section I used drummer Warren Odze. The big band recorded by playing along to the track, with a click in the empty funk spaces. Don is just a genius; he wasn’t even in town when we recorded it. To this day the musicians on the session are still talking about what a great arrangement he wrote.
Would you say you achieved your goal?
Absolutely. We stayed pure to our goal of loving every note. I’d like to believe we’ve been extremely respectful of these classics while casting them in a fresh light, for people who are familiar with them, as well as for those who aren’t. The general reaction from listeners is that they love all the unexpected surprises. We had a ball making it and that seems to have come through.
I would encourage every musician to do their own project in any way possible. It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to say: This is how I hear music; this reflects my musical soul. Period.