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It's called Cactus Rose Theater now, but old-timers surely will remember it as the Kiva, a pornographic video store and movie theatre that embarrassed the bejesus out of the surrounding tourista emporiums in Old Town Scottsdale.
Now, however, the room is bright, cheery. There's a sparkling little snack bar and a cute little lobby. And now, instead of the black-letter trumpeting of such classy features as Babes in Boyland and The Defense Breasts, the theatre's protruding marquee notes the engagement of one Jody Miller.
Yes, happily, that Jody Miller. Aw, sure you remember.
Back in the wee Sixties, the petite, big-voiced brunette busted out of Blanchard, Oklahoma, to become a certified international pop star. Her crowning achievement was 1966's "Queen of the House," a domestic-goddess take on the late Roger Miller's hobo anthem "King of the Road." The effort garnered her a Grammy Award for Best Vocal Performance on a Country Record and a nomination for Best New Artist.
Now, in the waning days of 1994, after virtually disappearing from the music scene for nearly 14 years, Jody Miller is trying to reinvent herself--on several different levels--multiple nights a week before modest gatherings in a converted skin-flick house. The dynamic performer--barely touched by the passage of time in appearance and with a voice that age has somehow managed to benefit--faces mountainous odds.
"Basically," she acknowledges during a conversation at Cactus Rose, "everybody thought I was dead." She laughs in the manner of her singing: from her ankles, in rich, bassy, rolling waves.
It all began for her back in 1962. Thirty-two years ago, she was determined to be a part of the folk-music movement. As usual, Miller chose to go about getting her dream--in this case, a record contract--in a decidedly unorthodox way.
"I was singing in my bedroom in Oklahoma, mostly," she remembers. "Oh, I worked at a little coffee house at OU [Oklahoma University in Norman] maybe two or three times, and I did a local TV show every day--one of those early-morning deals. But that's all. I knew 150 to 200 folk songs. I loved Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary, and I wanted to make records." The more strident branch of the six-string genre, however, didn't appeal to her wholly Midwestern tastes. Miller admits that she preferred the melodic likes of the Kingston Trio to the hard-core protesting ilk of Phil Ochs.
"I suppose I was just too nice," she says. "I guess I was more concerned about Aunt Rhody's old gray goose, you know."
In 1963, Miller, eschewing the traditional road of hard knocks, decided to simply haul her guitar and her muse from her bedroom in tiny Blanchard to big-city L.A. and get herself a recording contract.
"I figured I'd just cut right to the chase," she says. "I wouldn't play clubs or bars or anything like that. I'd just make records."
And such is what happened, but not in the exact fashion Miller had predetermined. Although she reached L.A. rarin' to wail on wax, she decided to do some advance work. Miller knocked on the L.A. door of a fellow Oklahoman and rancher--actor Dale Robertson--and convinced him to extend her a quick audition. The actor was impressed enough to phone a few friends in town to alert them of Miller's impending invasion. One, Capitol Records producer Steve Douglas, wasted little time in inking Miller to a contract.
"I got there in July of 1962, and by Christmas I had a deal," Miller recalls. "Somethin' else, huh? Right away I put out a folk album. Unfortunately, it was right at the time folk music was going down and going down hard. The album didn't sell real well, and I guess they didn't rightly know what to do with me." Actually, the change in American musical tastes ended up benefiting Miller in grand style. With folk music fading fast, Douglas and Miller began scrambling for alternatives. The search yielded "a song from a bag"--"He Walks Like a Man."
"I recorded it as a single, and it became an instant smash for me," Miller remembers without a trace of braggadocio. "It was No. 1 in this city, you know, and up and down the West Coast, too. Suddenly, I was working with people like Bobby Vinton, Sonny and Cher, people who had all those Sixties hits. We worked sock hops. It was really fun."
The song also yielded her an unexpected bonus.
"I don't know exactly how it happened, but I was invited to the San Remo Song Festival over there in Italy," Miller relates. "I sang 'You Don't Have to Say You Love Me,' and that ended up sending me down a whole new road."
The song, which Miller claims Pino Dinnagio wrote specifically for her, captured second place at the prestigious festival. Immediately following her San Remo prize, she recorded the song in Italian ("Io Ce Non Vivo"). It proved a massive success there, and Miller found herself spending more than two months in Europe, cutting that song and others in German and French, as well.
Still, her biggest score would come as she stepped off the plane back stateside.