By Melissa Fossum
By Lauren Wise
By New Times
By Amanda Savage
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Troy Farah
By New Times
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.
Another Capitol Records artist, Mary Taylor, brought a lyric she wrote into Douglas' office, hoping to get a green light to record it for herself. Taylor had taken a current huge hit, "King of the Road," and penned her own version, "Queen of the House." Douglas--and Robertson, who had been following Miller's progress and happened to be at Capitol just then, looking to see how his prot‚g‚e was faring--convinced Taylor to give up the song for Miller.
"Capitol made every effort to get it out quickly, of course, because it was right on the heels of 'King of the Road,'" Miller says. "It became a big hit on the pop charts, then it crossed over to country, which was most unusual at the time. I think I pioneered the crossover movement with 'Queen of the House.'" The album, Queen of the House, which featured the Johnny Mann Singers, contained "He Walks Like a Man" and such country standards as Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line," Harlan Howard's "Odds and Ends" and Don Rollins' "The Race Is On," best known as recorded by George Jones.
The success of Queen of the House spawned Miller performances on such classic TV tune fests as Shivaree, Shindig and Hollywood A Go Go, and she recorded title tracks for two films, A Swingin' Summer and One Way Wahini. Miller performed on American Bandstand, and did her patriotic duty entertaining troops in Alaska with Bob Hope.
More albums, hits and awards followed: Home of the Brave yielded that huge title hit and found still more country lurking within, including Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" and the Johnny Tillotson classic "It Keeps Right On A-Hurtin.'" Later, 1971's "He's So Fine," a luscious take on the Chiffons' standard, earned Miller still another Grammy nomination.
Miller enjoyed the success, certainly, but her own tastes were changing. Her daughter had been born just after "Queen of the House" was recorded, and Miller and her husband, Monty Brooks--a racehorse trainer at Remington Park in Oklahoma--wanted "to raise her where we were raised."
"We didn't like L.A. all that much, anyway, because we were just a couple of Okies out there," Miller says, laughing. "Besides, I wanted to move into Nashville. Country music was really taking off, you know, and then I heard a record called 'Stand By Your Man.' The production behind it blew my mind. I thought, whoever it was who put that together, I want him to do my albums."
The person responsible was famed Nashville producer Billy Sherrill, and he soon had Miller signed up. In 1970, after eight fruitful years with Capitol, Miller was now with Sherrill at Epic. In 1971, they experienced the resounding success with "He's So Fine," and Miller shared a Country Music Association Best Duo award with Johnny Paycheck. Yet country music had hit a down cycle, and by 1980, Jody Miller decided to call it a career.
"I just decided to get off the road," she remembers. "I was tired, burned out. There weren't any battles or fights or anything else to it. I decided to have some fun, take it easy. So I quit and went back to Oklahoma."
For the next seven years, Miller helped her husband with his horses and traveled with him to races around the country. In 1987, the long-dormant urge to get back into music returned, and was all wrapped up in red, white and blue.
"I had this idea to do a patriotic album," she says. "It was a crazy idea because everybody kept telling me it wasn't going to sell--and they were right. It didn't sell. At the time, though, George Bush was running for president, and someone heard it up at some campaign breakfast in Milwaukee, and the next thing I know, I get a call from his people wanting to know if I wanted to go out campaigning for Bush. Well, I hadn't been on the road in seven years, but I did kind of have the itch to go back. So I said, 'Yeah, I'll go--even though I'm a Democrat.'" Miller later performed at President Bush's inaugural ball, and it rekindled the urge to perform.
"I spent the next couple of years trying to get back into it," she says. "Man, it was hard. My old friend Ralph Emery had me on his show [Nashville Now], but there just really wasn't anything going on with me, nothing they could promote. It's my own fault, really. I kept jumping around from one type of music to the other, moving about, disappearing. But I still kept going out, playing little theatres and such, trying to find a break. "I was working at a theatre last summer and I had a band that I hired. I didn't know it, but they were Christians, and I came to find out they were praying for me. They moved me, and I rededicated my life to Christ and started singing nothing but gospel music. I went in and recorded an album of gospel songs. Since then I've been working in churches. An agent, Bonnie Shannon, heard me. She was booking Verne Jackson [country-flavored superstar hymnist on Rolex-Christian CBN, Channel 21], and she wanted to book me. She lives here, and she called me up to tell me about this new theatre, said it would be the greatest theatre in Scottsdale, and would I come here to help them out? That's why I'm here. Well, at least partly."
Miller performs Friday and Saturday nights, plus an all-gospel Sunday matinee. The two-hour evening shows feature the Cactus Rose house band, an excellent eight-piece ensemble, a pair of singers, and corny jokes. And Miller is up-front about her motives and goals: She sincerely wants Cactus Rose to succeed, not only because of its good, wholesome intentions, but because she needs the bread.
"I want to be a gospel singer," she says flatly. "I gotta make some money so I can promote my ministry."
Yet the bulk of the tunes she sings in the Cactus Rose show are secular, and her eight-song set one Thursday evening included her hits. Miller also returns later in the show for a full-throttle delivery of a patriotic tune or two. She's heard criticisms regarding her performing non-Christian songs, but dismisses them with a cheerful wave.
"Oh, I've heard them all--you, know: 'You can't be involved with horseracing and be a Christian.' I tell them, we're on the back side, making them run fast and look pretty. We're not hanging around the betting windows all day. And, 'You can't dance like you do on the show.' Well, I've found peace with the Lord, and I'm a different person than I used to be. Before, I liked to drink a little bit, carouse about and dance and stuff. I still dance--a happy dance, an I'm-not-sinning dance.
"And I'll tell you this, too. You can be a Christian and a Democrat."
For the time being, Miller plans to be around through Christmas. Her most fervent wish is for Christians--and the rest of y'all, too--to see what she's up to and, especially, come see her Sunday hallelujah show. Those who enjoy the music but who don't have a hankering to be preached at will appreciate Miller's sweet and relatively low-key delivery of the Lord's word.
"I'm a Christian, and Christians talk about Christ, but I don't believe it's necessary to get in somebody's face about it, you know? And I'll tell you something else: It may sound like bragging, but my voice has never been better, and I'd like nothing better than for folks to come hear it for themselves.