Willie Miller (1929 – 2011)
Willie Miller was born in Apia, Samoa on 7 January 1929. He was married to our mother Annie Miller (nee Sio Luka), a strong woman and loving wife who financially supported the Miller household through her lifelong career in the telecommunications industry in Samoa. With limited formal education Dad was a self-made person, tenaciously learning and absorbing know-how from anyone and anything around him. He was a self-taught musician with a passion for the swing jazz of the World War 2 era. With no formal training Dad fashioned himself a ukulele from a tin can and strands of horse tail at age thirteen.
In 1948 he made his first public appearance in Pago Pago, American Samoa with the song You Are My Sunshine. Dad’s first band was with the Rasmussen brothers Max and Fata. They called themselves The Rhythm Boys. Various line-ups ensued over the years including associations with musicians from the Ah Mu family, the Keil family, and some time with the late Mavis Rivers. Hooked on swing jazz Dad tended to hang out with the Latter Day Saints elders from Utah. He became friends with the LDS trio who composed (Randy Broadhead) recorded and released in Samoa the original composition called Masi Samoa (Samoan biscuit). Dad’s first big gig was at the trendiest nightspot in Apia at the time, the Tivoli. While the guitar was his main instrument Dad also taught himself to play the piano, saxophone, and the trumpet. Dad’s first real break outside of Samoa arrived when he and close friend Henry Hunkin formed a duo, which they called The Tuli Brothers.
In 1954 The Tuli Brothers was sponsored a year’s tour of Australia, where they adopted stage names Atele and Latu, for Henry and Dad respectively. The headline in an Australian newspaper, issue 13 August 1954, read “Samoans make it a musical holiday” with tag line “Two Samoan singers Atele and Latu are spending their holidays entertaining in Australia”. It went on to say “In Samoa, Atele is a government clerk; Latu is a grocer in a big firm. A Sydney business man arranged for their visit. He recorded some of their songs while holidaying in Samoa. In NSW the boys made broadcasts from the ABC and commercial stations, appeared with variety shows, and recorded 12 numbers with the Australian Record Company. So far four songs have been released. In Melbourne Atele and Latu have done radio work and are now appearing in their sixth week of vaudeville revue at the Plaza. In Samoa each has his own seven-piece band.”
Decades later, thanks to a collector of old records living in Tasmania I discovered over the Internet two of those ARC recordings. I am indebted to this gentleman who lovingly restored the one The Tuli Brothers 78 RPM record that he had in his collection and posted the two sides to me on CD. One was a traditional track called Tautalatala (Samoan for “too much talk”) and the other, a number called Can’t You See I’m Sorry composed by Samoa’s own Billie “Pili’opo” Retzlaff (nee Nelson). Click below to listen. In the mid-60s Henry left the band life to focus more on his “daytime job” and Dad continued with his music, joining various bands while at the same time starting to teach his sons the guitar. As if realising a life-long dream, in 1969 the Miller’s Quintet was formed, with Dad on tenor sax and vocals, Harry on lead guitar and vocals, Latu on rhythm guitar and vocals, Maua on bass guitar and vocals, and a dear friend, the late Richard “Pisi” Stanley on drums and vocals.
The “Miller” band went through several line-ups and name changes, including the addition of keyboards in the late 1970s. The gigs were the usual public and private functions, and including residential gigs at three of the night spots of the day, namely Surfside, Moonglow, and Le Tanoa O Ali’i. Dad retired from public performance around 1977 during the Moonglow and Le Tanoa years, opting to move into nightclub management. The Miller Band disbanded some time in 1980 after Harry and I had left home. Dad also retired from the nightclub scene at the same time. For a number of years afterwards Maua and Dad kept the music going until Maua also left home. A lifelong friend of Dad’s and businessman Rudolf Keil approached me in 2002 about recording Dad while he could still play and sing.
In 2005 we flew home to realise Rudolf’s venture. To minimise studio time for Dad we decided to record guide tracks first, then bring in Dad to record/playback with them. We quickly laid down 16 tracks of jazz standards from which Dad could choose. Unfortunately the whole thing was all a bit late as Dad no longer had the energy and the pitch to perform for any length of time, let alone do a whole CD. But the the desire and spirit was still there as he did manage to hobble to the studio and performed whatever he could. The project was abandoned as time ran out. We had to fly back to our respective homes and work obligations overseas before any track could be mixed.
Thankfully, for reasons which will become clear soon, Rudolf’s nephew Victor Keil, who engineered and recorded us was kind enough to give us a CD of 16 unmixed stereo guide tracks. The idea of doing a Willie Miller CD was all but gone until a couple of years later. Maua introduced me to computer DAWs (digital audio workstation), a software application that gives you a complete software-based recording studio inside a computer. While fooling around with this exciting technology I stumbled upon some old mono cassette tape recordings of ourselves and of Dad. Bingo, the Willie Miller CD idea was back! Fortunately some of the recordings on these tapes were still audible 30 years on. This old material, together with some useable tracks from the abandoned 2005 attempt provided the content for the Willie Miller CD. With the help of another specialised piece of software I extracted the usable parts of Dad’s performances from the mono tapes and stereo CD, and “punched in” ourselves during record/playback.
Yes, you guessed it – it then sounded like we recorded all the parts together in the same space and time. Background audio artifacts can still be heard on some tracks as they could not be totally eliminated. We rearranged all the tracks on the CD using this format – Dad leads in, then we add two or three choruses/solos in the middle, then Dad takes us out. Orchestral strings and keyboard colours were added on some tracks to hopefully realize Dad’s vision. The result is essentially a compilation of jam sessions that were never meant for a CD, plus extensions on one-take guide tracks that never made it to production.
The CD opens with the uptempo Caravan by Juan Tizol. Taken from a 1980 jam session Dad opens the CD by blazing away on lead guitar from start to finish, switching between bossa and swing feels. A Walter Donaldson standard called Little White Lies follows on track two, another 1980 jam piece. Raw with no orchestral or keyboard embellishments Dad leads in, then Harry breaks out first solo on left channel. I chime in with a solo on right channel, while Maua sports a nylon acoustic guitar on centre pan for his solo. Portrait Of My Love by David West and Cyril Ornadel was captured at Le Tanoa during the 1976 New Year’s Eve Ball.
Desafinado (translated ”Slightly Out Of Tune”) by Antonio Carlos Jobim is another 1980 jam session. Dad learned everything by ear off the radio and Desafinado was no exception. As such his chords were his own harmonic interpretations of what he could remember from radio play as evident in his “in” and “out” parts. For the additional choruses in the middle we played the chords penned by Jobim. Beyond The Reef by Jack Pitman was a Sunday afternoon jam session at the Moonglow, 1976. Just One More Chance by Sam Coslow & Arthur Johnston is another 1980 jam session, a favourite of Dad’s that was inspired by the Les Paul & Mary Ford rendition. The Tony Bennett signature tune I Left My Heart In San Francisco, composed by George Cory & Douglass Cross is another capture from the 1976 New Year’s Eve Ball. Dad often turned this ballad into an up-tempo swing piece at will, when he would break into his gravelly sounding Louis Armstrong impersonation.
Moonlight In Vermont by John Blackburn & Karl Suessdorf is another 1980 jam session. Dad opens with those simple sweet chords of his, and then into the melody with plucked “strings 1-4” octaves, in favour of the now common “strings 1-3” version popularised by the great jazz master Wes Montogomery. Can’t You See I’m Sorry by Billie Nelson was one from the 2005 attempt. Dad’s voice had become quite weak, his memory somewhat compromised, and his diction noticeably degraded. It Is Only A Memory is another Billie Nelson original. Thanks to Maua this was captured at Emanuel’s Studio in Apia, 2003 as a try-out before the 2005 attempt. Dad sang and accompanied himself on piano, live in the studio, in one take, with Maua on both bass and drums. Orchestral strings were added later in 2009. Samba de Orpheu by Luiz Bonfá is another 1980 jam session. The medley Nearness Of You (Ned Washington & Hoagy Carmichael) and Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight (Carter & Hudson) was put together from separate cassette recordings at the 1976 New Year’s Eve Ball.
They have been rearranged as a medley as they are the only usable audio recordings of Dad on tenor sax. Dad never got to hear the completed CD. Dad suffered dementia in his latter years and it became impossible to care for him at home. After much agonising Dad moved to reside at Mapu-i-Fagalele Home For The Aged in Apia under the care of The Little Sisters Of The Poor. While Dad was at the rest home Mum, on what turned out to be her last trip overseas, travelled to Auckland for her usual medical complaints and was diagnosed with cardiac disease. After several weeks of tests and family talks Mum decided against a heart bypass operation, opting instead to enjoy the rest of her days while she could. On her return from Auckland she spent some time with Dad at the rest home before moving back home. Mum’s heart finally gave up on 12 September 2010. One of the hardest things we did was to break the news to Dad at the rest home. Heartbroken, he followed his sweetheart of over 60 years, almost a year later to the day, at the age of 82. As I eulogised at Dad’s funeral I said “Dad was a man of extremes, extreme passion, and extreme rage. Most of all he was most passionate about his love for our mother.” Fa’afetai tele Tama, mo lau mea alofa taua o le musika.
Click on the links below to hear Dad’s performances on YouTube and feel free to download the videos and/or audios from there.
Tautalatala (Billie Nelson, I think…) 2:38
Can’t You See I’m Sorry (Billie Nelson) 3:10
01.Caravan (Juan Tizol) 2:32
02.Little White Lies (Walter Donaldson) 3:51
03.Portrait Of My Love (David West & Cyril Ornadel) 0:53
04.Desafinado (translated “Slightly Out Of Tune”) (Antonio Carlos Jobim) 0:43
05.Beyond The Reef (Jack Pitman) 0:35
06.Just One More Chance (Sam Coslow & Arthur Johnston) 0:45
07.(I Left My Heart In) San Francisco (George Cory & Douglass Cross) 0:32
08.Moonlight In Vermont (John Blackburn & Karl Suessdorf) 0:42
11.Samba de Orpheu (Luis Bonfa) 0:36
12.Medley: Nearness Of You (Ned Washington & Hoagy Carmichael) / Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight (Carter & Hudson) 0:41