Stage Door Johnny and the Quaalude-Samba-Folky-Jazz Groove

By: Sep. 18, 2008
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by Glen Roven

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.

JM: 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.