Interview: Lisa Dawn Miller Of FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE At 54 Below

Important Songwriter Getting His Due At A Big To-Do October 8th (Do Come!) At 54 Below

By: Oct. 03, 2023
Interview: Lisa Dawn Miller Of FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE At 54 Below

Sunday, October 8th will be a special night of music and music history at 54 Below. It’s an early step in a much-deserved exploration and celebration of the talented man who wrote the words (and occasionally the melodies, too) to some memorable songs. The night is just three days after the 91st anniversary of his birth. Ron Miller passed away in 2007, but his legacy is rich, and still being discovered. The show is named for his biggest hit, “FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE” – and will include numerous hits he wrote as a staff writer at Motown for its artists such as Stevie Wonder …and much more. The event will be live-streamed as an option for those who can’t attend in person.  Ticket link HERE.

The event, long in the planning stages, is a labor of love instigated by and starring talented daughter Lisa Dawn Miller who will be singing and sharing stories – and sharing the stage with other performers for the extra-cool extravaganza. She’s been busy with the Herculean tasks of untangling the legalities and red tape to gain the rights and royalties related to her father’s works (long story, not all pretty or fun), promoting them, and writing a full-length stage bio-musical about her dad and herself. I’ve been impressed (and charmed) by Lisa since I first heard her CD released 18 years ago this month, Fly Away. Time flies, too. She’s been busy performing (I happily caught this California lady’s show when she came to New York City to perform at the, now, sadly, shuttered Metropolitan Room), recording songs and videos, as she’s a writer-producer herself. (There’s a Christmas collection from Lisa being released this month.) She’s also spent much time zipping around the country co-producing, promoting, and performing in shows with her husband, Sandy Hackett, who will be part of the company for For Once in My Life: The Songs of Ron MillerAlso on stage will be Major Attaway (from Disney’s Aladdin), Gabbie Ballesteros, Sofia Campoamor, Deana Cowan, Kalonjee Gallimore, and Savidu Geevaratne. The musicians are Michael Lavine (on piano, a frequent presence at 54 Below), Sean Decker (bass), Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf (cello), and music director Ryan Rose (drums), plus guest pianist Bryan Wells who was a composer collaborator with Ron Miller for “A Place in the Sun,” “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday,” and “Someday at Christmas.” 

Lisa is especially happy that her 23-year-old son, Oliver Richman, has also come in from L.A. to be in the show. Talent runs in the family for sure. He is a multi-tasking music man who sings with an arresting voice full of poignancy. He writes his own songs, too, but has also recorded some gems co-written by grandfather Ron Miller, including a new montage video for which he has, well, cloned himself. (Click on the link near the bottom of this article to see what I mean. It’s quite wonderful.)

Interview: Lisa Dawn Miller Of FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE At 54 Below     

Lisa Dawn Miller co-produces the carefully curated project with Robert W. Schneider, a 54 Below mainstay. Asked for a comment, he says, “This evening will celebrate the one and only Maestro of Motown, Ron Miller, a songwriter who not only entertained audiences for over fifty years, but, through his music, provided a voice for the voiceless, infused joy into our hearts, and defined an entire generation through his music. It is my honor to celebrate his legacy with a group of artists who were so inspired by Mr. Miller that they now come together to tell his story through these powerful songs.” 

(Here's Ron Miller & Diana Ross who sang his touching words to "Touch Me in the Morning")

Interview: Lisa Dawn Miller Of FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE At 54 Below

Expect more than just a ride of the nostalgia train traveling through Motown. I’ve been privy to some of the little-known, should-be-knowns, and have been intrigued by his under-the-radar musical theatre projects that didn’t get to their intended finish lines, ever since I found out that a Ron Miller/Tom Baird song on albums of Barbra Streisand, Shirley Bassey, and Vikki Carr – “I’ve Never Been a Woman Before” —  is from a musical version of Bus Stop called Cherry.

It hasn’t been easy, with researching and recovering repertoire and rights and royalties – a royal pain — and dealing with legalities and old contracts and new contacts, but Lisa Dawn Miller has made it her mission to be the keeper of the flame and is ablaze with energy and passion. The old songs will thrive and be kept alive, and the ones very few have heard will be heard. I was happy to sit down with her recently and learn more. Here is part of our conversation: 

Interview: Lisa Dawn Miller Of FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE At 54 Below

RL:  I'm sure singing songs your father co-wrote and hearing others do them can be emotional. Are there a couple that are especially emotional for you —and your audience, possibly — because of the content, history, who is singing with a special connection, or a new perspective because of the passage of time? 

LDM:  My father wrote a song called “I Can See” on spec for a possible musical about Betty Boop. It is being performed by the talented Gabbie Ballesteros in our show at 54 Below. It’s a song of hope. It touches me because, despite all the challenges my father faced in his life, he remained hopeful – always. It was his guiding force that can be found in everything he wrote – even the sad songs. The great depth of love is so profoundly powerful, it moves me to tears. Part of the lyric goes: “I know it sounds naïve/ But, damn it – I believe/ There’s still some love inside of you and me./ I love the world that I can see.” Even saying that stirs emotion in me because no matter how many challenges life may throw my way, love and hope are always the answer. Always. My son, Oliver Richman, recorded it when he was a child. Just before he turned 18 and was about to leave Los Angeles to go off to college at NYU, I asked him to record it again – this time as a young adult. As a parent, you wonder what wisdom you can offer to your children, knowing they must go off to experience life’s triumphs and challenges for themselves. And this is what I wanted my son –and now my daughter–  to know as they set off on their own journeys through life, especially when the day comes when I am no longer here to remind them. My parents shared this with me, and I am blessed that I can now share it with my own children. It sounds simple and maybe even a little sappy but it’s what has always guided everything in my life. 

Interview: Lisa Dawn Miller Of FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE At 54 Below

RL:  That brings to mind a favorite of mine about wanting to protect and guide someone, “If I Could” [Ron Miller, Ken Hirsch, Marti Sharron], that includes the lines “If I could, I would try to shield your innocence from time” and “I’ll watch you grow/ So I can let you go.” It’s been recorded by Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Nancy Wilson, Ray Charles, Marilyn Michaels — and you, on your own CD, Fly Away.  Many good songs just come and go, quickly, after their initial popularity, and don’t get covered by many singers, despite being a big hit for one artist. “For Once in My Life” certainly has staying power. What do you think it is about that one that has made it appeal to so many performers working in different styles for so many years and resonate with listeners?

LDM:  I think my father understood that “For once in my life I have someone who needs me, someone I’ve needed so long” is something someone could have felt 100 years ago or 100 years from now. It’s timeless. I think so many of the songs that come and go are more about production and less about composition. One of my father’s gifts was understanding what the music spoke to him so he could marry the perfect lyric to it; that’s why he never let anyone write to his lyrics — but, rather, he always insisted on having the music first. When you have timeless lyrics and a memorable piece of music, it transcends time. This is also why I believe so much in all the other songs my dad wrote that haven’t been released, yet. Even though he wrote them decades ago, they’re still going to resonate because they are about the things we feel,… today, yesterday, and tomorrow – written in such a poetic way, we can’t help but be moved by it. Merv Griffin once asked my dad, “How do you tune into what’s happening or what’s popular at the moment?” My dad responded, “I don’t. I try to tune into what people feel… timeless emotion.” 

Interview: Lisa Dawn Miller Of FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE At 54 Below

[Above: Lisa’s parents, Ron and Aurora]
RL: For the casual music fans who are more aware of who recorded songs they like, rather than who WROTE them, what do you think will surprise them when they're exposed to the material in this show --- how many songs they recognize BUT didn't know they all had the same lyricist? Or the variety of styles and content, beyond the most famous hits associated with Motown?

LDM: Both. They are surprised by how deeply they are moved and inspired. But what surprises me when we sing Ron Miller is how many people find my dad’s unknown songs to be amongst their “new” favorites after they’ve heard them. Also, many people don’t know that there is intro music for “For Once in My Life.” My father loved verses and wrote one for almost every song, even though they were often not recorded. Orlando Murden, the composer collaborator, was not available when my dad needed the verse music, so he asked my mom to write it and she did! When he was 14 years old, my son Oliver recorded it, with the verse, to commemorate its 50th Anniversary.

RL:  What’s the backstory of that classic?

LDM:  It was written for my sister, Angel. While that is a true and beautiful fact, there’s more to it.  My mother told me that one night my father was out, drunk at a club. She called their friend Orlando Murden and said, “Orlando, you must come and help me sober Ronnie up! If you do, I’ll make your favorite: Filipino chicken!” It worked! Orlando and my mom sobered up my father, they all enjoyed that wonderful Filipino chicken dinner, and then he wrote the lyric. So the truth is that one of the most romantic songs of all time was written because of Filipino chicken!.

Interview: Lisa Dawn Miller Of FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE At 54 Below

[Above: Ron Miller with Tony Bennett, one of the many who recorded “For Once in My Life”]
RL:  We can relate to a song because we've been through the feelings or experiences they project, whether the lyricist was writing from an autobiographical outpouring or not. But our appreciation can be increased in a different way if we learn what inspired the song lyrics. Can you share an example when that was the case?  

LDM:  His biggest hits were always written during moments of inspiration. My father said that after President Kennedy was assassinated, he was on the Motown lawn in Detroit with a then-very-young Stevie Wonder [pictured below].  Stevie said to him, “I’m glad I’m blind.” When my dad asked why, Stevie replied, “Because I see the world the way I want to see it.” My father said he was so inspired that he went home and wrote what would become his first hit, “A Place in the Sun.” 

Interview: Lisa Dawn Miller Of FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE At 54 Below

RL: And what a nice nod to history that you’ve been able to bring Bryan Wells, the composer for that great hit and “Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday,” to be at the piano in the show with you at 54 Below on October 8th. I know Ron Miller sometimes wrote the melody, too, but who was the first person to write songs with him?

LDM: My mom was my father’s first collaborator and his last. They had met as children in Chicago in the 1930s. He walked her to school every day from kindergarten to high school. They then went off on their own journeys, only to be reunited later in life, marry, have children and both sign record deals with Motown. They co-wrote “Everyone’s a Kid at Christmas Time” which was recorded by Stevie Wonder, plus a lot of material for musical theatre, with shows that I hope to resurrect someday including Androcles and the Lion. And they also performed together. My mother had a beautiful soprano voice, and my father had a wonderfully low voice. She also composed the music for his very last song, “Come Share Yourself With Me.”

RL: Well, thank you for sharing yourself and your thoughts, time, memories, and information with us.  

FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE SHOW will play 54 BELOW on October 8th at 9:30; for detailed information and reservations click HERE and for the live stream click HERE.

For Lisa Dawn Miller’s website, click HERE 

For Oliver Richman’s brand new tribute to his grandfather’s songs, click HERE

Interview: Lisa Dawn Miller Of FOR ONCE IN MY LIFE At 54 Below

All photos courtesy of Lisa Dawn Miller