Pianist Bill Miller, 91; Framed Sinatra's Songs With Elegance
Sunday, July 16, 2006
Bill Miller, the pianist whose light touch set the mood for many of Frank Sinatra's most memorable songs, died July 11 at Montreal General Hospital at the age of 91. He had a heart attack after breaking his hip July 1 while on tour with Frank Sinatra Jr.
Mr. Miller was the elder Sinatra's elegant, steady and often inspired accompanist for nearly four decades and was one of the privileged few allowed into the singer's inner circle. For the past eight years, he had worked with Sinatra's son.
Mr. Miller, content to toil in the shadows for much of his career, provided the musical framework for some of the elder Sinatra's finest performances. He was best known for his pensive introduction to the torch song "One for My Baby," written by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer. Sinatra recorded the tune in 1958 and sang it in almost every concert until he stopped performing in 1995.
Mr. Miller's unhurried piano line sets the mournful tone for the heartsick ballad, with its haunting opening lyric: "It's quarter to three, there's no one in the place except you and me."
Both casual and responsive, Mr. Miller's piano part was the perfect foil for Sinatra's confessional storytelling in song.
"He plays undulating chords in the background with a peculiar mixture of empathy and detachment," Robert Cushman wrote in 1998 in the British newspaper the Independent. "He also offers a comment on the song and the man who sings it; he's the man who's heard it all before."
Mr. Miller said he originally improvised the introductory passage while playing the song in a nightclub. Sinatra liked what he heard and asked his arranger, Nelson Riddle, to build the rest of the musical score around the piano part.
"Once I figured out what I was going to do, we kept it that way," Mr. Miller told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. "Even now, when I play it, it's only with minor variations, because Frank is used to it a certain way, and it works. So why not leave it alone?"
Mr. Miller's piano was seldom featured as prominently in other tunes, but it helped shape the rhythmic backdrop for dozens of Sinatra's hits from the 1950s to the 1970s, including "Fly Me to the Moon," "You Make Me Feel So Young," "The Lady Is a Tramp," "It Was a Very Good Year" and "My Way."
"Bill's talent is quiet but always there," Sinatra once said.
In a story published last week in The Washington Post, Frank Sinatra Jr. said, "He's the greatest singer's pianist there ever was."
Mr. Miller was born Feb. 3, 1915, in Brooklyn, N.Y., and was 10 months older than Sinatra, whom he would later call "the old man."