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Pianist Bill Miller, 91; Framed Sinatra's Songs With Elegance

Bill Miller with Frank Sinatra Jr. during a tour stop in Atlantic City in June. Miller was best known for his pensive introduction to the elder Sinatra's torch song
Bill Miller with Frank Sinatra Jr. during a tour stop in Atlantic City in June. Miller was best known for his pensive introduction to the elder Sinatra's torch song "One for My Baby." He was Sinatra's pianist for almost four decades. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

By the late 1930s, he was part of two of the more advanced ensembles of the day, a small group led by vibraphonist Red Norvo and singer Mildred Bailey and a big band directed by Charlie Barnet. Mr. Miller also performed with bandleaders Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman.

He first met Sinatra in 1941, but they didn't join forces until November 1951, when they were both appearing in Las Vegas. The early years, when Sinatra was struggling with his voice and his turbulent marriage to Ava Gardner, were often difficult.

"If things went well, he was easy," Mr. Miller said. "If things weren't going well, it didn't matter whether he was right or wrong -- you were wrong."

Beginning in 1953, Sinatra made a series of recordings for Capitol Records that marked his artistic apex and remain classics of American music. Mr. Miller was the pianist on virtually every song.

Because Sinatra did not read music, he relied on Mr. Miller to convey his directions to conductors and other musicians. When the singer appeared with other groups, such as the Count Basie Orchestra, Mr. Miller often took over the piano chair.

An inveterate night owl, Mr. Miller had a pallid complexion that led Sinatra to introduce him onstage as Suntan Charlie. Over time their musical partnership deepened into genuine friendship.

"I was allowed to get closer to him than most people," Mr. Miller said. "After work, he liked to have a drink or two, and I like to have a drink or two, so we would hang out and talk about whatever was happening -- weather, current events, the things guys usually talk about."

But in 1978, after 27 years with Sinatra, Mr. Miller was abruptly dismissed.

"I'm not even sure about what caused the split," he said. "I was away for almost seven years. But then, all of a sudden, I found myself invited back to the piano."

Six months after Sinatra died in 1998, Frank Sinatra Jr. brought Mr. Miller out of retirement. He had to be helped to the piano from a wheelchair, but he remained musically and mentally alert to the end and performed on the younger Sinatra's new album.

"He was the greatest living authority on Frank Sinatra music," Sinatra Jr. told Variety magazine.

In November 1964, Mr. Miller's hillside home in Burbank, Calif., was destroyed in a mudslide. He was rescued from the hood of his car, but his wife, Aimee, was swept away and died. Sinatra identified her body at the morgue.

"Frank said, 'If it's any consolation, there wasn't a mark on her,' " Mr. Miller recently told The Post. "It wasn't any consolation."

He never remarried. His survivors include a daughter and a grandson.


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