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

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."

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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