Frankie Miller is a name that few are familiar with beyond a freak hit single with a cover of a song he wasn’t that fussed with, and an undeserved reputation of being a second-tier white-soul vocalist.
Having cut his teeth in short lived bands The Stoics and Jude, two acts that were both signed to Chrysalis Records, Glasgow born Miller remained with Chrysalis for his debut album, Once in a Blue Moon where he was ably backed by pub-rockers Brinsley Schwarz. A mix of originals and covers, it made the most of Miller’s raw soul-flecked vocals with Brinsley Schwarz providing solid and dependably unfussy backing. Despite it being relatively obscure, over the last decade Once in a Blue Moon has been plundered for soundtracks such as Life on Mars and Johnny Depp film The Rum Diary which has introduced a whole new generation to Miller’s work.
Despite Once in a Blue Moon being commercially unsuccessful, a copy of it found its way into the hands of Allen Toussaint (stories vary as to whether it was Frankie Miller himself that sent it to him or not), who invited Miller across to New Orleans for recording sessions that would result in the album High Life. A mix of material penned by Miller, some Toussaint originals and a few cover versions, High Life was considerably more soulful than Once in a Blue Moon and found Miller backed by a crack horn section and some of the finest backing vocalists in the business. On hearing the results, Chrysalis took it upon themselves to remix it without the agreement of either Miller or Toussaint, resulting in an album which sounded considerably more mainstream, but lacking much of the heart and soul of the original mixes. Regardless of this High Life was a critical success and listening to the mixes released at the time, it’s a genuine surprise that it registered negligible sales.
The record companies needless meddling in the production of High Life and it’s subsequent commercial failure must have bitten both Toussaint and Miller hard, as they didn’t work together again. Miller pressed on, forming the Frankie Miller Band, who boasted former members of Wings and The Grease Band among their number. Their one album together was 1975’s The Rock, recorded in the shadow of Alcatraz and perhaps lacking the bounce and optimism of High Life. It’s an album that’s certainly darker in tone, though it retains the brass-backed sound of it’s predecessor, as well as the top-draw backing vocalists. It’s a testament to Miller’s vocal prowess that he doesn’t sound at all out of place or outclassed by the band he had at his disposal on this album.
It wasn’t until 1977 that Miller released another album, but Full House is among his very best, blending his roots soul with rocking arrangements and backed by a fresh horn section and backing vocalists. Listening back to it now, it’s the Frankie Miller album that’s the most accessible to anyone new to his work, while still allowing him to demonstrate his range as a songwriter, performer and translator of others work (Miller’s cover of “Jealous Guy” was reportedly among John Lennon’s favourites). Full House has aged well over the last thirty six years and is perhaps the most definitive of all his albums.
1978’s Double Trouble found Miller making a concerted effort on cracking America and as such is perhaps the most straight forward rock album of his career, boasting backing vocals from Aerosmith’s Steve Tyler, a glossy production job that flirted on the edges of AOR and slightly cheesy artwork. For the rock fan, this is the Frankie Miller album to go for, though it is very of its time.
In late 1978, Miller finally scored a tope ten hit single with “Darlin’”. Ironically Miller himself was not fond of the song, despite it being his best known release. “Darlin’” could be found on 1979’s Falling in Love album, which found Miller at his most ‘pop’ (indeed it is the only one of his albums that ever charted – it got to a lofty 54 in the UK album charts), though it does contain a number of hidden gems which indicated that, while Miller never enjoyed the commercial success he deserved, he continued to write and record fine material and was well on the way to producing a back catalogue of fine albums for future generations to discover.
Released in 1980, Easy Money could be heard as a continuation of Falling in Love, with a contemporary production job (i.e. sprinkled with some over-powering and ungainly synthesisers). It was solid enough, but again failed to make an impact on the charts and as a result what little commercial traction “Darlin’” had given Miller was lost. A little while after the release of Easy Money, Frankie Miller finally parted ways with the Chrysalis label.
Miller would release two more albums in the 80s and enjoyed a minor hit single in the early 90s. By 1994 Frankie Miller seemed poise for a comeback, with talk of him forming a band with Joe Walsh of Eagles fame. This would not come to pass however, as Miller was tragically struck with brain haemorrhage, which would leave in a coma for several months and lead him to lose the power of speech which he has yet to regain.
Miller is still with us, and there seems to have been resurgence of interest in his work in recent years. This culminated in the release of a box set of his seven Chrysalis era albums in 2011, which saw the original Allen Toussaint mix of High Life made available for the first time, alongside the long available version. The Toussaint version of High Life was a revelation and it competes with Full House as Miller’s most compelling album, vindicating Miller and Toussaint’s disappointment at Chrysalis in 1974 and raising questions as to how much more commercial success Miller may have seen had his record label had a little more faith in him and had he been able to build a consistent band around him.
For too long Miller has suffered comparisons to the likes of Paul Rodgers and Rod Stewart (both friends and supporters of Miller), when in truth he never suffered the significant commercial highs or artistic lows of either and always remained a well respected figure by his contemporaries. His back catalogue, particularly the seven albums released between 1973 and 1980, is rarely celebrated by the popular music press, but for those in the know Frankie Miller’s music remains a thing of wonder.