Remembering Jack Miller
Jack Miller was born on Christmas Eve, 1932 into a musical family. His father Bernard played banjo, his mother Dorothy sang; music was part of the Miller family’s everyday life in Chicago.
Like his parents, Jack loved music, playing the coronet and piano. But performing was not the relationship Jack would develop with music; recording it became the passion of his life. His father recognized Jack’s interest when he was very young and purchased a disc recorder for him. At the age of eight, Jack began recording everything around him on acetate discs.
When Jack was 10, his brother Bill was born; two years later his sister Lynn arrived.
While in high school, Jack and some friends, notably Dale Blackwell who later worked as an engineer/designer for microphone manufacturer Electro-Voice, started a recording studio in Jack’s basement. They built their own equipment and recorded anyone who would sing or play for them. Jack remained close friends with these early partners for the rest of his life.
In 1957, when the engineer for Floyd Ramsey’s small recording studio left, Jack asked for the job, but owner Ramsey said he wasn’t ready to hire a replacement. Jack responded that if he got the job, an Ampex 350 recorder, which was better than anything in the studio, would come along with him. Ramsey told Jack he would start in a week.
In the 1950s two studios operated in Phoenix, Ramsey’s and Arizona Recording Productions, owned by Ray and Mary Boley, who once tried to hire Jack away from Ramsey’s. (In 1951, the Boleys founded Canyon Records where Jack would have his last professional home forty years later.)
Jack worked on many recordings for Ramsey’s two labels, Liberty Bell and Old Timer Records, which had a catalog of successful square dance records. Later, Jack would help launch Ramco Records.
Prior to Jack’s arrival, Ramsey’s studio achieved Billboard Chart prominence with “The Fool” by Sanford Clark and written and produced by Lee Hazlewood. Reverb in the late 1950s was a chancy affair as equipment to replicate the effect had yet to be developed, but Hazlewood wanted a strong echo on Clark’s voice for “The Fool” and setup an empty, 2,100 gallon tank to create reverb by playing a speaker at one end with a microphone inside at the other. However, when Jack first heard the echo he felt it wasn’t satisfactory and discovered, by placing the microphone in an enclosure just outside the tank, that he could finally create a musically effective reverb.
This tank echo gave the music a new and fresh quality and shaped a style known as the “Phoenix Sound,” as Phoenix became a leading site for the hottest music of the day. In the late 1950s, hit after hit came out of Ramsey’s and Jack, as sole engineer, recorded up to 14 hours a day as producers wanted the Ramsey/Miller magic on their recordings.
Jack also recorded using an innovative 3-track Ampex 300-3, which allowed for stereo overdubs. (Decades later, Jack loaned the 3-track to the Musical Instrument Museum for an Arizona music display and recently, thanks to the generosity of Gretchen Miller, the Ampex is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.)
At Ramsey’s Jack also recorded a very young Wayne Newton whose family lived nearby. Newton’s parents brought the young singer to record demos with Jack , and because the parents were obviously of modest means, Jack felt badly taking their money. Nonetheless, another major pop star started his career with Jack.
In 1963, a good friend of Jack’s, Niblack Thorne (the principal owner of Montgomery Wards), offered to become partners with Jack in a new studio, Audio Recorders. Never forgetting a friend, Jack suggested that instead of becoming competition to Floyd Ramsey, they include him in the project. Together the trio developed and built a large recording facility at 3830 North 7th Street. The first items purchased were, naturally, given Jack’s interest in and facility with microphones, state of the art microphones. However, Jack’s career suddenly took an unexpected turn.
In 1965 Jack was invited to Los Angeles to audition for RCA Records. Waylon Jennings had left Phoenix earlier for RCA and was asked who did his recordings. Duane Eddy also went to RCA and was asked the same question. RCA called Jack when they discovered he had also recorded Eddy. The manager of the RCA studio, Charlie Pruzansky, invited Jack to have lunch with Henry Mancini, who loved Jack’s work on Ray Sharpe’s “Red Sails in the Sunset.” Mancini encouraged Pruzansky to hire Jack.
Mancini regularly requested Jack to work on the post-production of his recordings. Jack worked a full gamut of projects, such as music theater actor Anthony Newley with full orchestra, numerous jazz recordings, soundtracks for Battle of the Bulge, How the West Was Won and even the theme song for the Batman TV show. Jack worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Ed Ames, and Carmen Dragon. Jack became known for his ability with choral groups such as the Johnny Mann Singers, Anita Kerr, and the Hi-Lo’s, and was colleague to legendary engineer/producers John B. Norman and Al Schmitt.
Jack’s greatest pleasure was working with the artists of “The Wrecking Crew,” the nickname for a diverse group of highly talented session players who were the true musicians for recordings by the Beach Boys and the Monkees. Wrecking Crew members Jack worked with included drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer, guitarists Glen Campbell and Al Casey (another Ramsey’s alumnus) and bassist Carol Kaye. But two years of the round-the-clock schedule that a major label could demand was more than enough for Jack; he returned to Phoenix and Audio Recorders.
When Jack brought his formidable talent back to Phoenix, the era of hits-making was over. Artists, with their bands, such as Duane Eddy, Waylon Jennings, Lee Hazlewood, had moved to Los Angeles, attracted by the resources available there that could lift their careers to greater heights. Competition increased for Audio Recorders as new studios opened, or talented artists made the shift to LA or Nashville much quicker.
Critically, the focus of recording moved from live recording which required musicians performing in the same room cohesively as an artistic team to the newer techniques of extensive multi-tracking and overdubbing of individual players. Bands also moved away from well-rehearsed, quick recording sessions to sessions, which, because of the constant overdubbing and multi-tracking, demanded long hours and through the night work (many artists of the era adopted the illusion that this way of working was productive to recording).
At Audio Recorders Jack recorded an artist of note. Dolan Ellis, a former member of the Grammy®-winning Christy Minstrels, made his first recording with Jack. Ellis became an important figure in Arizona cultural history, receiving the appellation “Arizona State’s Official Balladeer” in 1966, establishing the Arizona Folklore Preserve, and still actively performing today.
In 1978 Jack decided to leave Audio Recorders to establish Jack Miller Productions in partnership with prominent local voice talent Frank Sprague in an old house at First Street and East Willetta in central Phoenix. where they mainly produced commercials for radio and television. Jack Miller Productions moved to a larger, more modern operation at 828 North 3rd Avenue and Jack eventually bought out Sprague’s interest in the company. Jack continued to produce commercials, voice-overs and industrial work. His clients were banks, shopping mails, car dealers, and local businesses. Despite the tighter focus of his studio, Jack’s interest in the latest technology never waned and Jack Miller Productions was one of the first studios in Phoenix to acquire the latest and very expensive digital recording system developed by Sony.
Around 1980, joining his corporate and organizational clients was a local independent record company, Canyon Records, which began using Jack though his studio was more suited to voice-over work than music. Ray and Mary Boley had sold their film business, Canyon Films, and recording operation in the early 1970s and focused full time on their record label, which specialized in Native American music. However, Jack was only one of the studios Canyon engaged as his fee was twice the average hourly cost for Phoenix studio time.
In 1987, Jack made his first recording with Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai, “Earth Spirit.” Nakai’s first recordings, which he produced himself and recorded at different studios had sold well, but Canyon Records wanted Nakai’s newest album to be recorded by the best in town, no matter the hourly cost. “Earth Spirit,” and the next three recorded by Jack, “Canyon Trilogy,” “Carry the Gift” (with William Eaton) and “Emergence” respectively sold 600,000, 1,100,000, 250,000, and 300,000 units. It was no accident or a quirk of the marketplace, that these four albums, totaling 2,250,000 units sold, were recorded by Jack Miller.
In 1992, Canyon began bringing all their Native American recordings to Jack, no matter the market potential. Quickly, with Jack regularly at the board, the label developed a reputation for major label recording quality that was consistent, and always focused on and enhanced the artists’ performances, qualities that had always defined Jack’s work.
For Canyon Records, Jack’s influence was as much cultural as it was commercial. While he brought greater production value to genres like pow-wow, Native American Church songs and traditional music, it was his work for the Native American flute where Jack had his most profound influence.
When Nakai began releasing recordings in 1983, only a handful of flute players were actively performing. Nakai brought a smoother, more attractive sound to the flute and found new audiences for the traditional flute. However, it wasn’t until Jack began recording Nakai that the sound of the Native American flute was exponentially enjoyed by more people. One of the surprising outcomes of reaching significantly larger audiences has been the number of people, most non-Native, who have taken up the flute; thousands of flutes are sold every year with most of these new performers inspired by the musical experience of Nakai and Jack’s collaboration.
In 1995, Jack joined Channel 3-TV at its new location at 5555 North 7th Avenue where he moved into a studio capable of handling music groups; he also had access to the station’s very large sound stage. Jack continued to work for clients outside Channel 3 and one notable production was for Canyon Records when Jack recorded the Phoenix Symphony with the pow-wow group Black Lodge; the first time pow-wow singers and symphony had been recorded together.
Jack’s time at Channel 3 was short as the station was sold in 1999 and Jack was forced to move. Fortunately, the previous year, Canyon Records purchased a building at 3131 West Clarendon Avenue, and offered to build a studio for Jack to his specifications. In May 2001, Jack’s new studio, which included over 900 square feet of recording space, opened and he joined the Canyon family, becoming an integral part of the record company’s operation beyond recording services. Jack’s work for outside clients continued as did many sessions for which he didn’t charge.
In 2001, Jack received a Grammy® for engineering “Bless The People,” winner of the Best Native American Music Album. Jack’s Grammy® joined the Gold Records he received for “Earth Spirit” and “Canyon Trilogy.” Jack would also be inducted into the Arizona Music & Entertainment Hall of Fame and the Arizona Broadcaster’s Hall of Fame (where his brother Bill was already an inductee).
However, as Jack entered his late 70s his health deteriorated and it became harder for him to summon the needed energy for recording. In the summer of 2014, Jack finished his last recording for Canyon Records and “retired,” though he continued to record the annual Arizona Jazz Festival through 2015 (he was assisted in his last years by sons Troy and Mike).
Jack’s health continued to fade until he passed peacefully on May 12, 2016 with his wife Gretchen, brother Bill and other family, and friends by his side.
From building recording equipment in his parents’ basement as a teenager, to helping launch major commercial stars like Duane Eddy, Waylon Jennings, and Wayne Newton, to working at the highest levels of the music industry, to influencing and shaping the musical cultures of Native Americans from Mexico to Canada and the musical expressions of tens of thousands of non-Natives, to his seventy-year love affair with the art, craft, and science of gracefully capturing, transforming, and affixing fleeting sound in ways that allowed listeners to enjoy it over and over again and share their experience with others, Jack Miller showed, and will continue to show us in the fruit of his life’s work, how passion forms a legacy that touches, transforms, through the mysterious, magical power of music, millions.