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Al Miller 1927-1936

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Album Review

Even though mandolinist Al Miller should really be counted among the pioneers of Western swing, his blend of country dance and hokum blues seems to have pushed him to the periphery of historic music appreciation circles. Indeed, were it not for Document's handsome complete edition of 1995, Miller's recorded legacy would have receded to a position even further off of most peoples' cultural radar. His earliest-known records were cut in Chicago on July 15, 1927 and issued on the now-legendary Black Patti label. "I Found a Four-Leaf Clover" sounds like a precedent for Emmett Miller & His Georgia Crackers, largely because Al's voice was similarly pitched. The main difference is that Emmett Miller liked to yodel — his direct descendant appears to have been Hank Williams. The instrumental "Saturday Night Hymn" is a fine example of a whimsical blues played on mandolin, and was originally pressed with a title by Kid Brown & His Blue Band on the flip side. A little over 80 years after it was released, one of the few copies of this platter known to exist was being offered on the rare record circuit for more than $4,400.00. Although in many ways "Saturday Night Hymn" might be the very best recording this artist ever made, the CD is considerably more affordable and provides an additional 25 songs. One of the few individuals even tentatively identified in the discography is a guitarist with the surname Rodgers, and "I Would If I Could" was released on Paramount as by Miller and Rodgers. In February 1929 Miller began making records in a style that aimed to please the growing audience for Chicago's increasingly popular hokum blues. Miller's lasting achievement as a composer was a raunchy number with the attention-getting title "Somebody's Been Using That Thing." He recorded it five times, and the three issued takes are sprinkled throughout this album. In June 1934 Tampa Red cut a rowdy cover version for Bluebird that worked well for Tampa without, it seems, doing very much for Miller, who had frankly based much of his acquired hokum technique on records by Tampa Red, Georgia Tom, and a group specifically billed as the Hokum Boys.

The hokum formula demanded a full range of smutty lyrics laid over simple bluesy melodies that anybody could sing along with. One of hokum's major exponents was Tampa's cohort Lovin' Sam Theard. In March 1929 the second version of "Somebody's Been Using That Thing" was waxed by Al Miller & His Market Street Boys, which was nothing more than Miller and Rodgers with pianist Frank Melrose sitting in. There are 13 additional recordings from 1929 that use the same instrumentation with no one except Miller identified. Much of the material was directed at a Prohibition-era audience looking for naughty good-time music to listen to while partying with friends. Titles like "I Found Your Key-Hole," "It Ain't Killed Nobody Yet," "Gimme a Li'l Taste," and "That Stuff Ain't No Good" are typical of this mini-genre's hedonistic fixations. "Thirty First and State," with open references to prostitution, is one of several tunes inspired by the fast life on Chicago's South Side. "Let Me Put My Shoes Under Your Bed," on the other hand, is a nicely phrased love song, similar to what mild-mannered Ollie Shepard like to sing during the late '30s and early ‘40s. This collection and Al Miller's primary discography close with four sides cut for Decca in February 1936. Billed as Al Miller & His Swing Stompers, the group consisted of Miller, now apparently handling a guitar; an unidentified string bassist; pianist Cripple Clarence Lofton; and a frowsy clarinetist named Odell Rand, who did most of his recording with the Chicago-based Harlem Hamfats. Further instances of Al Miller's artistry may be found among the discographies of Lofton and vocalists Mozelle Alderson, Luella Miller, and Red Nelson Wilborn, as well as King Mutt & His Tennessee Thumpers.


Genre: Blues

Years Active: '20s, '30s

Mandolinist Al Miller played and sang in a style that combined elements of country, blues and jazz in a blend that was more common back in the day than many record collectors, critics and pigeon-holing historians seem ever to have found acceptable, although he certainly did his part to pave the way for a genre-blending development known as western swing. During the years 1927-1936 Miller cut more than two dozen titles under his own name, and sat in with pianist Cripple Clarence Lofton and singers...
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Al Miller 1927-1936, Al Miller
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