By Charles Wolfe
There are dozens of unsung heroes in the annals of country music; some are instrumentalists, like the legendary Georgia fiddler Joe Lee, who introduced the “long bow” style to greats like Clayton McMichen; some are songwriters, like the gospel singer Grady Cole, who wrote Tramp on the Street; others were promoters and radio personalities like the late Eddie Hill, who helped introduce the music of the Louvin Brothers to a wide audience. But one of the most unsung, and one of the most mysterious, was a remarkable blackface comedian and singer named Emmett Miller. He flourished in the 1920s and 1930s, made a handful of records and left an indelible impression on several generations of major country singers.
How major? Try Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills and Tommy Duncan, The Callahan Brothers, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard. Hank Williams had Miller’s old 78s in his personal record collection; Merle Haggard dedicated his I Love Dixie Blues album to Miller. What kind of musician could inspire such a wide variety of imitators? Miller’s story is as fascinating as his music.
Until recently, only bits and pieces of Miller’s story had been known, and several of his earliest records are so rare that no copies are even known to survive. Miller himself died before historians could interview him, and it is doubtful that he even knew the extent of his influence on modern country music. He left behind, though, a number of friends and colleagues who remembered him and kept scrapbooks. Best of all, one of them preserved a “self interview” that Miller did in the 1940’s — a script he gave to local radio announcers when he was doing personal appearances in the area. In it, Miller describes himself and his partner as minstrel men. And it was this tradition, not folk music or blues or country music, that gave Miller his start.
We now know that Emmett Miller was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1903. In 1919, when he was only 16, he started performing as a blackface comic with a well known minstrel troupe headed by Dan Fitch. By·1924 about the time the record companies were starting to sign their first country singers, Miller had made it to New York. Here he starred on the big time vaudeville stage with singer Cliff Edwards (later to become famous as the singing voice of Disney’s Jiminy Crickett) and the comedy team of Smith and Dale. By now Miller had developed his famous singing style; it included the trick of breaking into falsetto in the middle of a word, or even a spoken sentence, recognized today in the later “blue yodels” of Jimmie Rodgers. Through Cliff Edwards’ connections with the New York recording companies, Miller made his first recordings, for Okeh, in 1924. These included Miller’s then-current hit, Anytime, the old pop song that would later become a country standard when done by Eddy Arnold in 1947.
In 1925 Miller and his partner, Turk McBee, relocated in Asheville, North Carolina; here they worked in clubs and amazed some of the local country singers. The Callahan Brothers, Bill and Joe, heard Miller and based their first record hit, St. Louis Blues, on his arrangement. McBee attests that Miller met Jimmie Rodgers (McBee called him “that damn hillbilly Jimmie Rodgers”) in Asheville, and claims Rodgers also learned a lot from Miller’s singing. In the summer of 1925, Ralph Peer, on one of his first field trips south to find talent, did a session of country musicians in the hotel in Asheville. Miller did four numbers here, including his first recording of another one of his favorites, Lovesick Blues. It was not the very first record of the piece, but it was the first to use the famous falsetto breaks in the opening line that Hank Williams would later copy.
By 1927 Miller was back in New York. According to his friends, he never considered himself a country singer, and though he could play the guitar a little, most of his shows he did with either a jazzy piano back-up or with a Dixieland jazz band. By 1927, he was very well known throughout the South’s theater circuit, and was the headliner for the Al G. Field show.
The year 1928 saw a flurry of activity, with Miller starting to record in earnest for Okeh; usually he was backed by a studio jazz-band (often the same one that backed Cliff Edwards) which Miller called The Georgia Crackers. Personnel often included later stars like trombonist Tommy Dorsey, drummer Gene Krupa and guitarist Eddie Lang. He did new versions of his two big hits, Lovesick Blues and Anytime, but added versions of St. Louis Blues and I Ain’t Got Nobody, with its famous descending falsetto on the opening word. In the following year, 1929, Miller did three other songs that became country standards: Right or Wrong, which Western swing singers soon adopted), Big Bad Bill Is Sweet William Now (which Merle Haggard later redid) and The Blues Singer from ‘Alabam’. Occasionally the Okeh producers tried to get him to do a slow ballad, but he resisted. All told, Miller cut some 28 sides of music, plus comedy skits.
Down in Ft. Worth, young Bob Wills painstakingly copied off the words to many of the Miller records and added the songs to his repertoire. When he hired Tommy Duncan, Wills tested him by asking him to sing Miller’s version of I Ain’t Got Nobody. Over in Alabama, singer Rex Griffin watched Miller do a live show at a club, and then adapted Lovesick Blues to his own style, recording it for Decca in 1935. This recording, along with Miller’s original, inspired Hank Williams to do his version in 1949. And, of course, Jimmie Rodgers used Millet’s falsetto style, now dubbed “blue yodeling,” throughout the late 1920’s on many records.
In the meantime, what had happened to Miller? In spite of radio and movies, he remained convinced that vaudeville was not dead, and he kept at it. He did a final commercial session for Bluebird in 1936, and then spent his time booking his own and other shows in the Carolinas. In 1949, Miller took to the road with what he called “the last great minstrel show,” “Dixieana.” The tour led to a Hollywood film called Yes, Sir, Mr. Bones (1951), a remarkable collection of old vaudeville acts, including Miller. The film flopped, and soon Miller was back on the club circuit, working with a pianist named Mack McWhorter.
One memorable week they found themselves playing in Printer’s Alley, Nashville’s old nightclub district, and singing Emmett’s Lovesick Blues for a few inebriated patrons. Just a few blocks down the street, in the Ryman Auditorium, Hank Williams was bringing the crowd to its feet again while he did another encore of Lovesick Blues.
Used by permission of Mary Dean Wolfe.