Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The End of a (Not-So) Brief Episode

I was going to remark on Will Haygood's recent essay on Frank Sinatra Jr. in the Washington Post, which captures well the fortune and misfortune of being the Chairman's son (from a singing career point of view). Then, last week, the elder Sinatra's long-time pianist, Bill Miller, died at the age of 91. Haygood interviewed Miller and relates this anecdote about him and his relationship with ol' Blue Eyes:

The pianist was born in 1915. He's slim and the body is bent. The bent body looks almost courageous, as if he's been pummeling things mortals can't see. His fingers are long and pink and elegant. He likes a little vodka in the evenings. He likes Key lime pie. He's never done his own album. "It never came about," he says. "It's a little late now. But"--and he lifts a hand like a bird's wing rising slowly up from a nest--"who knows?"

His piano on the potent Sinatra number "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" is considered classic. "That was an accident, really," Miller says. "We did the recording after two or three takes. You just hope for the best. I got lucky with that."

During a time of great romantic ballads, Bill Miller found love with a woman by the name of Aimee. They married, and sometimes she would join him on the road. Her love, his piano: Life was sweet. In 1964, they were living in California with their small daughter when a rain-soaked mountainside gave way, unleashing a torrent of mud and water. The family was separated. Miller's daughter somehow made it safely to the top of a hill. Bill was washed away in the debris, found clinging to a car at the end of a road.

They found Aimee the second night. Bill looked up from his hospital bed to see Big Frank standing over him. "Frank identified her body," he says. "Frank said, 'If it's any consolation, there wasn't a mark on her.' It wasn't any consolation."

Big Frank replaced everything for Bill. "The old man, he was good to me," Miller says.

In Gay Talese's famous essay for Esquire, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," the author also mentions this incident though he doesn't mention Miller by name:

When a musician friend's house was destroyed and his wife was killed in a Los Angeles mud slide a little more than a year ago, Sinatra personally came to his aid, finding the musician a new home, paying whatever hospital bills were left unpaid by the insurance, then personally supervising the furnishing of the new home down to the replacing of the silver ware, the linen, the purchase of new clothing.

Of course he could also be a terror.

On a sidenote: Galley friend A.F. says that Miller's stroke of genius was convincing Sinatra to sing "One For My Baby" in the key of D, not A. This made him sing higher, making him more emotional, more vulnerable--and sounding better than in the saccharine original.

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