Bill Miller Sinatra’s Pianist Dies at 91

By Elaine Woo,
Times Staff Writer
July 16, 2006

Bill Miller, Frank Sinatra's longtime pianist and closest musical advisor, who accompanied the legendary singer from 1951 until his last performance in 1995, died Tuesday at a Montreal hospital of complications of a heart attack. He was 91.

Miller, who lived in Burbank for more than 50 years, was performing in Montreal with Frank Sinatra Jr. when he broke his hip two weeks ago. He subsequently had a heart attack and died after heart bypass surgery, according to his daughter, Meredith, of Berkeley.

Until he broke his hip, Miller was a featured guest in the younger Sinatra's road show, playing 14 songs a night, including "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)," the classic saloon song he introduced to Sinatra's father in the early 1950s.

Among the scores of other hits he played for Sinatra were "I've Got You Under My Skin," "All the Way," "In the Wee Small Hours," "Young at Heart" and "Strangers in the Night." He was the conductor on the original recording of "My Way."

"Bill Miller was the greatest accompanist that any popular singer ever had," Sinatra's son said by phone Friday from Quebec. "There was no one who had his touch, no one who had his taste."

"All the songs that Sinatra recorded in those days that became famous — Bill was the man who in essence introduced them to him," said the son of the iconic singer. "Songs would be submitted and Bill would play them for my father to hear.

He was there when they were recorded and when they became famous. He would perform them on the road with Sinatra …. In several of the movies — 'Young at Heart,' 'Pal Joey' — when Sinatra is supposed to be playing the piano, that was Bill Miller you were hearing. He knew the music better than anyone."

Al Viola, the senior Sinatra's longtime guitarist, called Miller "one of a kind."

"There are lots of great piano players," said Viola, 87, "but to be an accompanist to a singer is really an art form. It's a conversation, but you really have to listen and pay respect to the singer. That's what it's all about, and that's what Bill did."

Miller was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and attended New Utrecht High School. Largely self-taught at the piano, he began playing professionally at bar mitzvahs when he was 16. On his business card from those days, he called himself "Bill Miller, the Ace of Jazz."

By 18 he was playing with Larry Funk and his Band of a Thousand Melodies. Later he played with Joe Haymes, Red Norvo and Mildred Bailey, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnet.

He was playing the lounge at the Desert Inn in Las Vegas in 1951 when songwriter Jimmy Van Heusen took Sinatra to hear him. No longer the idol of the bobby sox set, Sinatra was in a slump and ready to make a change in musical direction. He liked what he heard in Miller's simple, understated performance.

When he asked Miller if he would like to work with him on "The Frank Sinatra Show" on CBS, the pianist rather nonchalantly replied, "Yeah." When Sinatra asked if he wanted to see his book of piano scores, he said he didn't need it. "Anybody else would want to see it," Viola said. "There might be difficult passages or verses. But Bill said no. He was that kind of cool cat."

As it turned out, Miller joined Sinatra on the eve of his comeback. In 1953 the crooner appeared in the movie "From Here to Eternity," delivering a powerful performance that earned him the Oscar for best supporting actor and boosted him back into the limelight.

Except for a period of several years starting in 1978, when the two had a falling out, Miller was at his side for the next four decades as accompanist and sometimes as conductor and musical director. Sinatra, who did not read music, relied on Miller to articulate his wishes to his arrangers.

"In rehearsals, he usually knew what he wanted," Miller said in 1998, "and he was always open to suggestions. But he didn't know musical terms. He'd say, 'I hear cellos here," but he couldn't explain why. So occasionally I had to be a secretary between him and the arranger."

When tragedy struck Miller in 1964, Sinatra was by his side. A flood had washed away his home in the Sunset Canyon neighborhood of Burbank, carrying with it Miller, his wife, Aimee, and Meredith, then 16. Meredith made it to the top of a hill, and Bill Miller was discovered hanging onto a car, but Aimee Miller wasn't found until the next night. Sinatra identified her body.

When Bill Miller awoke in a hospital, the singer was at his bedside.

"Frank said, 'If it's any consolation, there wasn't a mark on her.' It wasn't any consolation," Miller said a few weeks ago.

Miller, who did not remarry, is also survived by a grandson, Jesse Gordon of Berkeley .

When Sinatra died of a heart attack in 1998 at age 82, Miller played "One for My Baby" at the funeral.

An archetypal Sinatra piece, it tells the story of a man who stumbles into a bar alone late one night. The bar is empty except for the saloonkeeper and a piano player, who is persuaded to play one more song before the man hits the road.

According to Frank Jr., Miller was the one who "created a musical dramatic picture" in the song's simple introduction: Miller playing the opening notes solo, with Sinatra leaning on the piano.

 "It is such an incredibly atmospheric piano introduction. Anyone who has done that song since has imitated that piano solo," music critic Don Heckman said.

Some months after Sinatra's death, when his son was performing a show that included a tribute to the celebrated singer's music, Miller was taken onto a dark stage unannounced and sat down at the piano.

When he began playing the introduction to the haunting "One for My Baby," "the audience let out a gasp," the junior Sinatra said. "They were all Sinatra fans and they recognized Bill immediately."

That was when he invited Miller, then 83, to join his orchestra. Miller performed with the younger Sinatra for the next eight years.

"He never missed a show," Sinatra said, adding that, until his accident, Miller had been playing "as beautifully as he always had."

He always had a song in his head. When he was being wheeled into surgery, his daughter said, "he was singing 'Fly Me to the Moon.' "

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