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Sing Miller

Sing Miller was a traditional jazz and blues singer and piano player from New Orleans.

Sing Miller

Courtesy of William Carter

Sing Miller on a Tour Bus. Carter, William (Photographer)

James Edward “Sing” Miller was an accomplished piano, banjo, and string bass player who performed with jazz greats Percy Humphrey, Earl Foster, Kid Thomas Valentine, Kid Sheik Colar, Willie Humphrey, Jim Robinson, and Polo Barnes; however, as Miller’s childhood nickname indicates, it would be his talent as a vocalist for which he would be best remembered.

Miller was born on June 17, 1913, in New Orleans. His first instrument was a violin tuned like a ukulele, but soon he would also take up the banjo and the string bass.

Miller’s first job as a banjo player was at the Okey Lounge in 1927, after which he joined Kid Howard’s band. Miller also sang with the Harmonizing Browns Quartet, establishing his reputation as a talented vocalist. In 1928 Miller began teaching himself piano. According to early jazz researchers Larry Borenstein and Bill Russell, Miller was influenced by the piano playing of Steve Lewis, Jeannette Kimball, Isadore Washington, and Stack O’Lee. O’Lee, a blues pianist who was Miller’s neighbor, was particularly instrumental in Miller’s decision to learn piano.

Miller joined Percy Humphrey’s band as a soloist in the 1930s. From there he went on to join several other groups, including drummer Earl Foster’s band, until he was called in 1942 to serve in World War II. Following his tour of duty, Miller rejoined Foster’s ensemble. In the years afterward, Miller played occasionally with Chris Kelly and Kid Rena, took traveling gigs in tent shows that toured throughout the South, played a long engagement at the Carnival Club in New Orleans, and performed for more than half a decade at the Club Plantation in Bogalusa. Miller also played with the Kid Clayton band at Mama Lou’s in the Little Woods section of New Orleans in 1937 and 1938. Miller performed with the James Brothers in Houma during this time as well, and upon Joe James’s death, Miller joined Kid Thomas’s band, with whom he recorded. In 1941 Miller performed with Kid Sheik, along with George Guesnon, at the Cotton Club in New Orleans.

Miller has two solo albums that feature some of his most definitive work: Old Times with Sing Miller, released on Smoky Mary Records in 1975, and another released by Dixie Records in 1972. Old Times with Sing Miller features Miller (vocals, piano), Frank Demond (trombone), James Prevost (bass), and Louis Barbarin (drums). It boasts moving renditions of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “Trust in Me.” Toward the end of his life, Miller appeared frequently at Preservation Hall with Percy Humphrey and Kid Sheik.

In his article for All About Jazz titled “Sing Miller: This Little Light of Mine,” William Carter writes that after seeing Miller perform one night at New York’s prestigious Lincoln Center, the folklorist/ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax told the author: “The first note he sang, I began to cry. That first note of Sing’s made me burst into tears. This little, humble, crushed-looking man was in great big Avery Fisher Hall, and he knew it. And the first note he formed was as beautiful as a garden of flowers. It was a sunburst of the soul.”

Miller died on May 18, 1990, in New Orleans.