John Miller Orchestra


John Miller

John Miller

I was born at a very tender age. I don't remember much about that. I'm also not very good with dates, it's either a day the band is working or not, so I find it best to omit them. I do remember I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan (pronounced Mish as in mish-mash- e gun. Mish-e-gun) It's a little college town where father Herb was doing some post grad work. For years when I walked by he never said: "there goes my son." He said: "there goes my Doctorate."

Long story short, Father formed a band and went on the road. (Feed the new mouth, you know.) Mother, my sister and I went to Mom's family home town, Greeley, Colorado.

While Herb was on the road, draft papers for him and half the band showed up. My father would get seasick just looking at a glass of water, the Navy was drafting at the time, so, being a man of honour, before he opened his envelope he joined the Army to avoid the Navy.

The Army promptly put him in amphibious tanks. Herb finally ended up in the 59th Army Band at Fort Ord California. There was always a hint that Glenn might have had some influence on the transfer. The point of all this is that the Miller family ended up in Steinbeck country (Pacific Grove, California on the Southern tip of the Monterey Bay) in a house right at the end of Cannery Row. Oddly, this house just happened to have a living room big enough to set up and rehearse a big band. The area was perfect for growing up. It had sea, beaches, rocks to climb on and sand dunes to get lost in.

When Herb got out of the Service, he got a job with the local school system and taught music in several schools on alternate days. As a consequence he was my music teacher when I was growing up. He was a trumpet player and, since we had a lot of trumpets lying around, that was my first instrument. Then one summer, he threw me a tuba and said that that was what I was going to play the next school year. The reason for this was Herb could get trumpeters by the score and drummers by the hundreds but couldn't find anyone willing to carry a tuba. I didn't dare complain. To add to the burden he then added the string bass to my job description. When there was a job where I had to play both, the physical struggle must have been comical. It's probably why I am so fit today. All that packing will either make a man of you or kill you. To add to the carrying, at 15 I was impressed into service in my dad's dance band as bass man, a year later as the male vocalist and I also acquired the position of road crew. In California the drinking age was 21. If I had ever been caught, I would have been out of work for six years. I was under orders to go in the back door, set up, play the job, keep a low profile, tear down and go home. Don't go near the bar and never be seen with a glass in my hand. Even water. It was a thirsty time for a young man but having seen a lot of silly drinking when I was young may be the reason I don't drink today. I was in my mid twenty’s before I could walk into a bistro without looking both ways. I also spent every Friday and Saturday with both my mother and my father. With that kind of close supervision, maybe I just never had time to find trouble. I was a rather shy youth but managed to fumble my way through school without disgracing the family name too much. Mother was supposed to type but, in the end, really wrote my High School Senior English Essay. She got a pretty good grade on it too.

John Miller

College was a different matter. You got to take the classes you wanted, more or less. Astronomy was the pinnacle of my scholastic success and the only occasion I found myself at the top of the class. A couple of years at Monterey Peninsula College and then the rest at San Francisco State, I matriculated with a BA and a California Teaching Credential. I did my student teaching in China Town in SF. You know, Flower Drum Song? That was interesting.

Having finally gotten out of school, I didn't feel I wanted to hurry back into one. Just over the hill, Reno, Nevada beckoned with the promise of bright lights and quick employment.

Having been a teacher, a gas pump jockey, a prototype designer, tow truck driver, a croupier, a male model, a process server etc, it's probably easier to list the jobs I haven't had.

Fast forward from Reno a bit and I end up as a rigger in a boat yard in Seattle setting up and testing new boats for Tollycraft. It's a great job when someone turns you loose in a $90,000.00 of boat to shake the bugs out before delivery. My aim was to get a job on an Albacore boat A couple of good seasons on shares and one could buy a boat to live on and nip back and forth between Baja in the Winter and the boatyard in the summer where I could earn enough to last the Winter in the South and the sun. I just missed a place on a boat called the Pelican and by then it was too late to look for another boat and was delayed a year. A few months later I heard on the news that the Pelican had been rundown by a freighter in the fog in the Juan de Fuca Straits and, while the skipper Adolph Sandness was rescued, the young man that got the job I was after went down with the ship. The paths we take, huh?

I spent about 2 years in Seattle and during that time, the circus, on which Herb was the Bandleader/Musical Director, came to town and performed 5 nights. Months later I got a person to person call from Herb. He asked me if I wanted to be the Ringmaster on the show the next season. I said: “Sounds interesting, when would I have to let you know?” “Three minutes.” Herb said. That being the amount of time before he would have to put more money in the phone. The circus flew me to Sacramento, Herb gave me a tape of the show, I learned four songs and the announcements and did the first half of the evening show live. The boss lady took me across the street, wined and dined me, got me tipsy, put a crayon in my hand, I made my mark and that was it for the next 6 years. She had never had someone walk in off the street and just do the job.

John Miller

When the circus came back to Seattle, I went back to visit the boatyard. They told me they knew I was crazy. I'd had no qualifications for the job and had to fight like crazy to get it while the other employees felt they were stuck and were looking for a way out. They said I whistled on the dock and sang in the bilges. Happy as a clam. Everyman to his own, I guess.

A couple of other “paths” I didn't follow. A friend asked me to go with him to Circus Tiana in South America as a catcher in his flying act. Not sure why I didn't go as Burt Lancaster is one of my hero's. I was offered a 110ft sway pole act because the boss said I was the only person he had ever seen that went all the way to the top of the pole on his first attempt. I asked him if he wanted to know the secret and he enthusiastically replied YES. I told him that the word had gotten round the show and half the Circus Folk had gotten up early (8am) peeping out of windows and around corners to watch the silly Ringmaster. I didn't dare fail. Besides, I didn't have my glasses on. I could have been 6 feet off the ground. He was crestfallen. As it turned out, the new pole (the one that would have been mine), broke that winter while they were practicing for a new three pole act, with disastrous results to the new man. He did live but disappeared soon after he got out of the hospital. More paths.

Flying was my first love. I never wanted to go anywhere but up and upside down was even better. I've done a bit of that, too. I soloed a J3 Cub out of my local airport, Rochester, Kent, looked at the syllabus and could see myself with half a ticket and no money. I went home and built a 16 by 24 foot garage.

Boats were my second love. In a boat, you were like a turtle. You could travel anywhere and always be at home. If you didn't like the neighbourhood, just jerk the hook and blow. In 1986, I finally got the boat that would take me anywhere in the world. It was a small but tasteful 35 ft 100 year old Schooner that I rigged to sail single handed. Again, I never wanted to go anywhere in particular. To me, a destination is just another place to leave from. I've had a 100mph wind in my teeth with every rag flying. It's almost as good as sex, but much colder. No time now. The dream is sold.

John Miller

I do all the work on my cars in the garage and under the two double carports (it rains lots) in the back yard and refurbish the odd sports car. There is a Jensen Healey in progress at the moment and a Nova kit car waiting in the wings. It keeps me off the streets and out of trouble. I have always loved fixing things. I think I could fix a cat. While Herb and I were on the Circus, he had the offer to start a band in the UK. He asked me to come along. As I didn't have anything to do that weekend, I went.

Here I am 30 plus years later. I've been fortunate to have played with the best musicians in the country, have played all the major venues here and travelled extensively to Spain, Dubai, France, Shanghai, the Canaries, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Belgium and places I can't even remember.

In 1994, it was about time mother had full time company, so I bought a house and added (by myself, ever the cheap guy), a 16x 24 foot two story extension so she would have an en-suite bedroom of her own. On the upper floor, I made a flat with exposed beams meeting at an 18ft peak and, hung by cables so you’re not always walking into posts, a 12 by 7 foot balcony sleeping area. The stairs to it go up the wall and the treads are extended to make an integral bookcase. Someone once said it was very California. I wouldn't know. It's just another of my hair brained schemes. Handy for visitors, though.

The band is still working, but on a reduced level of busy. In years past, we did 90 to 125 jobs. Now, if I had to do 52 jobs a year, I would expire. I only do the one's I want, now. When it stops being fun, it's quittin' time.

While all this was going on, I managed to acquire and lose a family. I did end up with the asset of three kids that have turned out to be sterling characters and objects of pride. I guess it's not bad for a shy kid from Pacific Grove California, “The Butterfly Capitol of the World”, that was paraded, along with the other children in town, through town by the city fathers dressed as caterpillars, butterflies and various assorted larvae. Scarred me for life, it did.

I forget who said it, but life really is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.

Come see us when we're in town.
Regards, John Miller

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