The American musician’s love for music has never faded, even after 60 years of playing, producing and everything in between
Jeff Miller is an American musician, promoter, producer, agent, and manager with a long and diverse career in the music industry. He started playing guitar at the age of five and performed his first public show aged 12. Jeff played bass guitar in his grade school band, Justice, whose early days were riddled with encounters with the authorities, including one incident where the police shut down their rehearsal. Despite these setbacks, he continued to push forward, playing all through high school with the same group of musicians and a revolving fifth player.
After attending college in Madison, Wisconsin, Jeff and his band moved to Los Angeles, where they recorded their first album, Just A Thought, in the summer of 1977. He then spent the next 25 years becoming a promoter, producer, agent, and manager, working with a wide range of artists, from Liberace to Metallica. He also recorded two new all-original albums, the first Debut-Farewell with the band Alias Smith & Jones and the second, Songs For Silvia, featuring musicians Joey Molland of Badfinger and Phil Solem of The Rembrandts, among others.
Despite his long and varied career, Jeff’s passion for music has never waned. He now leads his own band, The Jeff Miller Band, playing his own material and covering other artists he respects, doing his own interpretations of their songs. Jeff is now taking the opportunity to re-release all three of his albums on 1st May 2023.
In this interview, we get a glimpse into Jeff Miller’s storied career and learn more about his current musical endeavours.
Let’s set the scene. Where are you in the world?
“Right now I’m in my apartment here in downtown Green Bay, Wisconsin. I have a very small apartment because I do a lot of travelling. Where I’m at musically, career-wise, I literally formed my own band about 15 years ago here in Green Bay. My father is elderly and we have a family business here, so that’s kind of my day job… My night job is making music or promoting music or booking bands or managing – I currently manage three acts from Europe [Vincent van Hessen, The Rag Tag Misfits, and Johnny Tristram].”
Wow, so you’re pretty busy! How do you squeeze in time for songwriting?
“Well, the interesting thing about my songwriting is I’ve literally been writing songs all the way back to high school. They come to me very easily and I actually do it kind of at the same time, I’ll literally sit with a guitar in my hand, with a pen in my picking hand. A lot of times I can knock out a song in one sitting, from hearing a phrase or reading some article and something stands out, and there’s a theme for a song. Once I have it, I’m a bit of a bulldog.”
What sort of guitars do you use to write, specifically?
“When I’m simply sitting here at home, [I’ll write] with an acoustic guitar. I will occasionally write on an electric guitar but not so much. I have multiple guitars – bass, acoustic, nylon, electrics, etc – I’m an avid collector. Usually, I have five to seven guitars on stage that I use throughout the show for different songs, different segments. So yeah, I’m a guitar guy from way back. Each one has a different feel, personality, sound…”
We were intrigued to hear that you’re launching the three albums digitally at once. Why is that and why now?
“In 2020, BBE Records out of London, England contacted me and said they liked my song which was the title track on my first album from 1977 and wanted to put it out on a compilation called Once Again We Are The Children Of The Sun. I was somewhat flabbergasted! I’d printed 1000 albums in 1977, we were living in Los Angeles, and I gave some to record companies hoping they’d go crazy. We got a little airplay, mainly in Wisconsin, but it came and went and, you know, we’d moved on. So I said, ‘How did you know?’ and they said, ‘Oh, your album was on YouTube.’ I said, ‘No, it isn’t,’ but sure enough, my whole album’s there. So we made the deal and now that compilation has come out it’s kind of given me the impetus to have three albums that I own completely put out on my own label, Jewel T Records.”
Tell us about your time in the music business.
“My career as a promoter, agent and manager has always been at a very high level. People ask me, who have you worked with? And the simple answer is everybody from Liberace to Metallica, and all points in between. When I say all points, I mean all points. Because, when I was 22 or 23 years old, I had my own promoting company here in Green Bay, and I was lucky enough to start working for a big theatre that was hosting bigger acts like Tony Bennett and Tom Jones. I kind of brought rock in and, at that time, everybody was touring so I got to open shows for Johnny Cash and all of these great artists.”
What sort of things did you learn from those people?
“Well, when I was working with Johnny Cash, he was quite taken by Bob Dylan’s writing, and I’ve always been a huge Dylan fan. I’ve tried not to copy him and I’ve always liked his use of a lot of words versus the sparseness. As I was seeing these different performers, I would notice that some of the patterns of their songs were very symmetrical. Going back to The Beatles, their hits were very symmetrical and the formula works, but I’ve kind of avoided that. Not that I don’t want a hit song, but…
“While I was living in Los Angeles, I took a songwriting class at UCLA with Buddy Kaye. He was a seasoned songwriter with number one hits from 1945 and on, having written for everyone from Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan to Sarah Vaughan and all points in between. One of the first songs that I ever wrote, in a professional way, was called The Ballad Of Mojo Jones, which is on my first album and we usually start our shows with it. He put one of those wooden stick figures on the table and said, ‘You’ve got 20 minutes to write a song about that.’ I’d never experienced that kind of songwriting, but I wrote the song The Ballad Of Mojo Jones about the stick figure coming alive and he thought it was very creative but said it doesn’t fit any of the formats of songwriting – it doesn’t really have a chorus.
“I wrote another song called Song From The Heart. There was a festival to save a bridge in Sturgeon Bay and my band were on the show, so I’d written a song that had no bridge and we debuted it at the festival. Everyone was telling me it was a good song but it’s got no bridge. I said, ‘Well, that’s why I wrote it.’ So each song that I write, I don’t try and write it in any format.”
That makes sense. So you’ve learned to avoid being formulaic and try to do something new?
“Yeah, also in musical styles, especially in my current band – I have up to 12 different people in the band with a full percussion section, piano, harmonica, lap steel, saxophone, and a bunch of guitar players… We try not to sound like anybody, especially when we’re doing my songs. We also do a fun thing that we call ‘money music trivia’, where we’ll play really obscure cover songs then ask the audience who wrote the song, and [whoever comes up with the correct answer] can win money! We worked with musicians like John Prine and Hoyt Axton; great songwriters who wrote hits for many artists. That goes back to seeing people like Liberace or Victor Borg – those great old, vintage performers – how they connect with the audience, they bring them into the show. And that I think is the biggest thing I learned.”
There’s a lot to be said for that: engaging the audience and really entertaining them.
“And what I like about this is we do pick obscure songs like Mama Told Me Not To Come, which everybody thinks Three Dog Night wrote, but it’s a Randy Newman song. Because I’m a writer myself, I know I’d like credit for the song I wrote… So you’ve got to go back to the songwriters, they are what make the music business go around.”
You’re preaching to the choir there! That’s the vision for Songwriting Magazine: to shine a light on the songwriters.
“Which is why I’ve always subscribed to it and always enjoyed your magazine! And that’s also again why now for me, it’s kind of like, I’ve got all these songs and I’m proud of them. I’m ready to come out and say, ‘These are my songs, this is me,’ and take my chance to see what happens in the world.”
Absolutely. So Jeff is there any new material on these albums or are you going to be working on new stuff?
“The albums themselves are the originals, nothing has changed on those three albums, but we’re working on two new releases, one of which is a DVD. There is a song that I wrote probably 15 years ago, so it’s not a new song but I’ve never recorded it because I wrote it with my high school band. My goal for this song is to reunite the band and record the original material we’d written.”
You talked about the various musicians and bands you play with – do you get them involved in the actual songwriting?
“No, not really, to tell the truth. I’m definitely a very singular songwriter. Also, not that some of the guys in the band don’t have their own songs or could co-write, but I have so many songs that we don’t need any more, in a sense.”
Do you feel songwriting is a very private process?
“Yes, for me, it is. The interesting thing is, I co-wrote a song with Mitch Ryder and that was the only time. I happened to be booking him at the time and Mitch was the type of artist that would call into the agency and go, ‘Hey, anything going on for me? What’s going on? How are you doing?’ and we got to be kind of friends, which as an agent you normally don’t do. We were coming up to the five-year anniversary of 9/11 and we were talking about songwriting and he said, ‘You know, there really hasn’t been a song written about the day and what happened.’ I was watching a TV show on CBS with Craig Ferguson and they were talking about the anniversary, there was a big flag draped on the side, it was outside and all of a sudden the wind gusts and the flag started fluttering. It would be terrible if the flag came down and ripped or something, and he said, ‘But the flags still flew.’ So we co-wrote the song, Flag Still Flies, and it was a wonderful experience.”
Have you got any advice for budding songwriters out there?
“You need to just get out there and take any opportunity to play. I still love going out to open mic, just getting up and playing and jamming with people. Also, play from your heart, right from your soul. In other words, put yourself into what you’re doing. As I’ve always said – especially to younger people coming up – the wonderful thing about the music business is it’s always expanding. It’s big enough for anybody who wants to be in it, and longevity is the key. Look at me! All of a sudden I’m 66, 67, 68… You have to go out and apply yourself.”
What song do you wish that you’d written?
“Well, one of the songs that I cover on the CD, which is one of my favourite songs, is Too Much Monkey Business. When I had our high school band we did a lot of Chuck Berry songs. I loved the lyrics and the cadence of how he delivers [sings] ‘Runnin’ to-and-fro, hard workin’ at the mill / Never fail in the mail, here come a rotten bill…’ That hooked me right away. If I could have written any of Chuck Berry’s songs, I’d be ecstatic. But the song that I really want to answer your question is Isn’t That So by Jesse Winchester. Jesse is a Chicago-based writer, singer and performer and he’s got a lot of albums out. He passed away fairly recently. We cover Isn’t That So and use it as a trivia question. It’s a great song because it’s a great story of belief in faith. But the tagline is, ‘You’ve got to go where your heart says go / Isn’t that so?’ To me, that phrase says it all, so that’d be the song if I had one to choose.”