Ned Miller

TrackSingle / Album
Cold Gray BarsCapitol 4607
Dark MoonCapitol 4652
From A Jack To A KingFabor 114 (re-release)
Parade Of Broken HeartsFabor 114 (re-release)
Heart Without A HeartacheFrom A Jack To A King CD
One Among The ManyFabor 116
Another Fool Like MeFabor 121
Do What You Do Do WellFabor 137
Dusty GuitarFabor 137
Just Before DawnFabor 139

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Ned Miller photo 2

 

NED MILLER:

ANATOMY OF A ONE HIT WONDER #17

And two for the price of one, revealing a second One Hit Wonder

And a few facts and thoughts on the practice of covering records.

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

Country crossovers – or records that had already been successful in the US Country & Western Chart (as it was called at the time) then “crossed over” or gained some level of success in the US Pop Chart and sometimes internationally – were not infrequent in the fifties and sixties. Initially these were often novelty items but as time moved on they began to take the shape of songs and performances which had the strength to gain recognition with an audience outside of the otherwise rather insular country arena. Or, to put it more directly, it was usually the best ones that broke out. While a tiny handful of such artists gained wider sustained popularity in this manner – Patsy Cline, Don Gibson, Jim Reeves and Johnny Cash come to mind – the majority of the crossovers didn’t achieve repetition thus making them one hit wonders regardless of whether they were regularly scoring in the Country Chart.

From A Jack To A King was one such.

But it took two separate efforts to make it a success.

The song was written and performed by Ned Miller who was born in Rains, Utah in 1925 but had moved to Los Angeles in 1956 after his spell in the US Marines. He signed with the small independent label, Fabor Records, which was a subsidiary of Abbott Records owned by one Fabor Robison. The last named was something of a dab hand at spotting country talent. He initially set up Abbott with a partner in order to progress the career of his discovery, Johnny Horton (see Toppermost #527). From A Jack To A King was distributed by larger LA based indie, Dot Records. Dot had started out in country in 1950 but showed considerable music savvy by both buying smaller indie’s records and selling them nationally, and, more controversially, covering records from such labels using artists who were contracted to them.

Music savvy or not, the first release of From A Jack To A King in 1957 did nothing of significance in terms of sales. Dot didn’t help themselves by putting out a cover version by Jim Lowe, the man famous for Green Door but who’d already covered, under the auspices of Dot, Chuck’s Maybellene, Carl’s Blue Suede Shoes and Jim Reeves’ Four Walls. Neither version of “Jack” got anywhere so perhaps Dot were being too clever by half.

Robison went off and did other things –sometime around the end of ’58, he dropped both Abbott and Fabor and started a new label, Radio Records. Miller continued recording with Dot plus a couple more labels. He also continued writing songs – more on that later. He kept in touch with Robison and, we’re told, persuaded him to revive Fabor and have another go at promoting From A Jack To A King. I’m indebted to Colin Escott’s “Roadkill On The Three-Chord Highway: Art And Trash In American Popular Music” for some background on this request. It seems that as Ned was considering an early retirement from the music biz, “he was contacted by a jukebox operator in Seattle who said that if someone rerecorded ‘From A Jack To A King’ he would order several thousand”.

The rest is …. Well it’s that record that you still hear on oldies stations. Climbing to #1 in the US C&W Chart it then achieved that magic crossover and hit the #6 spot in the US Pop Chart. It did even better over here, #2 in the UK and #1 in Ireland.

For anyone who hasn’t heard it, it’s country though these days we might call it country pop, a term that started to see usage later in the sixties as Nashville started to wise up to lucrative opportunities beyond the Country Chart. Rhythmically, the record was solidly based on the Ray Price Texas Shuffle which had gained considerable attention via his record Crazy Arms in ’56 (though the record didn’t achieve crossover). Mind you this shuffle variant had such a stonking backbeat, it almost sounded like one of those bluebeat precursors of reggae. And, From A Jack To A King did without the usual country trappings of fiddles and steel guitar, substituting instead a Jordanaires like vocal group. It had a memorable tune based on the simplest possible two chord backing. You could imagine Presley singing it and indeed he did at a later date. I’d add that there was no attempt whatsoever by Ned to emulate the famous Elvis vocal traits, though he wasn’t averse to some majestic soaring and swooping and did it with no apparent effort. Lyrically, the song was romantic and upbeat; there were only slight references to the more typical country downer sentiments in the middle eight.

From a Jack to a King
From loneliness to a wedding ring
I played an Ace and I won a Queen
And walked away with your heart

This wasn’t Ned’s first acquaintance with the Pop Chart; he’d already had vicarious involvement via his song, Dark Moon. Fabor Robison had cut the song with another of his artists, Dorsey Burnette, and Bonnie Guitar happened to hear it. She begged Robison to let her record the song even promising to give up her royalties. After attempts using differing arrangements, the lady with the fascinating name eventually made her record using what we’d now call a very stripped back or even minimalist approach. And she got herself a Top Ten pop hit out of it. Once again Robison had gone the Dot Records route with Dark Moon but the label did the dirty on Bonnie by re-cutting the record with Gale Storm which all too likely prevented Bonnie from achieving even higher sales. An inability to follow it up with any success turned her into another One Hit Wonder.

Gale Storm’s first three records for Dot had consisted of covers of I Hear You Knocking (Smiley Lewis), Memories Are Made Of This (Dean Martin, not the original but undoubtedly definitive) and Why Do Fools Fall In Love (Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers) and she’d hit the Top Ten with each one. Dark Moon got her back up there after some falling off in the second half of ’56 (though it turned out to be her last hit). Those curious enough might like to dig those tracks out and compare them with the originals. I’m sure I’m not biased when I state that all three originals were better (though there’s a much later but excellent version of “Memories” from the Everly Brothers). I also know which I prefer of two Dark Moon versions.

Ned Miller got round to recording his version of Dark Moon in ’61 and it competed very well with Bonnie’s and had to be a selection. The approach had changed again and Ned seemed to stretch out more than Bonnie. But it worked. The aurally observant will note that it uses the same chord sequence as From A Jack To A King but the whole record is more gentle, winsome even. The shuffle is still there but it’s understated.

The production complete with that echoey soprano slightly puts me in mind of the great Slim Whitman’s marvellously OTT Indian Love Call from 1952.

Outside of From A Jack To A King, the highest Ned got in the US Hot 100 was #52 with Do What You Do Do Well, a slab of homespun philosophy complete with knees-uppy rhythm in early 1965. Whilst a demonstration of the Miller compositional versatility, it didn’t really play to his vocal strengths. I do have a bit of a thing for Dusty Guitar on the flip though. He gets me with that first ridiculously high “how many teardrops”. I shouldn’t like it. An ode to a guitar indeed. And it has strings. Aw heck. I’ve never come across this on a jukebox but if I had I could fantasize boring other pub occupants to death after a couple of pints.

While he was careful never to re-record exactly the same tune as Dark Moon or From A Jack To A King. He did re-use the chord sequence on at least a couple of occasions so there were similarities. Gypsy and the brash Big Life were both good but perhaps too close to challenge the ‘originals’. Big Life, incidentally found Ned composing with his wife Sue.

I’ve been jumping about a bit so for the rest I’m going the tried and true route, talking about singles in order of release. And first up has to be the flip of From A Jack To A King which was Ned’s second disc in its original incarnation. If I was ever so slightly bemoaning the overly positive vibe of the A-side then Parade Of Broken Hearts more than made up for it. Taking the title literally, the song has a martial beat conjured up by adroit picking from a pair of guitars with lyrics that major on the broken heart theme: “I thought that I was dreaming, but now I hear them screaming, come join the parade of broken hearts”.

Cold Gray Bars, unusually for Ned, was a rare cover and a far from conventional one at that. The song was written by Western Swing man Spade Cooley who was prosecuted for murdering his second wife, Ella Mae Cooley. Eventually, after one of the longest cases in US county court history, he was spared the gas chamber and sentenced to life in prison. The song is autobiographical and has the narrator/singer languishing in jail anticipating a death sentence. So, something like Green Green Grass Of Home or Sing Me Back Home but with extra edge. Reportedly, Cooley actually recorded the song and it was released on Capitol but it’s not on YT. However, the Miller version is excellent. Although there’s the almost obligatory recitation bit, they don’t milk the song as much as they could have.

Lost and gone forever
So the people say
Soon I’ll come and join you
On our judgement day

There was a track from the August ’61 Ned Miller session which didn’t get issued as a single but it’s one that I’m rather partial to. Heart Without A Heartache, or to give the first line in full, “Is there one heart without a heartache” had the usual gloom theme but was enlivened by a medium to uptempo chugalong treatment. The sort of thing that you could imagine an alt country outfit like Whiskeytown getting their teeth into. It’s not on YT unfortunately but is on Spotify. This track is present on the Bear Family album From A Jack To A King along with both sides of the first ten singles and other sides that had appeared on the original album of that name released in 1963, which had the feel of being rather rushed (though it did have a pleasing version of Mona Lisa pitched somewhere between Nat “King” Cole and Carl Mann),

One Among The Many was another that should have had one of those bracketed titles in order to make the message more explicit – One Among The Many (The Many Broken Hearts) – but it was up there with Ned’s very best. While some country songs, particularly the weepies, attract us because of the way the usual tropes are handled e.g. because of a striking voice or unusual arrangement, others can appeal due to some subtle subversion of the usual tropes. While I’d put “Jack” in the first category, One Among The Many is, for me, in the second. While the chorale intro is bog standard, the melody line is just that bit different than usual. There even seems to be slight changes between the verses, and Miller, it would appear, was so confident in the qualities of his melody line that he didn’t even bother to include a middle eight. I’d add some applause too for the unidentified pianist who virtually duets with Ned.

I could make very similar comments about (So I Gave My Heart To) Another Fool Like Me, and the brackets are strictly mine. In fact their content varies on each verse but once again it’s a stunning tune with no middle eight. A dramatic string figure replaces the pianist. I’d even call it a riff if that didn’t evoke unhelpful comparisons.

The middle eights were back in Just Before Dawn and a heavenly chorus had replaced the strings. There were echoes again of Slim Whitman and that record – maybe it was one that haunted Ned. A haunting vocal too. Misery time but it suited our man: “I awake to find the pillow I sleep on … and you’re gone”. OK you could say that Ned had taken One Among The Many for another walk – he obviously loved the tune – but he’d increased the pathos level.

From the same year, 1965, Two Voices, Two Shadows, Two Faces drops over into the twee for me. In part it was the presence of what sounded like a bouzouki – perhaps the player had walked into the wrong studio expecting to find a Demis Roussos session going on. What is undeniable though is that the record frames Ned’s voice well.

Ned Miller was always a shy individual and, from the early days of plugging From A Jack To A King, had suffered from stage fright. This was something he never got over and was known to sometimes send out an understudy to the stage instead of himself. In the early seventies he got out of the recording business altogether and moved to the desert. He died in March last year, 2016.

A few more words on Bonnie Guitar are in order. Born in Seattle in 1923 (and at the time of writing still going strong), she learned guitar and moved down to L.A. to find work. Her second name was originally Buckingham but the switch fitted with her early role as session guitarist and one would guess was more memorable for producers to recall. She worked for several of the record labels run by Fabor Robison and was one of the two guitarists on “Jack” and its flip. It was Robison who gave her her first opportunity in a singing role. Dark Moon was her second single. At the time it hit the pop chart, Bonnie was the only female country singer to have achieved crossover success apart from Patsy Cline (source: Wiki). Coincidentally or not, it’s the Cline name that’s often mentioned when vocal comparisons are sought. Bonnie went on to a mixed career in business and music, getting into the Country Top 40 on a number of occasions, and apparently she still performs with her band at weekends. Let us leave Bonnie with another Ned Miller composition, Johnny Vagabond from ’58 (complete with a Hollywood Hills approximation of the Johnny Cash Sun era boom chicka boom).

There’s been a thread of that dastardly thing we call covering running through this essay and, in this instance, I’m talking about covering with such a degree of promptness that its intent was strictly to divert sales from an original record to the cover.

Like it or loathe it, the process was seen as normal business practice by record companies at the time. We Brits indulged heavily in it in the fifties and early sixties, with copies of American records being the norm rather than something unusual. In the US, while covers of black artists’ records by white artists were most frequently seen, that didn’t mean that the opposite didn’t occur or that white artists didn’t cover white records. The practice wasn’t racist, per se. It was business. If you didn’t sell you didn’t survive.

Dot were one of the biggest players in this game though, to my surprise, Wiki manage not to mention this in their feature on the label. The young Pat Boone was the most popular ‘name’ white artist to be used by Dot in this manner and, for many, his reputation will always be sullied by that early work. The two I mention in this essay, Gale Storm and Jim Lowe, are largely forgotten here because they didn’t have much UK success. Ironically, Jim Lowe’s biggest hit, Green Door, an original, was covered in the UK by Frankie Vaughan. However, it was not until doing the research for this Toppermost that I realised that Dot even stooped to covering their own artists’ records. But did anyone ever say that record labels could even spell ethics?

 

I’m giving the last words on Ned Miller to Colin Escott (see reference earlier to “Roadkill On The Three-Chord Highway: Art And Trash In American Popular Music):

“Apparently you can still live off a couple of big hits, provided you live quietly in the desert. “Dark Moon” will probably show up in an ad or a movie sooner or later and Ricky Van Shelton cut “From A Jack To A King” some years back. But don’t sell Ned Miller short. Many, including Elvis Presley have tried their hand at “From a Jack to a King”. They’ve brought more sweat to it, without coming close to eclipsing the original.”

 

Ned Miller (1925 -2016)

 

Ned Miller at Discogs

Ned Miller: From A Jack To A King CD (Bear Family Records)

Ned Miller biography (iTunes)

 

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Dave Stephens has written over fifty posts for this site. He is the author of two books on popular music. His first, “RocknRoll”, is described by one reviewer as “probably the most useful single source of information on 50s & 60s music I’ve come across”. Dave followed this up with “London Rocks” in 2016, an analysis of the early years of the London (American) record label in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #678

1 Comment

  1. Andrew Shields
    Nov 23, 2017

    Dave, thanks for this great piece. Have to admit I first heard ‘From A Jack to A King’ through the version by the Irish Showband singer Dickie Rock. Have a vague memory of seeing him sing it live at a marquee in a small town in the West of Ireland. For some reason, it is a song which has always been hugely popular in Irish country and western/Showband circles. And what an excellent song it is. Thanks also for introducing us to the excellent Bonnie Guitar. Another great piece…

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