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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the April 13, 2005

issue of U.S. 1

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Cole Porter Unplugged: Fred Miller

Comparing songs dating from the half century before 1964 with songs

written recently, pianist/baritone Fred Miller notes a steep decline.

To give listeners a chance to bask in the quality of the earlier

period Miller performs Cole Porter’s songs at the Trenton City Museum

at Ellarslie Mansion, on Friday, April 15. Miller plays piano, sings,

and speaks in what he calls a lecture in song.

"Basically, Cole Porter was an Indiana farm boy but his grandfather

speculated in coal and timber and was a very wealthy man," Miller says

in a telephone interview from his Sergeantsville studio. "He was a

Midwesterner, the bad boy poet laureate of the rich and famous. He led

a liberated life that was new and wild at the time, stylish and

romantic. When he and his wife traveled they wouldn’t stay in a hotel;

they would rent Robert Browning’s palazzo or a chateau.

"His writing about sex was frank and tasteful," Miller says. "He was

poking fun at the mores of the day and satirizing human nature in

general."

Porter’s songs are staples. They include, among many others,

"Night and Day," "Anything Goes, "I’ve Got You Under My Skin," "It’s

Just One of Those Things," "I Love Paris," and "Begin the Beguine."

Porter’s musicals, "Kiss Me Kate" (1948) and "Can Can" (1953), are

repeatedly revived. By the time he was a Yale undergraduate the

prolific Porter had written six full-scale musicals and 300 songs.

Miller’s Cole Porter program is one in his expanding series of

programs devoted to what he and others call "America’s Golden Age of

Popular Song." "My series focuses on the golden age between the two

World Wars," Miller says. "I started with the six giants: George

Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, and

Irving Berlin – the Ivy League. They were giants because of what they

wrote and because they were so prolific. The six programs were

well-received, and I gradually added more. There are over 35 programs

now."

Partisan eloquence informs his briskly-paced remarks as Miller

contrasts the older and newer American songs. About the golden period

he says: "Americans took it for granted because it was pop music. East

European Jewish immigrants were writing fantastic music for public

consumption. It was literate and terribly emotional. Phenomenal

performers were there to be written for. There were great producers.

It was a time when entertainment had high standards and assumed that

the public wanted something good. Great art was also commercially

viable.

"Audiences today have grown younger and less discerning," Miller says.

"Money is to be made with young buyers. It used to be an adult market.

Now we’re down to an infantile level. The mass market today is for the

very young. What’s selling on a large scale is very dismal." He feels

the beginning of the end came with the arrival of the Beatles in 1964,

pegging a turning point in the market without denying the quality of

the Liverpool quartet.

"The Beatles are colorful," he says. "For about five or seven years

after they started things were still good. But then came the

introduction of drugs and the throwing out of limits. Sex and violence

came to the fore. What was acceptable and palatable changed. The sky

was the limit. You didn’t have to be Johnny Mercer or Irving Berlin

and work for a year on lyrics. You just tossed out whatever came into

your head. It became clear that you could make millions without giving

it a thought. The more shocking the song, the better it was.

"There was a cultural sea change," Miller says. "There was the Kennedy

assassination and the advent of a youth culture. The world got turned

on its ear, and we never recovered."

Singling out today’s "few bright spots," Miller reveals his criteria

for good songs. "Billy Joel has the kind of content, warmth, and

maturity that the old songs had," he says. "James Taylor is talented.

His songs are melodic, and he sings well. He has an emotional core;

he’s not just spewing out what comes into his head."

A comfortable performer, Miller plays piano and sings simultaneously.

"I play by ear, so my playing is automatic," he says. "I play in any

key I want. It frees me to perform easily. It’s more practical than

hiring an accompanist."

Born in 1951 to a neurosurgeon father and a child nutritionist mother,

Miller grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His father, now deceased,

played violin. His mother still lives in Albuquerque. "They supported

musical things in town," Miller says.

Starting piano at age eight, Miller’s first teacher was Ralph

Berkowitz, former dean of Tanglewood and accompanist to cellist Gregor

Piatagorsky, who retired to Albuquerque. With Berkowitz, now in his

90s, Miller worked on the classics and standard technical studies. "I

was not the most conscientious pupil," he says. "I never felt that I

was a red hot student. I played by ear. I was not a great technician.

I never thought I would do anything with piano until I discovered

popular music."

Miller stayed with piano until he went out for varsity swimming in

high school. "I had to get up at dawn and practice after school," he

says. "I was exhausted all the time. When you’re a teenager, you think

you’re some kind of a dork if you’re not in sports; sports gives you

standing in the community. I liked the swimming and the competition.

The only stage fright I ever got was before swim meets. I never had it

with music."

After high school Miller briefly attended the University of California

Riverside and then lived in Berkeley, California, before moving to New

York in 1970 at age 19. His first work in New York was in bookstores.

Within two years, he reached a turning point.

When he was 21, someone gave Miller the Cole Porter compendium "Ella

Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook." It is still available as a

CD. "It started me on American pop music, which never seems to wear

out for me," he says. "Suddenly, I felt that God wouldn’t strike me

dead if I missed a note. Show tunes leave some leeway. I don’t try to

rewrite it, but I turn it out how I feel it."

For several years beginning in 1973 Miller taught in a New York City

private school founded by film actor Orson Bean. "I’ve thrown show

tunes at New York City kids; they loved it," he says.

In 1981 Miller provided a class in musical theater for the Real Stage,

a drama school run by Sabra Jones and her husband, John Strasberg, son

of drama coach Lee Strasburg. His singing class for Real Stage pointed

Miller in a new direction professionally. "I realized how enthusiastic

people were about standing in front of a class and singing these great

songs," he says. "Then I started doing it outside of class."

After moving to Sergeantsville in 1983, Miller proceeded with classes

in singing. He called the enterprise "The Copper Penny Players," and

it has turned out to be an enduring project. "It’s for people of all

ages and musical backgrounds who simply want to sing," Miller says. "I

encourage American popular songs. Some of the participants sing folk

songs, blues, or jazz. The only thing I draw the line at is rap and

hard rock.

"I encourage them to do it for fun and not to think about careers,"

Miller says. "Show business is a hard business. Sometimes people have

stars in their eyes, but I discourage them from show business. I

encourage local theater. It’s too hard to be professional. Talent is

only one little part of it.

"The Copper Penny Players provides the fun of performing and enjoying

music without the pressures of having to make a living at it," Miller

says. "It provides something people really want and generates itself

year after year." Meetings take place Monday and Tuesday evenings at

Miller’s Sergeantsville studio. There are no auditions. At the moment

there are 30 participants ranging in age from the mid-teens to the

80s. Normally, 10 to 15 singers turn up at each session, and each

person performs for five minutes, Miller says. "They’re happy to give

each other their attention," he adds.

The potential clientele for Copper Penny includes the non-musical

minority that sits silently and mouths the words. Miller knows how to

get them to sing. "I’ve had totally tone deaf people," he says. "If

they have the nerve and desire to sing it’s quite interesting to work

with them. I get them used to making a sound and not being scared of

their own voice. It doesn’t matter whether people are experienced or

not: singing is a matter of getting people to sense the vibration of

their own voice, to know where it comes from, to tell what’s a good

sound, and what’s an unpleasant sound. You can feel that yourself."

For some years beginning in 1987 Miller ran "Silver Dollar

Productions," which staged full productions of operas, musicals, and

plays, but he has abandoned the operation. "It became too expensive,"

he says. "I distilled myself down to doing my lectures." Miller

presents his lectures in song at libraries, museums, and retirement

villages. Occasionally, he hires himself out for private parties.

"That way I get to play, sing, and talk about this subject that I’m so

enthralled with. There are no headaches of organizing other people, or

finding costumes. I just get into my car, grab the proper notebook,

and go."

Lectures in Song: Cole Porter, Friday, April 15, 7 p.m., Trenton City

Museum at the Ellarslie Mansion, Cadwalader Park, Trenton. $20.

609-989-3632. For more information on the Copper Penny Players, write

to 122 Sanford Road, Sergeantsville 08557 or call 609-397-8700.


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