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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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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,
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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