Frankie Miller may not have recorded his debut album ‘Once In A Blue Moon’ until late 1972 but by then he already had a huge reputation in live music circles and was seen by many as a superstar in waiting. Millers Mother and elder Sisters introduced him to music at an early age and he quickly became fond of the soul and R&B in their collections. Little Richard in particular hitting a note with the young Miller. Choosing music over football he wrote his first song at the age of nine after being given a guitar by his parents and was already auditioning for bands before he left school.
His first professional outing was with the Glasgow based band The Stoics but after a falling out with fellow member Jim Doris Miller relocated to London where he spent some time living in the Kentish Town flat of long time friend Jimmy Dewar from Stone The Crows. Whilst there Miller met Robin Trower who had just left Procul Harum and he introduced him to Dewar. The three of them along with former Jethro Tull drummer Clive Bunker formed a band called Jude, which at the time was heralded as a supergroup in the making and received plenty of attention from the music press. Despite this the project never really took off and they never even recorded an album. Bunker went on to become an in demand session musician and later joined Blodwyn Pig. Dewar of course remained with Trower and took on vocal duties as well as bass playing and as The Robin Trower Band they recorded a succession of hugely successful albums throughout the 70s. One Miller/Trower composition from this period ‘I Can’t Wait Much Longer’ appeared on their first album. Miller was offered a solo contract with Chrysalis.
‘Once In A Blue Moon’ was recorded at Rockfield Studios in Monmouth, South Wales during the latter part of 1972 and features ten tracks, seven of which are original Miller songs along with one co-written with former Stoics man Jim Doris. There are also two covers, one from blues man Willie Dixon and the seemingly obligatory for the time Dylan track.
Miller had become friendly with the band Brinsley Schwarz, who were a pretty big draw on the London pub circuit, so much so that they had a huge house in Northwood, Middlesex with their own recording studio in it. Miller would regularly turn up at their gigs and do a guest appearance. He was also a regular visitor to the Northwood residence and they quickly formed a good working alliance. Sensing that they worked well together Miller and Chrysalis decided to use them on the album so armed with crates of beer they all headed for South Wales to put Millers songs on tape.
Brinsley Schwarz consisted of Brinsley Schwartz himself and Ian Gomm on guitars, Bob Andrews on pianos and accordion, Billy Rankin on the drums and Nick Lowe on bass. Lowe of course would go on to carve out a successful solo career in the latter half of the decade. The line up was augmented by three female backing vocalists billed only as Bridget, Joy and Janice. Ian Gomm later commented that the backing vocalists weren’t at the recording session and that they never even met them as their vocals were added at a later date.
The album kicks off with ‘You Don’t Need To Laugh (To Be Happy) a mid paced song that sets the mood for the album perfectly. The instrumentation is tight, as you would expect from a band that worked together a lot and the song has a great infectious rolling rhythm. There is plenty of room though for Miller to express his Dylanesque lyric to good effect. The vocal is gravelly and growling yet almost seems to be sung through a smile. It is easy to see why Miller carved out a successful career as a songwriter and became something of a darling of the Nashville set in later years. Despite this being his first album he has already honed the art of story telling through lyric writing to perfection and the words conjure up great images in the mind not only through this track but throughout the whole of the album. The backing vocals also add considerably to the track and you would never guess they had been added later.
For many the second track ‘I Can’t Change It’ is the highlight of the album. A slow soulful song full of brooding melancholy it was reportedly written by Miller when he was only twelve years old. The almost spartan acoustic guitar and piano intro lead perfectly into Millers vocal which drives the song along with feeling and passion. The instrumentation and backing vocals are perfectly tailored punctuating between the lyric to great effect never interfering with Millers vocal melody but adding to it without ever trying to steal the limelight. For many this is as good a vocal as Miller ever recorded and the song has been used several times in film and TV productions most notably in the hit British dramas Cracker and Life On Mars. The greatest accolade for the song though from Millers and many of his contemporaries perspective was the fact that Ray Charles chose to cover it on his album ‘Brother Ray Is At It Again’. Quite a feat for someone who at the time was an unknown outside Britain and Miller must have had to pinch himself as he recalled listening to Charles as a boy with his Mother and Sisters.
The pace quickens again for ‘Candlelight Sonata in F Major’. A rather curious title but Miller must have preferred it to the more obvious title suggested by the lyric. The song chuggs along with a jaunty rhythm and it isn’t difficult to imagine it could have done well as a single. The honkytonk piano solo is also a nice touch and it is a perfect follow up to its brooding predecessor.
The country tinged Anne Eliza Jane follows and features another great Miller lyric in that it tells a story and conjures up great images of the old west. The song with its infectious chorus was a particular favourite of Millers and it remained in the live set for many years.
Side One of the original vinyl issue comes to a close with ‘It’s All Over’ a song which nods to the future a little and wouldn’t sound out of place on the Full House album recorded some years later. The song may well be the rockiest on the album and also features a short tasteful guitar solo.
Side Two gets underway with ‘In No Resistance’ another of those country tinged faster paced tracks that became a part of Millers trademark in later years. The hard riffing acoustic guitars accompany the vocal well and whilst the song isn’t anything revolutionary it is still a good track.
As with Side One the second track on Side Two is a slower more bluesy and soulful affair. ‘After All (I Live My Life)’ was co-written with Jim Doris when they were in The Stoics together. Once again the musicians leave Miller to drive the song along with his mournful vocal, adding to the song again with nice little touches here and there. The organ work of Andrews is particularly effective underneath the vocal and during his brief solo. The song had actually already been recorded by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition on their 1970 album Tell It All Brother and Lulu had also recorded it. Needless to say neither of them came close to matching Millers delivery. The track was later used in the Johnny Depp film The Rum Diary.
The first of the covers is next up in the shape of Bob Dylan’s ‘Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’. The song tells the story of a trip to Jaurez in Mexico where the narrator encounters all sorts of woes and the lyric references many literary figures such as Poe and Kerouac. The song features no chorus and Millers vocal appears to have ben multi layered or given a slight echo. The overall feel of the song is quite dreary and for me at least it is one of the lesser tracks.
‘Mailbox’ which follows though is undoubtedly my personal favourite from the album. It has a ridiculously catchy melody and the organ sound that provides the riff is infectious and stays in your head for a lifetime once you have heard it. The lyric is once again one of those great Miller stories. It has hit single written all over it for me as that riff would be great on radio. The swirling keyboard sound at the end of the song is also a great touch as is the brief guitar solo. It may be slightly more frivolous than a lot of the tracks on here but for me its three minutes of pure aural delight. The track was covered by former Thin Lizzy guitarist Brian Robertson, who worked with Miller on his final completed solo album Dancing In The Rain, on his own solo album Diamonds and Dirt in 2011.
The final track on the album is the second cover Willie Dixon’s ‘I’m Ready’. Originally recorded by Muddy Waters, Millers version is positively dripping in sleaze as he delivers the lyric in a snarly gravelly drawl. Miller also plays harmonica on the track. My only criticism is that I am not sure it is the perfect track for ending the album and I would probably have flipped it with one of the other tracks. To be fair though there isn’t an obvious album closer track on the album so that may have been part of the reason for its positioning.
‘Once In A Blue Moon’ was released in January 1973 and is criminally short coming in at less than 33 minutes, but that was pretty much the norm in those days. Looking back it is hard to believe this is Millers first recording as everything sounds so professional and the songs are all well crafted. The album was produced by Dave Robinson, who later went on to be the founder of Stiff Records. The 2003 remaster features four extra tracks in demo form.
One final curiosity is the cover, or more to the point the inner cover. One side of the bag has the lyrics for four tracks Ann Eliza Jane, In No Resistance, I Can’t Change It and You Don’t Need To Laugh but the other side of it is totally blank.
(Dedicated to Secret Squirrel for giving me the encouragement to write again)
© Martin Leedham. First published 19th November 2019