Walter Miller: Nobody Loved Artists More

He was gruff. And smart. And funny. And nobody loved artists more.

Walter Miller loved artists in every way possible: intellectually, creatively, cellularly. On a soul level that defied description. To say that he “got” them was like saying that Bill Gates understood computer codes. It was like exhaling, or maybe inhaling.

And it didn’t matter what kind of music, either. He loved it all, got it all. He wasn’t afraid to fight for what he believed in. Comedy, too. He craved genius; he responded with everything he had.

“Who are you?” he said in the overcrowded dressing room at the Roxy, the iconic rock club next door to the Rainbow Bar & Grill. Steam was rising in part from the comic who’d just blazed through a ferocious 75 minutes, in part from the overheated celebrity guests coming to pay homage, including Hugh Hefner, Linda Blair and seemingly every Outlaw of Comedy.

“Sam’s friend,” I said, moving a little further down the dressing table so the man who was clearly in charge could get closer to the comedian. 

“That’s not much of a name,” he replied.“Right now, my name doesn’t really matter,” I smiled. “You’re here for him.

Walter Miller was directing “Breaking All The Rules,” Sam Kinison’s first comedy special. Kinison had set the world on fire with 11 minutes on “Rodney Dangerfield’s Young Comedians” special several months earlier; cause controversy with Louder Than Hell, his first Warner Bros. vinyl release, play an overly intense professor in Dangerfield’s “Back To School” feature film and late night spots. Johnny Carson loved him; David Letterman loved the back and forth. He’d gotten banned from “Saturday Night Live,” where he’d done actual stand-up sets, for a joke about Christ’s final words – and then was invited back three weeks later to host.

Into the white hot blast surrounding this “Outlaw Comic,” who said all the things people thought but would never dare speak, Walter Miller appeared. His mission was to walk through the cocaine, porn stars, heavy metal and whatever else, focus the genius – and the genius couldfocus – and deliver the special that would solidify portly comic’s place as the heir to Richard Pryor, Robin Williams and especially Lenny Bruce.

I had no idea who Walter Miller was, except like me, he didn’t look like he belonged there. He also carried himself with a warm authority that required no explanation. 

“Walter,” Sam said, turning towards him. “You happy…”

“Yeah, yeah. I have some thoughts for tomorrow, but this was just great.”

It had been, absolutely. Kinison knew what lay in the balance. He wanted it, and he knewan underplay at a rock room with the right director was exactly the right move. He also knew Walter Miller, who directed the Grammys, was the right man for the job. 

“Breaking All The Rules” remains a lightning fast, yet perfectly paced hour of comedy. Put it against the best of today, it still holds its own. Some argue it re-set the standard: don’t allow the shock to overwhelm, keep it lean, cut so the jokes lay in without being obvious… set… up…

And when Kinison’s life would spin out of control – as it did in often blazing fashion – Walter Miller remained steadfast in his support. He continued to direct his specials, to offer words of wisdom to the former preacher who’d become one of Howard Stern’s most favorite people.

But it wasn’t just the high voltage and the shocking. The man who directed The Grammys” 15 times, the Tonys from 1987-1997 and The CMA Awards 14 times was seeking the unique, the talented, the ones who truly stood out.

After Mary Chapin Carpenter charmed an industry not sure what to make of CBS Nashville’s folkie with an unrecorded song about the wages of being the unheralded “Opening Act,” Miller saw the bright light the Brown University graduate cast. Never mind that she’d walked out in a periwinkle pantsuit, faced an entire industry with her dusky alto, her martini-dry little throat punch at a jerk of a headliner and the kind of delicious smile that he captured to its best effect.

When Shooting Straight In The Dark launched a solid hit with the reeling Cajun-feeling “Down At The Twist & Shout,” Miller was all too ready to put her back on “The CMA Awards.” With her own band, the full stage, it was one big guitar twang, fais do-do fiddle and quick tumble.

Chapin, for all her intellectualism, distilled exuberance. For the second time, Miller captured the unfettered joy, but also the bright shine of a smart woman engaged and engaging the world in all its glory. An unlikely country star, so much of what Chapin brought to the genre – and Walter Miller helped show the world – was a freewheeling sense of being female that transcended tropes, defied age and body type and invited an enthusiasm that wasn’t empty headed.

When Chapin received two nominations – Country Song and Country Vocal Performance, Female – for “Down at the Twist & Shout,” I reached out Tisha Fein, his longtime talent executive. “He lauves her,” the woman Miller called “Teesh,” replied, “But he can’t redo what he just did on the CMAs…and you know country’s hard.”

Having anticipated the problem, her management had already reached out to the celebrated Cajun band Michael Doucette and Beausoleil. She laughed when I explained, “They’re ready, and available, and it’s a way to give back to both the New Orleans chapter, and honor Cajun music, which I know is hard to get on network television.”

“Let me walk it in there… I’ll call you back.”

The booking was done in a matter of days. Chapin went on to romp through her first Grammy appearance, win Best Country Vocal Performance Female on camera, and ascend to her rightful place in the progressive country pantheon that included Lyle Lovett, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, kd lang, Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell and Vince Gill. She’d go on to four consecutive Country Female Vocalist Grammys – and Country Album of the Year for Stones In The Road– part of that success being a direct result of how Walter showed the entire music business the high-tempo, savvy about life songwriter.

But it wasn’t just the wry “Shut Up & Kiss Me,” “I Take My Chances” or “I Feel Lucky,” the melodically sweeping femmepowerment of “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” or “The Hard Way” that spoke to the natty man in the golf sweaters and sports shirts worn just so. He had a poet’s heart;  when it came time for “The 35thAnniversary of the CMA” special, he wanted to do something special with her. Though she’d become the tv bookers’ favorite with those clever built-for-radio songs that created a twinkle in every girl’s eye, Chapin’s true gift was always the soft ballads that spoke so much truth about the life or love or who we are.

“I Am A Town,” from Come On, Come On, is cello, finger-picked guitar and that exhaled burgundy voice. Shooting an almost water-color homage to the America found on two-lane highways, his eye for beauty matched the lyrics in a way that made prime time into art.

“Artists are very special people, and you can’t just stick them up on a stage and let it happen,” Miller, who has won three Directors Guild Awards, a pair of Peabody Awards and earned 20 Emmy nominations, told me 15 years ago for a profile in CMA Close-Up. “You want whatever an artist is going to do to reflect their essence, their career, their soul. . And to do that, you can’t just do cookie-cutter television.”

When I took an acclaimed songwriter with a deal on a new label helmed by lawyer and powermanager Ken Levitan and world renowned producer Emory Gordy, Jr. to lunch with Walter on a grey, rainy July, he looked at Matraca Berg and asked, “And what are you all about?” 

He knew she was the first woman to have written five #1s in a single year, that Reba McEntire had been Grammy-nominated with her “The Last To Know,” that “Wild Angels” gave Martina McBride a song about being truly alive, “That Kind of Girl” was Patty Loveless’ manifesto of being, Trisha Yearwood inhabited “Wrong Side of Memphis” and Deana Carter’s innocence lost “Strawberry Wine” would define coming of age for generations.

But who was she?

They bantered, jabbed and stabbed at the table. Big jokes, insults traded and volleyed. But when that question came, it was a whole other kind of moment. Looking at me, I nodded. Go for it, Matraca, go get your heart’s desire.

She explained “Back When We Were Beautiful,” a elegiac ballad that was piano and a voice that was vulnerable. The antithesis of the funky, strummy tempo songs she elevated into street smart slices of how women loved, it came from a conversation she’d had with her mother-in-law about not just aging, but who she and her husband had been when they were young.

Walter already knew the song. He recognized the pathos. Listening to her talk, there might’ve been a little something in his eye. But he put on his warm face, told her it was wonderful – and picked up the check.

Later that afternoon, he instructed, “Trust me, and keep the faith. I’m going to get this done.”

It was nine months, the time it takes to gestate a baby. People would tell me there was no way Matraca Berg was getting booked on “The CMA Awards,” let alone with a 5 minute song about aging that’s mourning their youth.

People would tell Matraca that, too. And as the slots kept disappearing, down to one final slot – and the word was Wynonna Judd wanted it – I’d get the “This isn’t happening,” yeeps from the woman nominated for Song of the Year. 

“You have to trust, Walter,” I’d say evenly. “Every time I talk to him, this comes up. He says ‘Trust me,’ and I do. You have to, too. Just please don’t listen to people who think they know everything. They don’t know Walter like they think they do…”

And sure enough, the final slot went to Matraca Berg. The call from Walter was like so many awesome calls, “I get one slot, Holly. One slot where I can do whatever want, and this is what I want to do. She’s terrific, and the song is unlike anything, and I can’t wait to get her on that stage.”

Maybe I screamed while he was still on the phone; maybe I started to cry. Hanging up, I know I shrieked loud enough Zelda, a dog who refused to be canine, actually barked from the backseat. Walter told me years later, he didn’t want to listen to the bitching and have people try to extort him into some act he didn’t want because he’d booked some songwriter.

He knew what he was doing. He knew what he wanted. He got it done.

That was Walter, someone who got it done.

Matraca went onto win Song of the Year, dedicating the award to the background singer mother who’d got her in writing rooms with Red Lane young. She was introduced by Vince Gill as “a poet,” performing in a navy blue slip, a piano and three cellos. Years and years later, Walter would smile and proudly say, “Les Moonves still says its one of the 10 best moments of music he’s ever seen on television.”

And that had been the response in the moment, not merely revisionist history. He’d called a few days later, saying, “Leslie says that was the best moment on the entire show. THE best!” His joy was palpable, the vision landed – and someone he respected saw it, too.

That same year, sitting in traffic, I’d got a call from Walter, informing me that a Male Vocalist nominee client of mine would be getting a presents, not a performance. I started to cry, hyperventilating, and saying, “Oh, God… they’re so terrible. You have no idea… the screaming I’m going to endure.”

Not only was the artist lazy and largely mocked behind his back, but he’d had a history of dissing Miller. Not showing up to rehearsals he deemed not important, bad mouthing him in trailers on specials (with Miller standing outside the window, hearing every word), there’d been no professional respect shown a man who’d directed Comic Relief, specials for Barbra Streisand, Robin Williams and Johnny Cash.

“I can’t help it,” he said. “There’s not room. And, frankly, there’s nothing special about what he’s going to do. It’s the same thing every year.”

I continued to cry. Walter sat listening. He understood the way managers’ expectations without looking at how to build something meaningful for/around their clients could rain down on a publicists instead of dealing with their real issues.

“I am so sorry,” I choked out, feeling the fool. Who does this to someone so generous? And yet, I knew the verbal thrashing that was coming.

“Give me his number.”
“The manager’s…”
“Oh, God, uhm…”
“No, he’s not going to take it out on you. No, no, no… I’m not afraid of a bully.”

And when the artist was given a truncated performance on a flyer stage, I asked why he relented. “I didn’t, Holly,” he said. “The more I talked to the guy, the more I got it. So I told him, they could have this – and have this only because of you.”

That was Walter. Gruff, yet deep down, so kind and concerned about everyone else.

When he came to town, we’d have dinner at the hotel where he always stayed and was quite the house favorite. The conversations were always far flung and amazing; life, golf, friendship, people we knew, people we loved, people who’d left us. And always revelations. When he’d talk about Charles Schulze, “Sparky,” hanging out at the hockey rink where he skated, it was like peeping through a keyhole where creative titans could just be men, just be friends and at peace.

That was thing, for a man so robust and so successful, Walter really just wanted to do great work, help artists who needed the “moment” that might launch something great.

He wasn’t’ afraid to fight for it, to stand his ground, to dig in in the name of creating something that was truly breathtaking, great, spoke to something more than just flogging a hit. When you’d go to Washington, DC for “A Capitol Fourth,” you’d feel his pride in being an American; sense that the way he stacked that show, it was about demonstrating the diversity and majesty of American talent from Broadway to soul, country to pop – all backed by a classical orchestra, culminated in extravagant fireworks behind our nation’s monuments.

Paul and Debbie, his children, were incredible directors in their own rites. Each took his eye, turned it to the world, created television that was compelling. But they – like their Dad – also created families of love, extended circles of kindness and fellowship.

That was always the best thing about those dinners with Walter.

Yes, he’d tell show business stories about everyone, and he could regale you for hours, a natural born storyteller, but when he’d deep-dive into you, you felt seen, heard. He’d listen to a career crisis, take it all in, then lift a glass, cry, “Screw’em,” then tumble into laughter as he transformed your problems back into mole hills. He’d ask about your love life, wondering aloud, “Could this be the one?,” not to be gossipy, but in the hopes that perhaps you could find what he had.

What he had – beyond 100s, maybe 1000s of people whose lives he touched – was the ability to have great fun and a real sense of himself without becoming lost in ego. He was always looking to lift people up, to teach them how to be better or more. He delighted in Snickers bars, his preppy clothes and finding young artists who inspired him.

And when he believed, he never faltered. Talking to him one night in the early 2000s, I asked a big question. I’d been thinking about how regal he looked walking into Sam Kinison’s Holllywood funeral, a hotbed of hard rockers, comics, saloon owners and people trying to be noticed. All in black, sunglasses on, he was stoic and open. A small respite of honoring the dead in the fomenting chaos.

“How come you never gave up on Sam?”
“Because,” he said as if that explained everything.
“Well, so many people did, they just walked away,” I pressed, “And you never faltered that I saw.”
“Holly, you knew him. You knew what was deep inside, and you knew the talent. Why would somebody’s struggles erase that? Either you’re in or your out, I guess.”
“And when I first started talking to you…”
“Why did you listen?”
“Because you smart, and you loved the music, and you really thought this stuff through.”
“Well, doesn’t everybody?”
“They think they do, but they don’t know – and don’t care or want to know.”
“And you were that kid with Kinison, that said everything about you. How much you cared, how much you understood what was going on… not everyone has that.”
“Lotta people in this business want to be a big deal. Then there are the ones who want to be around great, who love the artists and want to make them shine. When you find one of those, you don’t forget.”

And so, Walter Miller’s gone. After 94 years, countless adventures, millions of miles traveled, all those jokes and ribbings, songs that he loved, lives that he touched. He noticed unlikely things, and he created bonds and bridges.

Something tells me Zelda, my beautiful yellow cocker spaniel, was waiting at the gate for her buddy. Well-behaved, she used to go to “CMA rehearsals,” sitting on the Opryhouse pews right behind the director, who would brighten noticeably when she arrived, them enjoy a rousing dialogue that brought my precious baby into the room as a player in full.

Looking over his shoulder after a particularly predictable performance, Zelda turned her nose up and looked off. “See, you guys, even the Cocker Spaniel knows…”

Then he was onto barking instructions into his headset, scanning the run and reaching for a mini Snickers. There are far greater examples of Miller’s generosity, but I can’t think of one that shows his heart quite like that.  

Leave a Reply

Bringin’ It Backwards: Interview with Kylie Trout

Iconic Record Producer & Songwriter Dann Huff Chats with ‘Pitch List’