“Music and my Father”
If you asked me, "Abbe, what do you enjoy about your life?", of course, I would say my home life, my family, my spouse, my son, my dog, I can't complain. But, if you looked me right in the eye and asked me, what do you enjoy about your life, what can you always turn to? I would tell you music, and singing, right away. And I will sing anywhere. Karaoke bars. Open Mics. My Bathtub. Doing the dishes. And I sing in my car. Loudly! I also sing with a jazz combo at a local inn in my town. I have been accompanied by a 24 piece big band on stage at a neighboring university for benefits. I sing in geriatric centers. The charity benefits; and singing at the assisted living centers, these venues mean the most to me these days.
I must say that I enjoy singing the songs of a bygone era, music and lyrics from an era called "tin pan alley" many, many years ago. I realize when I sing these songs from the 1920s and 1930s nowadays, no matter where I am, no matter what hardships I have endured, the songs had helped me come through the ordeal. In fact, I have found great joy this way, and have a special man to thank for it. That man is my father, Marvin Miller.
My first childhood memories are those of music. My parents, Marvin and Phoebe, were wonderful dancers. The dances in the late 1950s included the mambo, the cha cha and the standard fox trot. My parents played records with soaring arrangements and voices to match. Sammy Davis, Jr., Sarah Vaughn, Billy Daniels, Keely Smith, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Eydie Gorme, Rosemary Clooney. I did not know an orchestration of a Nelson Riddle from a Don Costa. But I thought there was a theater in my living room. Sadness! Gladness! Broken hearts. Marriage. Cottages. Babies! All with a verse and a chorus of thirty-two bars, and a smart coda.
I have so many childhood memories of music I draw upon now (and I know many, many songs written way before I was born back in 1956). The special memories are the ones I spent with my father. Although a child of the 1960s, I was well-steeped in a world of my father's nostalgia. Marvin would take my brother Bennett and me from our home in Niles, Illinois, a suburb outside of Chicago, to restaurants he loved, like Friedman's Delicatessen on Western Avenue in Northtown, a neighborhood in Chicagoland. His friend Oscar ran the deli counter, and he sang. He sang the songs of Guy Lombardo with my Dad, while serving up chocolate phosphates, which were chocolate syrup and seltzer water. Bennett and me, we could not be happier. “ ‘Boo Hood, you got me crying for you!’ What a dumb and stupid song! “My brother Bennett would tell me. This was because it was not rock and roll. "Not to me," I would say. I remember I was haughty, being in the know, a year older. "Guy Lombardo will sing it on New Year's on TV. Daddy and Oscar said so." Guy Lombardo's orchestra did play every New Year's Eve in those days. It was the national tradition. I was proud as a peacock that I knew that!
I was my daddy's little girl. I was his 'Abbela', named Abbe after Abe, his father. He regaled me with stories of grampa Abe, who came to the United States from Grodno, Russia, and my gramma Molly. Abe's father, my great-grandfather, was a Cantor, a singer, in shull, synagogue, the Jewish place of worship.
My best childhood memory is when my father would sing to me. Just to me. We would be in Daddy's car, one of the many loaners he would get from the used car lot that he owned with a man named Jonas on North Cicero Avenue on the city's west side. I remember being seven or eight years old in the winter of 1964, and the car at that time was a big mauve-pink Cadillac that had those enormous white-wall tires. My father sang to me, the old-style, poignant, vaudeville tunes that Oscar sang in the deli. Daddy said that the songs he was singing were songs that his mother and father would sing to him, when he was five or six or seven. Songs like "Poor Butterfly", or "Say it isn't so", or "Our Love is here to Stay". The songs were on the Sammy record, or on the Ella record! I would be laughing out loud! It was as if my discovery was like my parent giving me a doll or a new slinky toy. My father was acknowledging with love and approval as only a parent can, that yes, yes, the songs were from mommy and daddy's record albums. From the canons of Gershwin. Berlin. Kahn. Kern. Rodgers and Hart. Beautiful melodies, beautiful words with beautiful souls. Marvin would drive around Chicago to play cards, see a bookie, roll dice. I never knew his little pixie-haired, green- eyed daughter may have been a good luck charm or not. Daddy asked me to sing to Uncle Jonas, Howard, Sid, Doc Doman...and I would, no wallflower was Marv's little girl! Was I a shill? Maybe. I didn't care. When I sang the libretto from "Guys and Dolls" with my Dad, little did I realize for another five years that we were, yes, living it. When we lost our home in Niles, my parent's marriage crumbled, and the Miller kids, Abbe, Bennett, Claudia and Daniel, all had to fend for themselves, I had one constant: I had my patents' record collection and wonderful music to comfort me.
The songs I have written about are 80, 90, 100 years old now. I remember my dad saying before he died, "Abbela, these songs are always with me." Throughout my lifetime they have been with ne. Before Daddy passed away last August, at 82, he was in hospice. I sang his songs to him when I said goodbye. Two of them. One Gershwin tune, and one "Ace in the Hole", written in 1911, about gamblers:
This town is full of guys
Who think they're mighty wise
Just because they know a thing or two.
You'll meet them night and day,
Strollin' up and down Broadway
Telling of the wonders they can do.
There's con men and there's boosters.
There's card sharks and crapshooters.
They congregate around the Metropole.
If I knew what that meant I would agree with him.
They wear flashy ties and collars.
Yes, but where do they get there dollars?
They all have got an ace down in the hole.
Yes, and some of them write
To the old folks for coin,
And that is their ace in the hole.
And others have friends on the old Tenderloin
That's their old ace in the hole.
Why, they'll tell you of trips
That they're going to make
To the North Pole.
Why they will brag about trips
They're gonna make
Over to Florida,
All the way up to the North Pole.
But, their names would be mud.
Like a chump playin' stud.
If they lost
That old ace,
Ace in the hole
Daddy knew I was there. Even in illness, even death, music is in our souls, music is healing. My father Marvin Miller helped teach little Abbe Miller all about that. These songs are always with me, too. You see, I love to sing with a jazz combo, and a great big band, and, how! But reaching a patient in a nursing home who finally realized who he was again because someone happened to sing and play his favorite song by Cab Calloway? That is priceless. And that is one of the many reasons I sing and perform today. And I always, always think of my father and whisper a "thank you, pa". Music Heals.