Two decades after suffering the brain haemorrhage that curtailed his magnificent career, the music of Frankie Miller – Scottish soul singer extraordinaire — is being celebrated again thanks to an audacious album overseen by Spike from the Quireboys, a Miller fan of impeccable credentials who first came across the artist when the song Darlin’ was such a memorable hit in 1978.
But for those who may need reminding just why Frankie Miller is, as Spike says, one of the “greatest songwriters and singers this country has ever produced”, listen to his albums like Full House or High Life. The 64-year old from Glasgow has been cited by everyone from Ray Charles and Van Morrison to Rod Stewart and Bob Seger as a remarkable vocal and R&B talent.
“And that’s why the album that I’ve taken four years to bring to fruition – 100% Pure Frankie Miller – isn’t a tribute. It’s a celebration. Despite his circumstances [he’s often confined to a wheelchair and is severely disabled] Frankie doesn’t want sympathy; he just wants his music to be heard.”
Fortuitously, four years ago Frankie and his stalwart wife Annette attended a Quireboys concert, fully aware that Spike had covered two of the man’s songs on his 2005 solo disc It’s a Treat to be Alive. “Annette said, ‘look, why not come over?’ Frankie’s got so many songs he’s written and hasn’t recorded. I did, and fuck, there were around 300 songs, some finished, some needing adjustment or a chorus, but they were there!”
Spike whittled his selections down to 30 and started putting out feelers. Soon the Free rhythm section of Simon Kirke and Andy Fraser were on board. Ian Hunter bumped into Spike at the Classic Rock Awards and said ‘definitely’, and then Ronnie Wood turned out to be an old mate of Miller’s “and we were honoured to have him play on a few cuts. These songs have never been heard before and they’ve been recorded with Frankie’s blessing. They are songs that would have been lost if it wasn’t for the desire of a group of his closest friends and biggest fans to do them justice.”
In the event the project was, as Spike admits, “a labour of love. I did my vocals and played acoustic guitar to a click-track then sent the tapes off to the Free guys in New York and Los Angeles and they added their signature sound. I took the finished songs (which also feature Bonnie Tyler, Chris Corney and Cherry Lee Mewis amongst many luminaries) to Rockfield Studios in Wales where Frankie cut his debut album Once in A Blue Moon. We used old tape – fucking expensive – and vintage equipment and the original engineer Kingsley Ward was on hand. Hopefully the results sound warm and authentic.”
They do. But what does Frankie think? “Far as I can tell, he loves it. He was smiling like mad when I played it to him. I can communicate with him more than you might think. At least, he can say ‘Marlboro!’ and he still enjoys a drink. Why the fuck shouldn’t he?”
Miller was never short of willing accomplices. He’s featured guests like Steven Tyler and Phil Lynott, he’s recorded with Allen Toussaint, and one song on the new album, A Bottle of Whiskey, will be the official Scotland Rugby Union anthem when the Six Nations kicks off this autumn. Johnny Depp featured the song (After All) I Live My Life to close out his movie The Rum Diaries in 2011; all proceeds going to Miller’s ongoing medical bills.
Now Spike is eyeing up a follow-up and a live recreation of 100% Pure…
God bless him for this project, though he doesn’t accept plaudits. “It’s all about the songs. It’s all about Frankie Miller. We’re in his debt - he deserves this.”
Five tracks from the new album to listen out for.
The Brooklyn Bridge. The perfect brooding introduction to a Miller style album: complete with a slow crawling atmosphere and the Free boys box-tight rhythmic clout. A dark tale of an illicit tryst, drenched with great female BVs and stand-out guitar licks. Already sounds classic.
Cocaine. Ron Wood’s slide adds a Stonesy vibe to this look of isolation and paranoia where there’s “fever in your pocket and madness in your brain.” Probably a nod to JJ Cale’s song of the same name it has a gloriously Little Feat-like trade-off.
Intensive Care. With its slick West Coast swagger this sounds like a song from the era right before his accident when Miller was forming a supergroup with Joe Walsh, Nicky Hopkins and Ian Wallace. A tantalising taste of what might have been.
Cheap Hotel. That’s Ian Hunter on the barrelhouse piano but no doubt all concerned could relate to this amusingly bitter grouch about road tour blues and how they can’t stand the bed, the view or the desk clerk. Musicians don’t like single room occupancy..
Cold, Cold Nights. Speaking of which, this was originally to be a full on country album and this cut is a classic loser’s lament with pedal steel and fiddle and a lyrical warning to weak-willed men – but it’s too late. She’s fucked off.
100% Pure Frankie Miller is out on September 8.