The most famous record producer of the classic rock era was George Martin but next in line was probably Jimmy Miller. Never heard of him? You’ve heard the music he produced. I’ll get that in a minute.
Miller was an American but he had his greatest success with British artists. He was a singer and drummer in his early career, without much success, until he was hired by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell to come to London and work with some of his artists.
First up was the Spencer Davis Group and their most famous song, “Gimme Some Lovin’”, and then co-wrote “I’m A Man” with Steve Winwood as the group’s next single. Winwood then formed Traffic, which Miller also produced. He also worked with reggae singer Jimmy Cliff and the rock group Spooky Tooth (Gary Wright, pre-“Dream Weaver”), before landing his most famous gig, The Rolling Stones.
Miller worked on five of the Stones’ greatest albums: “Beggar’s Banquet,” “Sticky Fingers,” “Exile on Main Street,” “Let It Bleed” and “Goat’s Head Soup.” The Stones had fallen flat in the mid-60s with the release of “Their Satanic Majesty’s Request”, their response to “Sgt. Pepper.” While it is not a bad album, compared to “Sgt. Pepper”, it is not in the same league.
The Stones were entering the late 60s in a precarious position, but they took a bold step forward with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, with production by Jimmy Miller, who focused their energy around a gritty, no nonsense, lean rock sound. Gone was the psychedelic and eclectic instrumentation of the mid 60s, replaced by crunchy guitars and drum grooves. For “Honky Tonk Women”, Miller guided the drum sound and provided the distinctive cowbell. Maybe that’s where the “more cowbell” originally came from.
Miller continued working with other groups while producing the Stones. The five albums he produced put the group on their most successful path, just as Jagger/Richards were writing their best songs. This period coincided with the arrival of guitarist Mick Taylor, who gave the Stones the best guitar sound of their career. His solos and punch helped their music shift into overdrive.
This period also coincided with the Stones journey into hard drug use, Miller included. The story of the recording of “Exile On Main Street” is legendary and has been chronicled in Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones by Robert Greenfield. It is remarkable that anything got recorded, let alone some classic songs. The group was tax exiled in France, recording at a villa, with drugs and recording time unlimited. He is credited as playing drums on several tracks, and is discredited by Mick Jagger who said the album was a mess that he had to clean up.
After the “Goat Head Soup” album, Miller would be fired by the Stones. His success would never reach the heights of the previous five years, although his career would continue until his death at age 52 of kidney failure.
Miller continued to work with Traffic on several albums, and the Steve Winwood/Eric Clapton supergroup Blind Faith. Traffic began to mix folk and jazz into their arrangements and benefited from a strong producer who knew how to layer the sound without burying it in excess, which often happened. Blind Faith’s one and only album was bound to disappoint because expectations were so unrealistic. The band had little time to craft their sound or improve the songs that ended up on the album. The production is great and the playing a snapshot rather than a masterpiece. Blind Faith was really a jam band but it didn’t stay together long enough to make anything of it. He also produced albums by Delaney & Bonnie and Friends, Motörhead, and solo albums by members of Traffic.
After “Goat Head Soup”, the Stones began producing their own albums, and Mick Taylor left after “It’s Only Rock and Roll”, the next album. The Stones’ sound changed with “Black and Blue” although threads of the Jimmy Miller sound would continue to this day.
Jimmy Miller’s producing career burned bright but seemed derailed by his substance abuse. Not an uncommon story in the music industry. Miller was part of the bridge between psychedelic pop and the harder, blues influenced rock of the period beginning in the late 1960s.