Exiled Genius: Exile On Main Street Revisited

Jimmy Miller and Mick JaggerThe month of May, 2010 has Mick Jagger on your TV screen…from Jimmy Kimmel to Larry King, with welcome chatter about the greatest band in the world…and the quintessential double album that is now expanded with bonus tracks…EXILE ON MAIN STREET. We’ll be reviewing the Exile On Main Street DVD in the very near future…but as I haven’t opened the “official” Universal Music promo copy download of the CD (what the heck? Can’t even hold the disc in your hands when reviewing…what’s the world coming to?) for now we’ll revisit a space in time with the man who made Exile On Main Street, the late Jimmy Miller.

Jimmy Miller remembered

Few people who hear “Honky Tonk Women,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Street Fighting Man” realize that the man who put many of the classic sounds into those Rolling Stones classics lived in Medford, Massachusetts for a year or so in the 1980s.

Along with Beatles’ producer George Martin and the once revered Phil Spector, Jimmy Miller rounds out the three greatest producers of the rock and roll era.

The world lost Mr. Jimmy, the man Mick Jagger was “standing in line with” in the song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” on Oct. 22, 1994, 15 years 7 months ago this week. Strangely, Marianne Faithful, produced by Jimmy on an album called “The Rolling Stones Rock And Roll Circus,” released on ABKCO a year after his passing, told this writer to “give my love to Jimmy” just 13 days before Miller’s death.

I never got the chance.

Medford might be known worldwide for the song “Jingle Bells” having been written on what is now High Street, but it’s also very special that our city was home for a time to the man who co-wrote and produced “I’m A Man” for the Spencer Davis Group and who went on to produce Traffic, Spooky Tooth, Blind Faith, Johnny Thunders, The Plasmatics and, of course, that band called The Rolling Stones.

Miller, in fact, produced more than 100 songs for the Stones. As his business partner and exclusive representative, I had compiled about 93 recordings Jimmy worked on for The Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the world, uncovering more in Martin Elliot’s excellent “The Rolling Stones: Complete Recording Sessions 1962-2002.”

Twelve years after Jimmy’s exit from the stage of life, book after book is being written on the Mick and Keith and their eternal music. By 2006 there were an astonishing four books on the Miller produced “Exile On Main Street,” the double LP that ruled the airwaves…there will be more, no doubt…the album’s majesty reaching new ears and exciting new listeners…

So “Exile On Main Street” is now being studied by rock scribes from four corners of the globe. Robert Greenfield, a veteran writer who previously put together “STP: A Journey Through America With The Rolling Stones,” has just released “Exile On Main St: A Season In Hell With The Rolling Stones” (Perseus Books, Cambridge, Mass).

It will hold your attention as Greenfield was there in France during some of the recording and again in Los Angeles while the group was mixing the album. Greenfield is an amazing interview and the pity is that his book doesn’t have his voice booming out of the pages. He tells the story with the awe of a Stones fan while still having that critical eye on what is going on during the creative magic and all the madness that drugs and hangers-ons tend to add to the equation.

Greenfield is very kind to Miller throughout “A Season In Hell With The Rolling Stones,” but the emphasis is on engineer Andy Johns when a better part of the story is the technique Jimmy brought to those recordings. Geoff Emerick’s recent “Here, There and Everywhere” on his time engineering The Beatles, nicely blends both the music and the stories – Yoko Ono’s bed literally brought into the recording studio during the recording process – absurd tales that only add to the charm of the music we now love and adore. Yoko’s dragon lady pales in comparison to “A Season In Hell” as the true rock and roll bad boys descend deep into the abyss and Greenfield records it all for posterity here.


After Miller was signed to Colgems for a 45 RPM or two, he began making records in his early 20s with a then-unknown George Clinton, later of Parliament/Funkadelic. Entrepreneur Chris Blackwell of Island Records was looking to give record producers a marquee platform that film directors enjoy and when he hired the maestro he would splash “Produced by Jimmy Miller” in bold letters on the back of albums by Traffic and Spooky Tooth.

Miller deserved the recognition. The man had a wealth of musical knowledge and skill along with music in his genes. His dad was impresario Bill Miller who brought Elvis back to Vegas in 1969, and his mom was a lovely woman, Anne Wingate, who was a showgirl, living out her final days in Wilmington, Del.

Jimmy was actually named David Miller, one of two twins, the only one to survive during birth, his parents putting the name of the deceased baby, James, in front of David’s name, so the survivor became James David Miller, destined to be record producer Jimmy Miller.

As Jimmy had moved from Brooklyn to Great Britain, where his great reputation was established, we had a number important projects including a former Mercury artist, singer Jo Jo Laine, and legendary Blues guitarist Buddy Guy.

It made sense for Jimmy to re-locate his family to the Boston area during this time as much of our recording work was done in Boston proper and a studio in Warren, R.I. Usually I drove Jimmy to the sessions, we were pretty inseparable at that point in time, but when we got extra busy we would rent a car for Miller.

An interesting story occurred while he was in the sauna at his condominium at Wellington Circle. Three 15-year-old boys stole the car we had rented, taking the keys off of the hook while he was in the sauna. They seem to have taken it on a joyride to Malden Center, hit another automobile in the lot where there’s now a gym, then most likely high-tailed it back to the scene of their first crime, the parking lot at the Wellington condominiums. They replaced the keys back on the hook in the sauna with Jimmy not aware the car had been stolen.

The next morning the rental car company phoned me and said, “You owe us $2,000 for the car accident last night.”

“What accident” I said astonished.

Quickly phoning Miller, he replied, “Joe, I didn’t even drive the car last night.” A few minutes later Jimmy phoned back. “My God, the front of the car is damaged!”

Miller tracked down the culprits, though they were never brought to justice, but we got a summons from the rental car company to go to Somerville District Court. Jimmy Miller, having gone to college for law, was a valuable asset in the courtroom. He left law school to become a singer and was signed to the previously mentioned Colgems imprint (the label The Monkees were on!) in the early 1960s.

I could wake Jimmy up from a sound sleep to look at contracts before getting them to our lawyer and he would be quite sharp when it came to things legal. In court the judge asked if I purchased the insurance, which I did. The judge then got furious with the rental car guy.

“I don’t care if Mr. Viglione parked the car at the curb, left it running to buy groceries at the convenience store and it got hit while he was out of the car. He bought the insurance. My question to you, sir, is where is the insurance money?”

The judge took it “under advisement,” but Jimmy assured me we won! And we did.

Jimmy could be a terrific friend and his stories were phenomenal. We have many of them on tape for future release on CD and to be included in a book on his life: “Fever In The Funk House: The Biography of Jimmy Miller.” We were working on his book during the 80s, and have lots of audio of his distinctive voice, a very special sound talking about the very special sounds he made!

Which brings us to a book by Bostonian Bill Janovitz, lead singer and guitarist for cult favorites “Buffalo Tom.” Janovitz has written a book called, you guessed it, “Exile On Main Street,” part of Continuum’s 33 1/3rd series, is by former Buffalo Tom guitarist/singer Bill Janovitz.

He opens the book by calling the album “The single greatest rock & roll record of all time,” a pretty good endorsement to the music crafted by Miller and the Stones. Where Greenfield delves into the dark passages that helped create the atmosphere in his Perseus book, Janovitz tells about the recordings from his perspective as a musician.

Reading the books back-to-back, which this critic did, is sort of like continuing a soap opera and to those who love the songs “Sweet Virginia,” “All Down The Line” and “Shine A Light,” you’ll understand the need for so many words on such a dense musical buffet.

Both authors are fans of the music and their passion for it shows, though neither book is the definitive story on the album – not that they claim to be. The hard to find Genesis book, EXILE, may be the holy grail on the subject so far. The problem with Genesis books is also what makes them so valuable.

The British book publisher creates limited edition leather bound treasures that cost hundreds of dollars (anywhere from $250 to $400 or more for these coffee table books). For the hardcore fans, go to eBay.

The mix master

Jimmy Miller came into my home in Woburn and “Tumbling Dice” was on the stereo.

“Take that off,” he said to me.

I said, “You’ve got to be kidding. This is probably my favorite of all your productions.”

That’s a hard thing to say – Jimmy was my favorite producer of all time – and perhaps still is. “Tumbling Dice” is an endless party, the mix so sublime with the chicks wailing and the Stones chugging along.

“I had to mix that 43 times,” he said.

Jimmy told me how he, Mick and Keith would get into a limo, drive around Los Angeles and listen to the song on the radio. Keith liked the mix, Jimmy liked the mix, Jagger asked Jimmy to go back in and mix it again.

“Mick Jagger was the most singles-conscious performer I ever worked with,” Jimmy stated.

To this fan – and critic – “Tumbling Dice” is the ultimate mix. Somehow all the mania got contained into that hit, the first “advertisement,” if you will, for the album. It was the song that would herald the double disc, traditionally a tougher sell to an industry that is known for overpricing what it markets.

But Exile is well worth the price of admission and “Tumbling Dice” the perfect entree. Mick Jagger is a businessman and despite all the sex, drugs and rock and roll one will read about, the institution that is The Rolling Stones hardly left something as vital as a mix of a new 45 RPM up to chance.

When Miller formed a new production company and struck a mega deal with ABC Dunhill, The Stones created their “Glimmer Twins” production team of Mick and Keith. Andy Johns remained as engineer on “It’s Only Rock & Roll,” but minus Miller – even with the brilliant Mick Taylor still on board for one more disc, Johns’ mixes missed the mark.

The Stones themselves never quite re-captured that “golden era” sound without Miller and Taylor as part of that magic combination. Jimmy was the “groovemaster” and many of The Rolling Stones’ finest recorded moments happened because Jimmy got the groove.

“I’m playing the drums at the end of Tumbling Dice,” Jimmy told me. “Charlie was unavailable and we needed a little extra ooomph, so I got behind the kick and put the drums down.”

They explode out of the speakers. It is the drumming team of Charlie Watts during most of the record with Jimmy Miller at the end of this fantastic recording that make “Tumbling Dice” such a delight. Fever In The Funk House now indeed!

Miller played drums on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Happy” and other songs, including the end of “Tumbling Dice.” His production skills are undeniable.

But why is there so little written on him? Even in the two new books on “Exile On Main Street,” the great Jimmy Miller seems to have a cameo appearance when his contributions are great.

To those exploring the album’s majesty with real depth the element that brought that intuitive intangible to the music, the producer, has to be explored in more detail. The sound that developed when the director of the film brought all the components together needs to be discussed.

Take Jimmy Miller away from the equation and you get “It’s Only Rock & Roll.” The band’s first album without Jimmy was like a can of cola left open on the table for a day. Flat “New Coke” just can’t compare with the caviar that Jimmy created for them. Miller says that Keith Richards played him a mix of “It’s Only Rock & Roll” which was terrific, far superior to what eventually was released. Imagine if the master got to mix that album at another crucial juncture in The Stones saga.

While having lunch at the old Howard Johnson’s at Wellington Circle with Jimmy’s second wife, the late Gereldine Miller (nee Gere Rock), she told me how after Jimmy left The Rolling Stones started consciously erasing him from their story. Greenfield, to his credit, admits that the Stones took what they could from Jimmy’s technique.

Jimmy got the groove like no one else. Knowing what he did and doing what he did are two distinctly different things.