Remembering Billy Miller: Norton Records' Tireless Rock & Roll Foot Soldier

Through crucial reissues, fascinating books and dozens of seven-inches, label co-owner championed rock's forgotten masters

David Fricke honors the memory of Billy Miller, who – along with his wife, Miriam Linna – co-founded essential rock & roll imprint Norton Records. Credit: Gino Domenico/AP

In a year of grave, accelerating loss in music – from David Bowie just 10 days into January to the cruel November streak that cost us Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell and jazz-blues singer Mose Allison, it is tough but essential to leave some grieving and celebrating for rock & roll's foot soldiers: the dedicated spirits who are known by name usually to just a lucky few but whose purist labor and missionary zeal reverberate far beyond the hipster margins. They are also some of the nicest and most generous folks you'll ever meet, because they are rarely in it for their own glory and gain. The music is what counts, and they serve those who make the best of it but never find the limelight.

Billy Miller – who died on November 13th at 62 at his home in Brooklyn, New York, from complications of myeloma, kidney failure and diabetes – was one of those souls, a collector and scholar of the raw, fundamental and unapologetic in rockabilly, R&B and garage punk who shared his knowledge and passions with the exuberant, addicting force of a true fan. He was also one hell of an entrepreneur. In 1977, Miller – a native of Jamaica, Queens – met Miriam Linna, an early drummer for the Cramps, at a New York record fair. Two years later, they founded the encyclopedic fanzine Kicks which begat their Norton Records label in 1986, an enterprise that remains a vital beachhead for the history you need to know in a business otherwise going down the tubes.

Early Norton reissues and archival releases by pioneering guitarist Link Wray, rockabilly outsider Hasil Adkins, Little Richard forebear Esquerita, singer-guitarist Bobby Fuller and Sixties Northwest ravers the Sonics were instrumental in bringing those artists back from the forgotten during the grunge and indie-rock eras. Billy and Miriam also threw lifelines to artists they were certain had more to give, reviving the careers of the Atlanta R&B singer the Mighty Hannibal and Mary Weiss, the original lead voice in the Shangri-Las. In their own bands the Zantees and the A-Bones, the couple also gave drive and love onstage and record to their heroes, including Adkins and Flamin' Groovies vocalist Roy Loney.

But there were also the things you can't press into vinyl or annotate in liner notes – the broad, enthusiastic smiles with which Billy and Miriam always greeted me when I saw them at gigs in New York or when I sheepishly walked up to their corner table of heaven at WFMU's sprawling record fairs. I was always determined, on those late Sunday afternoons, to throw down some long green, buying my fair share of wax. Usually, Billy just handed me a stack of new riches – Norton's latest rarity platters by Sun Ra or Boston garage warriors the Real Kids; hot-from-the-printer volumes of vintage pulp fiction from Norton's publishing line, Kicks Books – with a proud grin and cheerful assurance: "Man, you're gonna love this."

I can't miss the music that Billy added to my life because I have kept and treasured every wild-animal howl, clanging guitar chord and rifle shot of slap-back reverb. And while I mistrust those obituaries and tributes that reduce an artist's legacy to a Top 10 of their greatest songs or most underrated records, Norton Records always felt like an alternate hit-record universe, where the Sonics are Led Zeppelin, Roky Erickson got the Nobel Prize for Literature and Adkins is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In that spirit, here are a half-dozen ways that Billy, Miriam and Norton have made this world a better rock & roll place to live. Go to nortonrecords.com to find thousands more.

Doug Sahm, San Antonio Rock: The Harlem Recordings 1957–1961 (Norton, 2000)
Nearly a decade before he cut himself a slice of British Invasion cool with the Sir Douglas Quintet, Sahm was a teenage recording prodigy across a five-year stretch of – until this anthology – mostly unknown singles that packed everything he was already playing in Texas dancehalls and ultimately sent across the country with SDQ and his Tex-Mex supergroup the Texas Tornados: country, R&B, Western swing, conjunto. Norton excels at this kind of rescue mission – scholarship that goes great with a drink and dancing.

The Sonics, Here Are the Sonics; Boom (Norton, 1999)
Everybody knows it now – or should. Superstars in the Pacific Northwest in the mid-Sixties, this Tacoma, Washington, band never toured east of Pittsburgh or had a hit record beyond the Rockies. But Norton's steadfast championing of the Sonics' atomic take on British Invasion R&B is packed into these reissues of their 1965 and '66 LPs, with relevant singles. The monsters are all here, in their original, feral glory: "Cinderella," "The Witch," "Psycho," "He's Waitin'," "Strychnine." A 2001 sequel, The Savage Young Sonics, collected earlier tapes cut at home and at teen dances between 1961 and 1964, including a '63 shot at that Northwest anthem "Louie Louie."

Lou Reed, All Tomorrow's Dance Parties EP (Norton, 2000)
This is as deep as you can go into the Velvet Underground: Reed's 1958 debut on record with his Long Island group the Jades, both sides of this doo-wop artifact bearing "Lewis Reed" writing credits; and the New York poet-provocateur's first solo recordings, two originally unissued "teen swing dings" (per Norton's catalog description) from 1962. The period-perfect combination of high-school grease and aspiring sweetness are the light side of the moon compared to Reed's impending fusion of drone and noir with the Velvets, but he carried that first affection for early rock & roll and vocal-group R&B throughout his canon, notably on 1975's Coney Island Baby.

Kim Fowley, Lord of Garbage (Kicks Books, 2012)
"Cult figure" doesn't begin to describe this producer, arranger and songwriter, the king of rock & roll misrule in Southern California and especially the L.A. record business for more than half a century. Fowley came to autobiography with stories to spare, publishing this first blast of a promised three-volume memoir three years before his passing at 75. A mesmerizing raconteur with a delivery on the page that suggests William S. Burroughs holding court at the Whisky a Go Go, Fowley came of rock & roll age in a now-distant Hollywood of glamorous old-school sinning and independent-label shenanigans that he recounts with an emphasis on his own genius but also a colorful sympathy for the dreamers and deluded that pass through his orbit. If it's hard to believe that some of the records he describes in this book even got made – Lord of Garbage ends before he gets to his spell with the Runaways – be assured by Norton's vinyl series of anthologies bearing titles such as One Man's Garbage and King of the Creeps, which draw on the richly strange corners of Fowley's early discography.

Daddy Long Legs, Evil Eye on You (Norton, 2012)
Billy and Miriam didn't look at everything through a rear-view mirror. In signing this trio of hard, electric-R&B stompers, originally from St. Louis, they put their contention that the roots and action of the Fifties and Sixties were still a modern affair on a record that sounded like Chicago blues fired at the moon, played by demented children of the Pretty Things. A subsequent live release, Daddy Long Legs Rides Tonight (Norton, 2015), proves this album's fury was no studio mirage.

Norton Rolling Stones split-single series
Billy's face lit up with special glee every time he handed me the latest installments in this epic project: over 30 seven-inch singles in which Norton artists, associates and friends cover Stones hits, album tracks, B sides and ephemera only from the Sixties, with Norton labels and sleeves that expertly mimic the Stones' original London Records pressings. The catalog is too long to go into here. I'll just mention a few names and tunes to get you jazzed – the Dirtbombs, "No Expectations"; Sky Saxon of the Seeds, "The Singer Not the Song"; the A-Bones' "Miss Amanda Jones"; Question Mark and the Mysterians, "Empty Heart"; and La La Brooks of the Crystals, "Play With Fire." Go to Norton's website to learn more and open your wallet.