Rolling Stones Producer Jimmy Miller: Things You Didn't Know - Rolling Stone
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Rolling Stones Producer Jimmy Miller: 15 Things You Didn’t Know

We remember the man who added cowbell to “Honky Tonk Women” and manned the boards for the band’s classic late Sixties and early Seventies LPs

Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones along with producer Jimmy Miller work on the mixing of their "Let It Bleed" album at The Elektra Studios in October, 1969 in Los Angeles, California.Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones along with producer Jimmy Miller work on the mixing of their "Let It Bleed" album at The Elektra Studios in October, 1969 in Los Angeles, California.

Learn 15 things you might not know about Jimmy Miller, the producer who oversaw the Rolling Stones' classic late Sixties and early Seventies LPs.

Robert Altman/Getty Images

The Rolling Stones‘ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” released as a single 50 years ago today, isn’t merely the greatest song ever written about Keith Richards’ gardener (who inspired the tune in name only). It recently came to light that, in the summer of 2016, a phrase from the opening line – “crossfire hurricane” – became the FBI code name for their investigation of President Trump and his ties to Russian meddling in the election. But due to the involvement of producer Jimmy Miller, “Flash” was already a landmark in the band’s discographical lore.

The song arrived five months after the ill-fated Their Satanic Majesties Request LP, which had critics and fans alike questioning whether the Stones were still relevant. Writing for Rolling Stone, Jon Landau said “Their Satanic Majesties Request, despite moments of unquestionable brilliance, puts the status of the Rolling Stones in jeopardy. With it, the Stones abandon their capacity to lead in order to impress the impressionable. They have been far too influenced by their musical inferiors and the result is an insecure album in which they try too hard to prove that they too are innovators, and that they too can say something new.” Landau further added that the album “was marred by poor production.”

The Stones didn’t need a rock critic to tell them they could use some help. Before you could say Jack Flash, they’d hired Brooklyn-born producer Jimmy Miller who, while they were recording Satanic Majesties in studio A at Olympic Studios, had been recording Traffic’s debut album in studio B. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was the first release with the new partnership.

The collaboration would be one of rock’s most fruitful, with Miller producing the next five Stones albums: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, and Goats Head Soup. Those first four aren’t just four of the best albums the Stones would ever record; they’re four of the greatest rock albums of all time (coming in at numbers 58, 32, 64 and 7, respectively, according to Rolling Stone). “Jimmy Miller was one of the most simpatico producers that I’ve ever worked with,” Keith Richards said in According to the Rolling Stones. “He could handle a band – especially this band – and gave everybody the same level of support. … He had a very good rapport with Mick.”

Jimmy Miller brought two major things to the Stones. First, he encouraged experimentation in the studio. To wit: When the band played the demo for “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” on a mono cassette, Richards commented how much he liked the distortion his acoustic guitar was getting from overloading the tape. Miller suggested that if they liked the sound so much, they could record the guitar part that way for the song. “You know, there we were, spending good money for time in a top studio,” Miller told writer Richard Buskin for his book Inside Tracks, “and recording on a 20 pound cassette machine.”

Miller also brought the groove, the roll, to the rock. “Jimmy Miller was a damn good drummer,” Keith Richards writes in his memoir, Life. “He understood groove. He made it very easy for me to work, mainly for me to set the groove, set the tempos …” “Sympathy for The Devil,” which started as a folk-inspired dirge, would be nothing without the samba rhythm, which was incorporated under Miller’s watch.

1. Jimmy Miller’s first success came with the Spencer Davis Group, which featured a young Steve Winwood.
As Miller explained to Nina Antonia from Record Collector, Chris Blackwell (who was both label chief of Island Records and manager to the Spencer Davis Group) “thought it might work for me to come over and do something with Steve and the Spencer Davis Group on ‘Gimme Some Lovin.’ It changed my life and it was their first hit in America.”

Blackwell had been impressed with Miller’s work producing local New York and New Jersey R&B groups, and brought him to London to remix the song for the American market and. An A/B test of the U.K. and American versions (on Spotify the U.S. version is tagged as “Single Mix”) shows not only what Miller did with that song, but also lays out the blueprint for what he would bring to the Stones’ sound. On this track, Miller added gospel-inspired backing vocals, sped up the tempo to get a better groove, and added both percussion and live ambience. The band had a follow-up hit with their next single, “I’m a Man,” which Miller both produced and co-wrote. Winwood, who Miller said “always had a touch of Ray Charles about him,” went on to tap Miller as producer for the first two Traffic albums as well as Blind Faith’s sole LP.

2. That’s Miller, not Charlie Watts, drumming on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
“I felt a rhythm figure that everyone liked, but Charlie didn’t feel it.” Miller recalled in Inside Tracks. “I sat down and played it again and Charlie, who was lovely and humble said, ‘Jim, that sounds great, you play it.'”

“Jimmy actually made me stop and think again about the way I play drums in the studio,” Watts recounted in According to the Rolling Stones, “and I became a much better drummer in the studio thanks to him – together we made some of the best records we’ve ever made…”

Miller is also behind the kit on “Happy,” “Shine a Light” and the outro to “Tumbling Dice,” and played different percussion instruments on songs including “Gimme Shelter,” “Monkey Man” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.” And of course, there’s also the cowbell …

3. Miller is the man behind the famous cowbell in “Honky Tonk Women.”
Musician Gary Wright, who knew Miller before he went over to the U.K., and later worked with him in the vastly underrated Spooky Tooth, recalls that Miller was a great producer and that “if you’d be doing something and it wasn’t quite happening, he’d go out and pick up a cowbell and go out into the studio and whole thing would turn around.”

And this was happening as the Stones worked trying to find the groove for their song “Honky Tonk Women.” As they struggled, Miller went to the studio and “started playing two little cowbells, one atop of another on a steel prong, and set the tempo for the whole song,” recalled engineer Andy Johns in Robert Greenfield’s Ain’t It Time We Said Goodbye. “Jimmy really knew how to get fantastic grooves and come up with cool sounds …”

The sound is so singularly Miller-ian that the Stones have had a hard time replicating it on the road. “We’ve never played an intro to ‘Honky Tonk Women’ live the way it is on the record,” Watts said in According to the Rolling Stones. “That’s Jimmy playing the cowbell and either he comes in wrong or I come in wrong – but Keith comes in right which makes the whole thing right. It’s one of those things that musicologists could sit around analyzing for years. It’s actually a mistake but from my point of view it works.”

4. In 1968, he and Bill Wyman displayed some real-life heroism and we’re all the better for it.
French New Wave director Jean-Luc Godard was at Olympics Studio filming the Stones arranging, rehearsing and recording “Sympathy for the Devil,” for his frustrating film of the same name (originally titled One Plus One). In his memoir, Stone Alone bassist Bill Wyman recalls that a fire broke out after an all-night session. The heat of the film crew’s lights set fire to the studio ceiling. “The rest of the boys had left and my first thought was to save the tapes: Jimmy and I dashed in to the control room and then into the vaults to pull them clear, and then we ran for safety,” Wyman recalled. “Everyone was evacuated while three fire-engines came within minutes to extinguish the blaze. Guitars, amplifiers, a Hammond organ and photographic equipment were all soaked. After the firemen had finished, Jimmy Miller and I returned the undamaged tapes to the studio’s tape vault and we left for home.”

5. Miller deserved a medal just for getting Exile on Main Street made.
Tales of the making of Exile are legendary. A good deal of the album was recorded in the basement of Keith Richards’ mansion in the South of France, which was frequented by drug dealers, not to mention drug addicts, drug buddies, drifters who definitely were on drugs, and grifters. The Stones themselves would rarely make it to sessions, and the  oppressively humid space wasn’t at all conducive to making instruments stay in tune. The control room – the new Rolling Stones Mobile Studio – was a truck parked outside of the mansion, which made it difficult for the production team to communicate with the musicians. And of course the master of the house, Keith Richards, was cultivating a rather nasty heroin problem, to which Miller soon succumbed as well. It’s no wonder that in According to the Rolling Stones Keith Richards said, “Jimmy Miller’s name is written in gold in rock’n’roll heaven. Working under the most bizarre conditions and knowing the characters he had to deal with, Jimmy was a joy.”

6. Mick Jagger had a very specific reason he wanted Miller to mix his vocals low.
“Mick and I always fought a bit over his vocals,” Miller said in Inside Tracks. “I thought they should be up front, but whenever we were mixing he would say ‘too much voice, too much voice.’… I said, ‘Mick, why are you always asking for less level on the vocals? I mean, aren’t you confident about how your vocals sound?’ He said, ‘No, it’s not that.’ And he described how, when he was growing up and listening to negro blues songs, there would always be a bit of a contest to recite the words because the artist often sounded like they had a mouthful of mush. You couldn’t work out the words to a song by hearing it now and then on the radio, so you would have to go out and buy the record, and play it over and over.’ Pragmatic as ever, Mick now believed that if people wanted to get the words … mixing down his vocals would make them more prone to buy the records!”

7. Jimmy Miller is the missing link you’ve always wondered about between the Stones and P-Funk.
Chris Blackwell had first became aware of Miller after hearing work he did with American soul and R&B groups, including sessions he did with future funk master George Clinton in his early group the Parliaments. In fact, Miller says the first single he produced was for the Parliaments, “Lonely Island.” Clinton told Offbeat writer John Wirt, “Jimmy Miller used to sing with us. He would write with myself. When he left us, he took some of the funkiest stuff over to London.”

8. Don’t think he could give Mick Jagger a run for his money, but Jimmy Miller did put out some singles of his own.
Jimmy Miller did make a run at it as a lead singer. More Dion and Drifters than Steve Winwood or Mick Jagger, he released a few singles on mostly regional record labels. As evidenced by tracks like 1965’s “Break My Heart Break,” the man could certainly carry a tune.

9. His dad was also in showbiz.
Jimmy Miller’s father, Bill, was a Russian Jew who came to the United States with his family at the turn of the century. He owned a New Jersey nightclub called Bill Miller’s Riveria which attracted headline acts including future Rat Pack members Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr. The club was closed in 1953 so the Palisades Parkway could be built. Miller then headed out west to Las Vegas. There he became entertainment director at the Sahara and, according to the Las Vegas Journal Review, “virtually invented the Las Vegas lounge show.” According to Bill Miller’s daughter, Jimmy’s half-sister Judith, “He helped integrate the show biz scene there by booking Sammy Davis Jr., who was not permitted to stay in the hotel!”

The senior Miller also booked Elvis Presley in 1969 at the International Hotel for his 1969 return to live performance.

10. Jimmy Miller’s half-sister Judith Miller is the Judith Miller
Judith Miller may be better known as the former New York Times op-ed writer who was front and center in the Valerie Plame scandal during the George W. Bush era, the one who served time in prison for not revealing her sources. But back in the day, while she attended the London School of Economics (after Mick Jagger), she got to watch the Stones record at night. As she wrote in The Story: A Reporter’s Journey, “I quickly lost interest in my courses, preferring to watch Jimmy work – usually from midnight to dawn.”

11. He got credit for producing a record he didn’t do much producing on.
He’s credited as the producer of Sticky Fingers, but he wasn’t in the studio for “Brown Sugar,” “Wild Horses,” or “You Gotta Move.” Those songs were recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Sheffield, Alabama, during a couple of days off from the band’s 1969 tour, in early December. Session guitarist Jimmy Johnson, who engineered the songs along with the Stones, was the de facto producer. In According to the Rolling Stones Charlie Watts says the tracks down in Alabama were great, “and we did them without Jimmy Miller which was equally amazing.”

12. He got the Knack before there was a Knack.

He discovered and produced a band of Detroit teenagers called Sky. The band was fronted by Doug Fieger, who would years later front the Knack. After Sky opened for Traffic, that band’s flautist-saxophonist Chris Wood gave the teenage Fieger producer Jimmy Miller’s address and suggested he write him, which Fieger did. In an interview with Todd Longwell, Feiger recounted, “One night, we’re watching TV, and my dad says, ‘There’s a guy named Jimmy Miller on the phone.’ I’m going, ‘Yeah, right …’ it’s John from my band putting me on. And it was [Miller]! He said, ‘I’m coming to Detroit to look at the Motown Studios, and I want to see your band.’ We picked him up at the airport and we drove him to Motown, then brought him back to my house. We sat around my ping pong table in the basement and played him all our songs, and he signed us the next day. A week after I graduated from high school, he flew us to London. We were in Studio A, while the Stones were in Studio B recording Sticky Fingers. I was seventeen years old. It was unbelievable.”

13. His last album with Stones was Goats Head Soup.
As “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” signaled the dawn of the golden era for the Stones, Goats Head Soup signaled the demise of it. It also marked the last time Miller would work with the Stones. It wasn’t a terrible album by any stretch, but after the span of brilliant and innovative albums that preceded it, Goats Head Soup sounds uninspired. In Life, Keith Richards comments, “We wore out Jimmy Miller, who slowly succumbed to the dope and ended up carving swastikas into the mixing board while he worked on his swan song album for us, Goats Head Soup.” Miller would battle drug and alcohol addiction for the rest of his life.

14. Later, Miller would become the fourth member of Motörhead.
Miller would at times overcome his addiction and in the late 1970’s he got himself together to produce the seminal Motörhead LP Overkill. He would succumb to drugs again as he made the follow up Bomber. In a Metal Hammer interview with Malcolm Dome, Motörhead frontman Lemmy recalled that the band was given a list of four producers to work with and chose Miller for his work with the Stones. He noted that Miller “made a massive contribution. For a start, Jimmy knew his way round a studio, and as a band we certainly didn’t. He also became the fourth member of Motörhead for the time he worked on the album.”

Miller’s last works include two tracks on Primal Scream’s breakthrough record Screamadelica – one of which was the Stones-inspired single “Movin’ on Up.”
In 1991, a year where grunge reigned supreme in the U.S., Primal Scream’s “Movin’ on Up,” an ode to Miller-era Stones from their third album Screamadelica, ended up being the U.K. band’s first breakthrough in the U.S., landing at Number Two on the Modern Rock chart. The band’s frontman Bobby Gillespie recalled that Miller was still “really into groove and rhythm. On ‘Movin’ on Up’ there’s this mad percussion thing going on, and it’s Jimmy playing two Coca-Cola bottles.”

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