Producer and songwriter J.D. Miller was a pioneering force in the development and preservation of Louisiana music -- the founder of the state's first record label, Fais Do Do, he worked in a range of…
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J.D. Miller Biography

by Jason Ankeny

Producer and songwriter J.D. Miller was a pioneering force in the development and preservation of Louisiana music -- the founder of the state's first record label, Fais Do Do, he worked in a range of styles from Cajun to honky tonk to blues, but his legacy remains tarnished by the series of race-baiting records released via his openly segregationist Reb Rebel imprint. Born May 5, 1922, in Iota, LA, Miller spent his formative years in El Campo, TX, learning guitar from a Gene Autry songbook. According to John Broven's book South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous, in 1933 the family relocated to the Lake Charles area, and there the 11-year-old earned a weekly radio spot singing country music on local station KPLC after winning a talent contest.

The Millers moved to nearby Crowley four years later, and there Miller immersed himself in the Cajun music tradition, forming the Musical Aces with friend Hank Redlich. He then played with the Four Aces, with whom he made his recorded debut for Bluebird in 1937, as well as renowned fiddler Harry Choates. When Western swing act Cliff Bruner & the Texas Wanderers abandoned their daily KPLC showcase to return to the Lone Star State, the Four Aces moved to Lake Charles to take over the gig -- however, the U.S.'s entry into World War II brought Miller's musical aspirations to a halt, and when he returned from duty in 1945 he and wife Georgia (the daughter of fiddle legend Lee Sonnier) opened their own Crowley-based business, the M&S Electric Company.

Consumer demand for Cajun records soon prompted Miller to simply record his own, and in 1946 he traveled to producer Cosimo Matassa's New Orleans studio to cut the first Fais Do Do release, Happy Fats' "Colinda." Happy Fats & His Rayne-Bo Ramblers would become the company's most successful and prolific artist, cutting a series of Cajun country anthems including "Don't Hang Around," "New Jolie Blond," "La Valse de Hadaco," and "Crowley Two-Step"; other Cajun acts signed to Fais Do Do included Amédé Breaux, Jimmie Choates, and Chuck Guillory.

In 1947, Miller launched a second label, Feature Records, that focused on the country & western arena -- with Lee Sonnier's "The War Widow Waltz," the company scored its first major hit, signaling the beginning of the end of Miller's involvement in the limited Cajun market. His ear for country talent proved remarkably acute -- early Feature signings include Al Terry, Jimmy C. Newman, and Doug Kershaw, but despite their quality many of the label's releases suffered from their limited marketing and distribution. Terry's 1952 effort "God Was So Good ('Cause He Let Me Keep You)" -- co-written by Miller and his wife, and inspired by a near-fatal auto accident involving their son Jack -- was nevertheless a huge hit, and prompted Miller to sign over the singer's contract to Nashville publishing magnate Fred Rose in an effort to better position Feature's songwriting and recording catalog to Music City's major labels.

The strategy worked brilliantly. In response to Hank Thompson's classic smash "Wild Side of Life," Miller wrote an answer song, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels." First recorded by singer Al Montgomery for Feature, the tune was re-recorded in 1952 by then-housewife Kitty Wells, who scored a number one hit and became a superstar virtually overnight. Its success earned Miller a songwriting contract with Acuff-Rose, and he concurrently expanded the Feature roster beyond south Louisiana acts like Wiley Barkdull, Joey Gills, and Dottie Vincent to include Texas singers Mack Hamilton and Smokey Stover. Miller additionally took ownership of the Crowley club the El Toro, spotlighting many of Feature's acts, and hosted his own KSIG radio program, Stairway to the Stars.

But in 1955, as the rock & roll juggernaut torpedoed sales for traditional country and Cajun discs, Miller shut down Feature and opened his studio doors to the region's many blues singers, recording efforts for Lightnin' Slim, Lazy Lester, and Lonesome Sundown. Most successful was Lightnin' Slim's erstwhile harpist Slim Harpo, who made his debut with the Miller-produced Excello Records classic "I'm a King Bee." Miller also enjoyed success with swamp pop sensation Warren Storm, in 1958 cracking the Billboard Hot 100 with the cult favorite "Prisoner Song," which the producer licensed to the Nasco label.

Miller also licensed his masters to Decca, Dot, and Top Rank -- his Crowley studio generated a seemingly endless number of records, with a studio crew (featuring guitarist Al Foreman, bassist Bobby McBride, pianist Katie Webster, fiddler Rufus Thibodeaux, saxophonist Lionel Prevost, and steel guitarist Pee Wee Whitewing) as good as any in the business. In 1958, Miller founded a rock & roll label, Rocko -- after a handful of small regional hits like Joe Carl's "Don't Leave Me Again," he switched the company's focus to R&B, grooming acts like Leroy Washington, Sonny Martin, and Tabby Thomas for national imprints like Excello. Another Miller-owned venture, Zynn Records, specialized in swamp pop and zydeco, issuing efforts from the legendary Clifton Chenier ("Rockin' Accordion"), Henry Clement ("Trojan Walla"), and Lionel Torrence ("Rooty Tooty").

Around the time Slim Harpo scored his biggest hit to date with the Miller-produced 1961 single "Rainin' in My Heart," Miller returned to the traditional Cajun music that launched his empire, reviving Fais Do Do with Robert Bertrand & the Lake Charles Playboys' "Drunkard's Two-Step" -- the group later scored with a smash cover of Chuck Berry's perennial "Memphis." Miller also launched the Kajun label as a vehicle for Nathan Abshire & the Pinegrove Boys, while his Cajun Classics imprint was home to Moise Robin, Aldus Roger, and Terry Clement.

In early 1966 Slim Harpo topped the Billboard R&B charts with the Miller-produced "Baby Scratch My Back." But despite his long history of collaborating with African-American acts, Miller was first and foremost a businessman, and as the civil rights movement reached a fever pitch, he launched the defiantly segregationist Reb Rebel label in mid-1966, selling over 250,000 copies of its debut release, Happy Fats' "Dear Mr. President." A spoken word diatribe delivered by a "confused American" to Lyndon Johnson, "Dear Mr. President" openly scorned the White House's civil rights agenda via lyrics like "My white coon dog won't hunt with my black bird dog -- could I get an injunction to make them hunt together?"

Close to two dozen Reb Rebel releases, including Johnny Rebel's "Who Likes a Nigger," the Sons of Mississippi's "NAACP Jig-a-Boo Gemini," and Fats' "Vote Wallace in '72" followed, each more poisonous than the last. In the lone Reb Rebel LP, For Segregationists Only, Miller outlined the label's charter: "These selections express the feeling, anxiety, confusion, and problems during the political transformation of our way of life...Transformations that have changed peace and tranquillity to riots and demonstrations which have produced mass destruction, confusion, bloodshed, and even loss of life...For those who take a conservative position on integration, this 'Great Society' program, the controversial war in Viet Nam and the numerous so-called 'Civil Rights' organizations, this record is a must!"

But even as he peddled racism with Reb Rebel, Miller was gradually moving away from the record industry altogether -- after completing construction in 1967 of his $300,000 Crowley studio, Master-Trak Sound Recorders, and its accompanying retail outlet, the Modern Music Store, he accepted a job as the city's housing director, offloading the day-to-day supervision of his music business to youngest son Mark. In the years to follow, Master-Trak was home to sessions headlined by some of pop music's biggest names, including Paul Simon and John Fogerty. After retiring from his housing position -- and with the introduction of the compact disc format sparking renewed interest in classic R&B and country -- J.D. Miller returned to the fold to oversee the remastering and licensing of his records and his Jamil and Whitewing publishing catalogs. Following complications from quadruple bypass surgery, Miller died March 23, 1996, in Lafayette, LA, at the age of 73.

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