- Jim Bessman
Billy Miller--An appreciation
Billy Miller's death last Sunday (Nov. 13) at 62 left his many friends—and many more fans of his Norton Records indie record label—devastated.
“One of my greatest heroes, and the man who put me on the path of the music that warped my life, has passed away," rockabilly artist Deke Dickerson wrote on Facebook. "Although Billy had been sick, his life force was so strong that none of us believed a guy that full of life, wisecracks, hilarious stories, and the relentless pursuit of rock 'n' roll could ever die.”
“Billy Miller was and always will be, along with his wonderful wife Miriam [Linna], a living embodiment of the Great Spirit of Rock 'n' Roll," Scott Kempner (Dictators, Del-Lords) said on Facebook. "He lived it, breathed it, and together they took their vision to the world with their one-of-a-kind Norton Records. Norton IS Rock 'n' Roll: undiluted, unfiltered, and wild.”
Norton recording group Daddy Long Legs, also via Facebook, posted: "This band was started over a mutual love of the unhinged Rock 'n' Roll he and his wonderful wife Miriam Linna exposed us to long before we would begin making unhinged sounds of our own that would one day grace the shelves at Norton HQ. It's been a joy to work so closely with Billy on our releases and countless events throughout our career. His wit was unmatched and he was the ultimate record collector. So much of what we've done would not be possible without the path he forged for us. We've been so proud to be a part of the culture he and Miriam have created and that's something we will continue to champion until the end of our days."
Miller, who fronted rockabilly band the Zantees, and Linna, an original member of the celebrated punk-rockabilly group the Cramps, met at a record fair in New York in 1977 and began publishing rock fanzine Kicks two years later. They founded Norton Records in 1986 to release music from relatively obscure or dormant artists like rockabilly singer Hasil Adkins, legendary guitarist Link Wray, Little Richard role model Esquerita, R&B ace Mighty Hannibal, and such '60s garage rockers as the Alarm Clocks, the Wailers and the Sonics.
Named after The Honeymooners' Art Carney character Ed Norton, the label also put out records by varied artists including Big Star, Kim Fowley, Bobby Fuller, Lou Reed, Doug Sahm, Sun Ra and Mary Weiss. In 2009, Miller and Linna, who also maintained their garage rock band the A-Bones, launched Kicks Books, home of pulp fiction from Harlan Ellison and the sci-fi poetry of Sun Ra. This year they opened Norton Record Shop in Brooklyn, where the motto is "Where the Loud Sound Abounds" and the mission statement is "We don't want to be elitist. We'd rather have people spend fifty bucks on ten great records rather than fifty bucks on one record that they're going to have to be careful with."
"Billy Miller was an archaeologist of the obscure and the unsung, who found within these outsider artists the true flame that is rock 'n' roll," says Lenny Kaye, longtime Patti Smith collaborator, writer, and compiler of the pioneering garage rock anthology Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968. "As a collector and archivist, as a performer and a fount of information, as a friend, he embodied the music's alchemical spirit, and I already miss those moments when I could call him and be illuminated by his wit and sense of wonder."
Music dealer Chris Capece, who released the Zantees' single "Rockin' in the House" in 1980 on his Little Ricky Records label, cites Miller's "uninhibited passion for 'the beat,' [which] enhanced my own already deep appreciation of both sung and unsung rock n roll greats." He was also there the portentous night in the early '80s when Miller hooked up with Esquerita.
"Esquerita seemed to reappear out of nowhere at [New York club] Tramp's, and Billy and I were part of the adoring crowd," relates Capece. "We were shocked to see that he was even still alive and playing, but he was doing a lounge-type show of songs like 'Never My Love.' So we petitioned him to perform [early '70s compilation] Wildcat Shakeout tracks--in the process leading to an incredibly wild singalong on its 'Esquerita and the Voola.' That night led to Billy's relationship with him, and is one of many cherished memories that will be with me forever! Billy truly lived and breathed what he loved."
Norton would in fact put out Esquerita's Vintage Voola compilation in 1987, and in 2012, Sinner Man: The Lost Session, this including unreleased recordings from a 1966 session in New York.
Rob Santos, head of A&R at Sony Legacy, largely credits Miller with his vocational direction.
"I probably wouldn't be doing what I'm doing without having met him," says Santos. "When I saw Billy and Miriam with their label, it set forth a career path for me."
Santos recalls getting a copy of Kicks while living in Providence, R.I. in 1987, and reaching out to its publishers.
"I'd come to New York every so often, and they invited me over to their little apartment in Brooklyn," he says. "I had a sales job and didn't know what to do with my life, but I wanted to work in the music business, and kept getting shut down because I didn't have any experience. But when I met them I realized I could do what they did and make records. It was a life-changing moment."
Because of Miller, Santos learned "so much about music I didn't know," not to mention being let into a "secret society of cool people," he says, referring to Norton's knowledgeable customer base of music fans and professionals.
"Through the years I've been able to work indirectly with him in licensing [Norton recordings by artists including] Screaming Jay Hawkins, the Flaming Groovies and Link Wray. It's just an insanely huge loss that's not fully hit me and everyone else yet: He was such a large figure in my life."