Hazel Miller knew she could sing at an early age. Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, she remembers how her Catholic school principal would encourage Miller's musical talent with a friendly nudge and smile whene she and her fellow first-graders were singing.
“Sister Martha Joseph would pinch me just a little bit on the arm and whisper, ‘Hazel, sing louder and they will follow you,'” Miller recalls.
Miller notes another significant moment, in eighth grade, that prompted her to embrace her vocal abilities — this time, by an Aretha Franklin song she heard on the radio.
“People used to criticize my singing when I was a kid. They would say, ‘You don’t sing like the way it is on the record.’ And I would tell them, ‘I don’t want to sing it like that. I want to sing it like how I hear it.’ No one understood that," she recollects. "So when I first heard Aretha singing ‘Do Right Woman, Do Right Man,’ it resonated down to my soul. It was almost as if she had walked out of my dreams, with the voice that I thought I had. I just wanted to sing from my heart.”
Miller’s father worked six days a week on the loading docks at Fort Knox while her mother worked as a housekeeper. Outside of school, Miller and her six siblings would entertain themselves by creating variety shows of singing, dancing and jokes, inspired by The Ed Sullivan Show.
Miller and her three sisters and three brothers got around town by foot, as their father didn’t own a car. “Wherever we went, we had to walk together as a group. And we would always be singing something, Motown or some jazz standards, because my father always sang them at home," she says. "He had a beautiful voice. He could sing anything from Johnny Mathis.”
Apart from music, Miller was passionate about studying marine biology. Her senior year in high school, she sought to apply to smaller colleges that offered the major, but was discouraged by a school counselor. “I was asked to pursue something different, like teaching," she remembers. "I was told, ‘No Negroes are marine biologists in this country,’ and that it was never going to happen.”
After graduating from high school in 1971, Miller did a short stint at the University of Louisville before deciding to focus on music instead. Mixing blues, jazz, gospel and soul, she sang for various groups and became a big part of the Louisville music scene. In 1982, the city asked her to record “Look What We Can Do, Louisville,” which helped boost her singing career. Two years later, she set her sights on Los Angeles.
“My mother would tell me to try to have a career outside of Kentucky," Miller says. "She’d say, ‘Do not stay here; you’ll be happier somewhere else.’ At first I didn’t want to leave Louisville, but then I decided it was time to see what else was out there for me.”
Renting a large U-Haul filled with furniture from her two-bedroom apartment, she embarked for Los Angeles with her savings of $3,000. But on the way, the truck broke down in Denver, and she decided to stay in the city permanently. "Looking back," she says, “I couldn't have planned it any better. Denver has been a real blessing for me and my career.”
For the last 38 years, Miller has been bringing her soulful sound to Colorado and beyond. She has sung with or opened for artists including Mel Torme, James Brown, the Temptations, Julian Lennon, Ziggy Marley, Jennifer Holliday, Bob Weir, Pops Staples, Nanci Griffith, James Taylor, Michael McDonald and many more.
Miller will be performing a free show this Sunday, June 19, with her seven-piece band, the Collective, as part of the City Park Jazz summer concert series.
In between Miller’s own gigs, which round out to nearly 250 shows a year, she often performs select dates with Big Head Todd & the Monsters, a band she’s been playing with for the past couple of decades. “Todd Park Mohr and his band and I used to run in the same circles. We were all playing the same clubs in Boulder and Denver during the late ’80s to early ’90s,” recalls Miller. “I saw Todd play this half-hour opening set with his guitarist, and his vocals blew me away. He played all these old blues songs from the 1960s. Because of that, I started paying more attention to his band. Whenever I was playing in proximity to where they were performing that night, I would run over during my break to see their gigs.”
Apart from playing with her own band, Miller also performs with Big Head Todd and the Monsters on select dates.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters
In the early ’90s, Miller received a call from the Monsters’ road manager. “The backup singer who sang on their hit song ‘It's Alright’ was in a family gospel group and couldn’t come to Colorado to sing, so he asked me if I could learn the backup vocal, come to the Boulder Theater and sing it with the band," she says. "So I went.”
In 1996, Miller got another call, this time from Mohr. “Todd asked if I wanted to come out on the bus and tour with them, but I wasn’t sure. He said, ‘Come up with us for six weeks, youre going to like it. If you like it, stay on the bus; if you don’t, you have nothing to lose,’" she says. "Well, I stayed on the bus for two to three years. They treated me so special, like I was Aretha Franklin. My feet didn’t even have to touch the ground.”
Since then, the 69-year-old Miller has played with Big Head Todd and the Monsters every year. “I play with them when they have a show at Red Rocks. This February, we played at an island festival called ‘Rockin’ the Reef’ in Jamaica," she says.
“Being on the road with these amazing guys, who are like my little brothers, taught me what success is, which is to be happy. When you're young, you want to be a star and you want to be rich. I know now that I don’t want to be rich and I don’t necessarily want to be the star," Miller concludes. "I want to play for people, who, when I walk to the end of the stage, I can hear them sing with me.”
Hazel Miller and the Collective, Sunday, June 19, 6-8 p.m., City Park Pavilion, 2001 Steele Street.
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