ONE OF THE FIRST – ONE OF THE LAST
Professor Alfred E. Miller (1927-2015)
From Anthony Heilbut, author of The Gospel Sound and The Fan Who Knew Too Much:
Excepting pioneer COGIC keyboard artists Arizona Dranes and Elder Charles Beck, Alfred E. Miller was the first pianist on records to play in the modern gospel style.
In fact, since he drew his inspiration from Roberta Martin, who more or less invented things, traveling very far from where Dranes and Beck had landed, Miller has a real claim to being the first on record, since Martin herself wouldn’t record for at least three years.
Alfred Miller, [age reported as 89 but probably 88], died somewhere in Florida, but grew up in New Jersey. He was training to be a classical musician when he began playing for Madame Ernestine B. Washington, then stationed in Montclair, NJ. He made his recording debut at 16, playing piano on her first recordings (1943) including two masterpieces, “My Record Will Be There” and “In Shady Green Pastures.” He continued to accompany her on both piano and organ; they also recorded duets.
He performed a similar role with another COGIC grande dame, Madame Marie Knight, and recorded a hit duet with her of the 19th century hymn “Whispering Hope” (theirs was a cover version of an anomalous hit by pop singers Jo Stafford and Gordon MacRae). He also played organ on classics by Sister Rosetta Tharpe (“I Shall Know Him” and “Peace in the Valley”) and Mahalia Jackson (“My Journey to the Sky,” “Just to Behold His Face,” and her great single version of “Troubles of the World”).
For many years, Miller led his own gospel group, The Milleraires. For a while, that group’s male lead was Archie Dennis, later recruited by the Roberta Martin Singers, the Baptist group that spent much of their time at Washington Temple COGIC.
Miller served as musical director of TV Gospel Time and frequently accompanied the great COGIC ladies. The audio-video collection How Sweet It Was shows him accompanying Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Madame Emily Bram on piano, and even singing in a trio with Rosetta and Delois Barrett Campbell (see clip below, from YouTube).
During the 1960s, Miller was involved with several gospel musicals that were produced off Broadway. After many years of devotion, he finally left Washington Temple COGIC and spent perhaps his most lucrative years working for Reverend Ike. In his last years, Miller became a practitioner of New Thought theology. He is survived by wife Jessie and one son.