Most Rolling Stones fans and aficionados agree the bands’ best albums came during the period of 1968–1972.
And a big reason for the success of Beggar’s Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. (the Stones’ top four albums) was the work of producer Jimmy Miller.
Now, the Stones during that time were at their peak, but before Beggar’s Banquet, they’d gotten away from their roots and tried to tap into the psychedelia that was so popular back then (while trying to be like the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) by releasing the brutal Their Satanic Majesties Request in December of 1967, an album they produced themselves. It was mostly a flop, and alienated their core audience of pop and blues fans.
So the Stones decided to get back to rock and blues roots when they began writing for their next record, Beggar’s Banquet. They also took the advice of their recording engineer, Glyn Johns, who recommended they check out Miller’s work. So Mick Jagger dropped in on a recording sessions for Traffic’s first record, Mr. Fantasy, which Miller was producing, to see how he approached things and worked with the band. Jagger was impressed enough to ask Miller to help out on Banquet.
Beggar’s Banquet: Miller’s First with the Stones
Miller, who was born in New York and died in 1994, talked about those early days working with Mick, Keith and Co. in Richard Buskin’s book Inside Tracks saying “Musically they were just coming out of their psychedelic period, which hadn’t been too successful for them, and I think that was lucky for me, because I didn’t insist that they change direction, but they were ready to do so, as was evident from the new songs that they played me. What they had written was rock and roll, yet I subsequently received a lot of credit for getting them back on course, so I benefitted a lot from being in the right place at the right time. There again, I think it’s fair to say that being American also helped, because — as was the case with many successful British bands during that era — they had been raised on American records. As things turned out, it was not always easy — they could take a long time over certain things — but it was always a pleasure, especially when they’d eventually hit those magic moments as they inevitably seemed to do. The first of those just happened to be on the very first track that I produced for them, ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash.’”
“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, was originally released as a single in 1968, and never appeared on Beggar’s Banquet. Trademark elements of Miller’s input are there in the song: A thumping, groovy backbeat, plenty of energy and layers of percussion (Keith Richards played the booming floor tom) — all made that much better by a remarkable guitar riff driving the song.
Interestingly, Phil Brown, one of the original engineers at Olympic Studios where the Stones were working, said “the kind of producers I worked with originally were people like Jimmy Miller who were producers who set up situations and controlled things, but they were vibe merchants. Jimmy Miller was this incredible kind of energy and drive and force. He made the session feel like you wanted to be there and make music. But he wasn’t a hands-on producer. There was more of an overall control, a bit of a vibe.” And Miller agreed with that statement saying he sees his view of the engineer and producer’s roles: “As a producer I pretty much let the engineer get the sound together, and I might add my own suggestions if there’s a particular sound I’m after or if there’s something that I would like to change.”
So you can see Miller was more involved in how the band sounded from listening to them verses working the mixing board. As Brown said, Miller was a “vibe merchant.” That statement is echoed by noted recording engineer Andy Johns, who said Miller “was an extremely talented man. His main gift I think was his ability to get grooves.”
Taken as a whole, Beggar’s Banquet sees the Stones returning to their blues roots, but with a new, modern rock sound. You can hear it right away on the opening track “Sympathy for the Devil” in how crisp and clean it sounds. Many would say it’s the best-produced album of 1968, and features some unorthodox techniques to capture certain sounds and feels like Miller choosing to record the basic track for “Street Fighting Man” (guitar and drums) on a cheap cassette because the song needed a rawness to capture its violent political leanings.
Let It Bleed: Miller & the Stones Hone their Craft
The Rolling Stones began working on Let It Bleed in early 1969 at Olympic Studios in London. Miller again was instrumental in helping shape the feel of the album, which was released in December 1969.
“Honkey Tonk Women”, a single that came out ahead of the record in July, is a Stones classic featuring a funky cowbell played by Miller, who was first and foremost a percussionist and drummer.
On “Gimme Shelter”, the opening track on Let It Bleed — one of the Stones’ best songs, period — Miller helped them find an urban soul vibe featuring Merry Clayton’s soaring background vocals and some prominent percussion work. On the song Miller even leaves in some studio background sounds like at the 3:02 mark, when Clayton punches out a particularly high note, someone in the studio goes “Whooo” in response to her amazing vocal prowess. Classic stuff.
Miller plays drums on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” because Charlie Watts had trouble with the quirky beat. And for an example of him helping create a great vibe, “Monkey Man” has that rocking swing made better with a nice bit of tambourine thrown in by Miller.
Certainly Let It Bleed saw the Stones and Miller honing their craft, while it was the last album Brian Jones would play on, as Mick Taylor made his Stones debut on the record playing slide on “County Honk” and guitar on “Live With Me”.
Sticky Fingers takes Stones to new Heights
One of the Stones’ best selling albums, Sticky Fingers (released in April, 1971) saw Miller and the band doing more work away from Olympic Studios as they used the Stones’ mobile recording truck to record at Jagger’s estate home, Stargroves, in the summer and autumn of 1970. Some recording was done at Olympic Studios in March and May of 1970 as well.
The sound on Sticky Fingers has more texture than the other records Miller produced. Some say the hardwood floors and high ceilings at Stargroves added a natural acoustic vibe to the album. The Stones also used two or more guitar parts on many songs, with more vocal harmonies between Jagger and Keith Richards. “Brown Sugar” is an example of all that, while Miller nicely integrates a certain crispness and rhythm into the song.
Miller helped capture the airy quality on the standout “Moonlight Mile” as if the feel of the song was mimicking the lyrics of “let the airwaves flow, let the airwaves flow.” On “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking”, he helped the Stones refine it (listen to the original alternate version of the Sticky Fingers re-release of 2015) into the grooving song that made the original album cut.
By this time, Miller, like the Stones, was dabbling in hard drugs and living the lifestyle of the band.
Exile On Main St.: Lesser Role for Miller
For the Sticky Fingers follow up, the band took their mobile recorder to the Nellcôte villa in south France, which Keith Richards had rented. Unfortunately for Miller and the Stones, the sound in the basement just wasn’t up to snuff. Despite trying many different microphones and mic locations, they could never get the proper sound they were seeking.
At this time, in the summer of 1971, the Stones has begun to take greater control over the recording process, leaving Miller more and more out of the picture, while ignoring a lot of his input and ideas. Engineer Andy Johns recalls that “when they first started working with him, he was a lot of help. Then after a year or two, they kind of used Jimmy for what they wanted, and learned Jimmy’s tricks, and started shutting him out a bit. So by the time of Exile on Main St., they weren’t listening to Jimmy very much, and it did him in. They weren’t really rude, but they would ignore him a lot more than he would have liked.”
Nevertheless, Exile is still a fine, fine album and arguably the best Stones record because of that feel it has, which certainly has something to do with Miller’s input.
He played drums on “Happy”, “Shine A Light” and on the outro for “Tumbling Dice”. Miller also handled percussion on “Sweet Black Angel”, “Loving Cup”, “I Just Want to See His Face” and “All Down the Line”, so he did leave a mark. But as the sessions wore on, and the band relocated to Los Angeles to finish the recordings and add overdubs, Andy Johns noted Miller was “burnt out on the thing”. He added “moral support” to Johns who finished mixing Exile’s 18 songs.
While Jagger is on the record as saying Miller “was not functioning properly”, Exile has gained an almost mythical status.
There’s no doubt of Jimmy Miller’s impact on the Stones’ sound during their recording pinnacle — that period between 1968–1972 — when they produced their four best albums. He helped take the Stones to the next level and usher in the modern-sounding rock and roll era.
Keith Richards sums it up nicely concerning Miller: “Jimmy Miller was the key in tightening the band up and refocusing us, so to speak… It was, I think, after the Satanic Majesties, we’d reached the end of our tether. We’d been working 350 days a year for, like, four years. Jimmy Miller put the lens into focus. He was a drummer, he had a great sense of sound, and he loved the band, and he brought out the best in us.”
Originally published at www.rocknrollinsight.com on March 1, 2019.