Jerry Miller was part of one of the most unique rock groups of the 1960s, the West Coast’s own Moby Grape. The band’s first album delivered a staggering array of brilliantly crafted songs driven by harmonies from heaven and a three-guitar lineup dangerous in its energy and innovation – Miller on first guitar, the melodious Peter Lewis on second, with the quirky Skip Spence on third.
The band never lived up to its potential, and drifted into rock obscurity, plagued by bad management, personality conflicts, and substances best left alone.
A recently issued retrospective on Columbia entitled The Very Best of Moby Grape-Vintage captures much of the excitement and promise the group generated, and even better, the summer of 1997 brought a new wind in the West, with solo albums by Miller and Lewis, and a newly reformed Moby Grape looking for a new start with some lucky record company.
Now in firm possession of their name, Miller and company are back in the saddle and having fun again, doing the thing they all love best – making music together. The members of the Grape agreed to be interviewed for the pages of VG, and Miller was the first to speak up.
Vintage Guitar: What are you up to these days?
Jerry Miller: I’m playing right now in the Northwest, enjoying it as always, and I’m back on the road with the Grape, as well. My solo stuff never stopped. We need to mix some recordings we’ve been working on, and I’m looking for a brand new label – too many problems with the last one. But I’ve got a terrific lineup this time around, and it’s so good to be playing.
How long has the Jerry Miller Band been playing?
Oh, there’s been so many different Jerry Miller bands over the years. I had one a while back in California with (former Doobie Brother) Tiran Porter, and we were together for quite a few years. Then I relocated up here in the Northwest, but we still like to play together as much as we can. Then, of course, Moby Grape is doing little things here and there, too. But my own band is cooking along, doing some original stuff, plus the good ol’ blues. That’s been my thing for all these years. “Something Funky” kinda goes on a little trip, and my tune, “Gotta Be a Change,” which is minor-y…we like that. Some of ’em take a while before they’re done, which is all right by me. In the spirit of the Dead, you might say.
Let’s talk about the latest incarnation of the Grape and how that came about.
We’ve been waiting a long, long time to do this. Peter and I have worked long and hard to get the rights back to our name. Herbie Herbert helped us with that, so we now actually have the right to do it – to play and record again as Moby Grape.
Before, when we’d try to perform, we’d get stopped. It was very frustrating, and not at all fair. It also would make it miserable for anyone who would try to book us! We feel really good about how it’s worked out, and have been rehearsing down in Santa Cruz. We were doing the rehearsals intensively at first, just to get everything back in order. Now the members are sending tapes back and forth with new material, which is pretty exciting. The group is mostly me, Bob Mosley, and Peter Lewis. Now, Don Stevenson (original drummer for the Grape) is healthy and doing well, and he can join us at any time. I think he’s waiting to see how it goes. I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if he joined us in New York.
How do things stand with you and Skip Spence (former Jefferson Airplane member and creator of such Moby Grape masterpieces as “Omaha”)?
Well, Skip’s wonderful. He came and did a gig with us in Santa Cruz, and he was real good. He’s kind of a big boy now. Skip is nice to be with, and he’s healthy, which is really great to see. There was some apprehension among all of us at getting together again, and we’d like to rehearse more than we can – just a logistics thing, really. But we’re all seasoned veterans, so I don’t see where we’ll be making the same mistakes we made in the past. Different ones, maybe (laughs)! We’ll play together and rehearse as much as we can, and the more time we spend together, the better it’ll sound. It’s already started to click.
Let me ask a touchy question; the Moby Grape had such incredible talent and potential, but there have been so many false starts and blind alleys. Is there some worry about doing it one more time, and how it’ll turn out?
Hmmm…I don’t think so. We’ve all talked about it, and this time we just really want to do it right. All the way down the line. If a member is shaky, then we’ll need someone standing by to help out. For instance, Bob Mosley is one of the finest bass players and singers I’ve ever played with, but sometimes he can’t give everything he has onstage, so we have Tiran, who’s a good friend. Bob did sit in with my group on bass, and it went just wonderfully. I think the pressure may have something to do with it. He hasn’t done it in a long time, so we’ll go slowly, which is probably the best way to go, anyway. He still has an incredible voice, and it’s very special for us to have him as part of the group again. It still amazes me to play those records from 30 years ago, and hear the voice he had when he was 21.
Has it been difficult supporting yourself as a solo musician for the past 30 years?
Yeah, it’s been by the skin of the teeth sometimes, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Somehow, by the grace of God, it works out. I slide by every day, with a lot of blessings from the powers that be, and that’s why I’m here today. I am devoted to what I do. A little publishing rolls in now and then, which helps.
Is there a new Moby Grape album in the works?
Yes, there is. We’ve all got material waiting for it, and mine kinda relates back to the ’60s. There’s evolution at work, and some history, as well. I think people will like it. And I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we didn’t go back to some of the old material and rework it…some of it just never came out quite right. I could see “805” being redone (a polished gem off the first album, with intricate interlocking guitars and harmonies) that’s my favorite, even if I did write it (laughs)! Me and Don worked on that, and I’d like to see it revived.
Who would you like to see in today’s record industry releasing a new Moby Grape album?
A major label is probably what we’re all thinking, although I wouldn’t mind a smaller independent who could pay more attention to us. We’re all concerned about that. Warner Brothers has always been good to us. We did 20 Granite Creek with them, and that was a solid album.
Where did you grow up?
Tacoma, right where I am now! My grandfather was a violinist, and I lived with him. He played all over the world, and then my Dad is a piano player. We played together recently. [We cut a] live album at Cole’s, in Tacoma. Really cool. He’s a great boogie-woogie stride piano player, and a lot of fun to play with. Les Hutchinson played drums, and Ed Vance was on B-3. Great players, all of ’em.
When did guitar enter your life?
Mom got me my first guitar for Christmas when I was eight years old. It came with all the lessons prepaid, so I learned from this guy, Barney Stallone, who was a good teacher and a philosopher, as well. I took lessons for a couple years, but that was before rock and roll. But that all changed in 1957, when I saw Chuck Berry for the first time. I said, “Aha! Now I know what to do with this thing!” My whole life changed. Then I started getting in bands in the Northwest.
My first guitar was real bad, a Westbrook with a picture of a bucking bronco on the front. Then my Grandma took me down to Sears, and she signed for credit on a $57 guitar, and I got a Silvertone amp, as well. Of course, I got a gig right away, since there weren’t any electric guitar players around. So I whisked myself into a band right away, and I figured I had everything – a microphone, a cord, and an amplifier for my guitar. But when I showed up to play, I realized I didn’t have a strap! This was above a grocery store, so I went and got a bunch of kite string, and I tied the guitar to myself (laughs hysterically). To get on stage for the first time in my life, you have to imagine, I was shaking pretty good. I stood up to play, and I shook so hard the kite string broke, the guitar fell on the ground, and burst into pieces! I got a bunch of duct tape and glue and sat in a chair for the rest of the gig, barely holding it together. It was a lot of fun.
My next guitar was a Gibson 125. Now right about that time, people were thinking Fender. I wanted one, and of course they didn’t cost anything. You could get them from the American Conservatory for free (as part of a lesson package offered in the 1950s)! But I liked the Gibsons. I had about three 125s by then, and when I heard Wes Montgomery I said, “What the heck is he playing?” It was a Gibson L-5, and I had to have it. I sold my ’55 Chevy, and I got enough for a down payment on Buelah, my L-5. That was in 1962, and I was still in my teens. I talked to Gibson about every day while the guitar was being built, mostly with Clarence Havenga. I drove him crazy on the phone. I wanted the front pickup to be just like Wes Montgomery’s, and they did that for me. The back pickup was to be for loud rock and roll, “…without it feeding back on me,” my words exactly. They said that they could do it. I’d ask Clarence, “How’s it coming?” And he’d reassure me, “Fine, Jerry, just fine!”
When that guitar came, it was just ridiculous. I had ordered it through Takoma Music, and I went down the day it arrived, and opened the case…it had that smell, you know? I’ll never forget it. There was a little layer of fine tissue over the top, and oh, man! Was it pretty! There was a gig that night, so I took Buelah along. The first thing I did was take off the flatwound strings and put on some round-wounds. That back pickup was a screamer, just like Clarence promised, and it didn’t feed back uncontrollably. I use my ’59 Fender Bassman just like I did then, and the combination is perfect.
It’s pretty unusual for a guitar player to stick with one instrument, like you have. Has there been any major work on Buelah?
No modifications to speak of, but I have had it refinished about five times. I treat it pretty cruel, and the finish has just worn right off. I try not to put any scratches on it, but I do play the thing a lot. It looks like a bear got a hold of it sometimes. At one time, I had the whole upper part with the f-hole torn off. I was wearing a blousey shirts, and at the end of a tune I was doing one of these big poses, you know? And I caught the dang f-hole on my shirt, and just ripped it right out! But it’s been mended beautifully.
Another time, I was playing a bar gig, and somebody with too much liquor in him stumbled up and asked, “Hey man, can I play your guitar?” I told him, “No, you can’t. Don’t touch my guitar.”
I turned my back for a minute, and when I picked up Buelah, it was all busted out down where the output jack is. I figure what happened was this bozo had gotten up on stage and decided he was going to play it anyway. They didn’t have strap locks back then, and the strap had come loose on me plenty of times. So he picked it up, and it dropped on him. He ran out of the building before I could catch him, which was good for him! But the repair job is just terrific, with a diamond-shaped patch of curly maple, and it really looks nice.
How did you connect with the people who would help you form the Moby Grape?
Well, I was playing up here, with the Frantics. We decided to go to California, and we happened to go to a club where Bob Mosley was playing. At the time, Don Stevenson was playing with me, and when we heard Bob perform, that was the end of it. We said, “Okay, everything’s got to change now. We have to have Bob Mosley, and we have to put something else together.” You see, the Frantics was a pretty straight-ahead club band. But this had to be a different thing. We did get the chance to get Bob, and actually got him in the Frantics. At that point, the Frantics disbanded, but me, Bob, and Don didn’t. Then Bob took off for L.A., where he bumped into Peter. He also bumped into another person, who we’re not going to mention.
Now, management was hanging out with Skipper [Spence], so we all got together in San Francisco and said, “Aha, let’s haul out these instruments and see what happens.” Right there, at that time, was the most spark I’ve had with any band I’ve ever played with. You could absolutely feel it click. That combination, at that time, had something special. It was jubilant. Everybody in the room knew that this was something different. It wasn’t your normal five guys getting together to make music; there was a certain balance, a magic that flowed between us. It put goose bumps on all of us.
What do you think when you look back on recording the first album?
I’m fine with the way it went. It could have gone differently in the long run (referring to the series of disasters that crippled Moby Grape soon after the first album was released, including the simultaneous release of five singles by Columbia), and that would have been lucky. But to do what we did, I think, was phenomenal. It didn’t take more than two weeks to record the basics.
I was present during the mixing sessions, but so was everyone else, and we had to thin it down, cause we were going nowhere. Too many opinions. David Rubinson worked on the mix for awhile with the engineers, and it was at the point where we liked it. He would send us demos of his treatments, and we’d ask him to take the songs a little further, to enhance them. And at the very end, we said, “Yes, that will do.” It was finished. The record company was happy, and so were we.
We could have initially gone with a different record company. We had a nice offer from Elektra, and Paul Rothchild was going to completely let us have our head. It would’ve come out more like a jam album – a lot more guitar – and the songs would have stretched more. So, with Columbia we did a pretty straight-ahead album, but we still have time to open up the songs and do the stretched out versions.
What do you think of the recent Best of release on Columbia?
I like it a lot. Bob Irwin did a good job. We’ve had quite a history together. Monterey was sure a kick, a wonderful experience for all of us. And some of the tours were just fine, you know? When the band broke up, I really missed that. You get used to meeting with your friends on the road, like Ritchie Havens and Taj Mahal. We’d bump into them in the oddest places, like Connecticut or Stonybrook. We’d hang out, and we’d play together. But when you’re not at that level any more, you really miss it.
We had some gigs with Muddy Waters, now that was a real good experience. He was opening for us. We all loved the blues, and if you can’t play after Muddy Waters has warmed up the crowd, well then you just can’t play (big laugh)! And the Grape was a good live band. There was one gig with the Byrds, at Winterland. We rehearsed for four days straight right before the gig. We got onstage, and there wasn’t a pair of jeans in sight – we were all dressed in fringe and all kinds of good stuff – when we came out, it was magic. The amplifiers sounded just right. The mix was perfect, and the vocals were bell-tone. I remember that night as being really styling. People come up to me who were at that show, and they all recall it as being something really special.
I was at one of your dates with B.B. King at the Fillmore East. Bob seemed to have a little trouble…
Yeah! He was stubborn. He would get ornery sometimes, and if the song was in E, he’d play it in F! It was hard to deal with (laughs)! Was that the time when some of us sat down? Ooohhh…I do remember that night. Boy, did we hear about that from Bill (Graham). He said, “All you needed was caskets!” He jumped all over our asses. And rightfully so. Bill straightened us out on that one. We were trying something, and somehow that idea got out of hand. We never tried that again.
Any thoughts on closing?
We’ve hit about every bump in the road, so I hope things go smoothly this time. We are more careful about what we sign and commit to, so hopefully we’ve all learned something along the way. Had we know that years ago, we would have saved ourselves a lot of trouble. And there are a lot of good people helping us this time, which makes it easier. I look forward to playing every time as if it was the first time, and I treasure the music we make.
Stephen Patt is ex-Chambers Brother, currently living in Los Angeles where he practices medicine and plays a few notes in his spare time. Any excerpts of this article in whole or part may not be used without express written permission of the author.
A mature Jerry Miller onstage with his blues band and an aged-but-proud Gibson L-5 in hand.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’98 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.