For much of the world, Jan. 10 marked the passing of one of the most transformative and iconic musicians of modern time. But Springfield native Kenny Miller is mourning the loss of not just David Bowie, but his old friend Davie Jones, the London lad who penned one of the first tunes Miller recorded.
Miller, a 1949 graduate of Springfield High School, first met Bowie in the mid-1960s in London’s West End. A natural performer since his junior high days, he’s known best for his roles in cult films like “I Was a Teenage Werewolf” (1957), “Touch of Evil” (1958) and “The Buccaneer” (1958).
A dabbler in music as well, he traveled to London to record with famed producer Shel Talmy, who made his name discovering the biggest in British Invasion groups, including the Who and the Kinks, and was looking for a B-side to record with his single “Restless” in 1965. Now, Bowie’s songs like “Ziggy Stardust” and “Changes” are known the world around, but back then, he was not even 20 years old, and struggling to be heard. Talmy had recorded “Take My Tip,” an upbeat song with Jones’ band the Manish Boys, and thought it would work.
“He (Bowie) was always hanging around Shel’s office, and was always trying to get me to record one of this songs,” Miller recalled. “None of them worked for me until ‘Take My Tip’ came along. It was a really fast, outrageous song.”
Thus, Miller became the first artist to cover a David Bowie song, but it wasn’t until years later that Miller discovered that Davie Jones had gone on to become a music, art and fashion superstar.
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“I was back in the States, and in touch with Shel’s old secretary. And I was talking to her one day and asked, ‘whatever happened to Davie Jones,’” he recalled. “She went dead silent. She asked, ‘have you been living under a rock?’ I couldn’t believe it. He looked nothing like the little guy with curly hair that I knew.”
Miller and Bowie reconnected several times over their careers, and he looks back fondly on their friendship back in London: he recalls accompanying him to serenade queues of people lined up to get into theater plays in the streets of London.
“He would go down to where they were waiting and play a song and sing,” Miller said. “The people loved him because not only was he a very talented guy, but he was very funny. He had the greatest sense of humor.”
His friendship with the young songwriter, 16 years his junior, opened up introductions to some of the biggest stars of the time: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who.
“I got to be around so many people who I adored, like Dusty Springfield,” Miller said. “We hung out with all of the stars together, and they loved him because he was so young, and he was a real human being. There was nothing phony about him. All he wanted to do was entertain people, and sing, and he did that.”
“The one thing I remember about Davie was that he always had this wonderful class,” he continued. “He knew he was going to become a big star and he’d say ‘So are you, Miller. Just be yourself, and do what you want to do.’ And I have been very lucky, I had a lot of films and plays and worked with some of the greatest in the business.”
Miller, now 84 and residing in Palm Springs, Calif., was always eager to be in show business despite growing up in a strict religious family where going to movies or shows was prohibited. He wrote his first play in seventh grade and from then on, “I was stuck,” he said. Behind their backs, he performed in school plays and at small area clubs.
When his minister father passed away when Miller was 16, he ran away and moved to California to find out what Hollywood was really like. Though his mother brought him back and forced him to finish school, he returned to Tinseltown upon graduation. His acting career blossomed, and through the years, he worked with A-list actors including Charles Boyer, Charlton Heston and Burt Reynolds.
It was a shock for Miller to find out Monday that his old friend had passed away. He had just read about the release of what would be Bowie’s last album, Black Star, released on his birthday two days before. But the memories he holds of enjoying 10-cent beers at London pubs with the talented young Davie Jones remain clear in his mind.
“It was great fun knowing him,” he said. “We had a lot of good times.”