The Legendary Jerry Miller

— by Melissa Garcia

Tacoma is home to legendary rocker, Jerry Miller. Born in 1943, Miller has spent his life dedicated to music. Playing guitar primarily, he is prized for his solo work, as well as work with famous bands. Miller’s career is admirable, to say the least, but what is even more astonishing is his ever-present musical connection to the Pacific Northwest.

The Elegants performing at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, 1963.

To start off, Miller began his career locally. Like mentioned before, Miller was born in Tacoma, Washington in 1943. He attended Lincoln High School throughout the mid 1960’s, where he also partook in numerous local bands. The Elegants were among the first, active from 1962-1965. Here, Miller played guitar alongside classmates in a band of nine. During the same period, Miller played guitar in another band called The Incredible Kingsmen, from 1962-1964. Later, he joined The Frantics around 1964, where he replaced lead guitarist Joe Johansen. According to Frantics band mate Jon Kelihor (Drums), Miller played in a “little lighter in style, and he had a mellower, more liquid sound, similar to that of BB King. He too was an excellent soloist.” Together the band moved from the Pacific Northwest to San Jose, California, where they played venues and produced San Francisco Swim, arguably their most popular track released:

Moby Grape debut album cover, 1967.

After a mishap with The Frantics, several of the members broke off to form a new band known as Moby Grape. Regrouped in San Francisco in 1966, Miller said, “we took that Northwest rock n roll feeling with us.” The new band consisted of Miller (lead guitar), Don Stevenson (drums), Bob Mosely (bass), Peter Lewis (guitar) and Skip Spence (vocals). The group signed with Columbia Records and together they recorded their first album titled Moby Grape, released in 1967. Their second album was titled Wow and released in 1968. Grape Jam was their third album in 1968, then came Moby Grape ‘69in 1969 and finally 20 Granite Creek in 1971. Much success was acquitted to the group’s first album and according to Rolling Stone Magazine, they rank #96 for greatest debut album of all time. Omaha and Hey Grandma were two songs that made the charts. Though success was destined for Miller and his bandmates, misfortune was destined. Sources recall, “At the very moment when Moby Grape should have become stars it all went to hell. Columbia released an unprecedented five singles on the same day. DJ’s didn’t know which one to play so they didn’t play any of them.” Because of this unfortunate scheduling and decision making, the band quickly shot down after their debut album. Miller and the crew returned to the Pacific Northwest and the band split up after a violent incident that involved Skip Pence.

Moby Grape – Grape Jam album cover, 1968.
Moby Grape – Wow album cover, 1968.

During his brief success with Moby Grape, Miller was inspirational to many famous artists. Miller shared the stage with many great artists including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and The Doors. His admirers include Jimmy Page, Stephen Stills, David Crosby, Taj Mahal, David Fricke, Eric Clapton, and Robert Plant. Eric Clapton called Jerry the “best guitar player in the world” when he first came to the U.S. Robert Plant cites Jerry as a major influence for Led Zeppelin – the band even played Moby Grape songs at its first rehearsal. Led Zeppelin and the Grateful Dead are just two of the famous bands that have covered Jerry Miller songs live and on record. Led Zeppelin was so inspired by the acoustics of Miller that they ripped a song from Moby Grape titled Never and released it as Since I’ve Been Loving You in 1970. If you listen to the songs together, the guitar and tempos are almost identical, making it easy to see the inspiration Miller provided to the alternate band.

Though Miller tasted success for a brief moment, he later returned to Tacoma in 1995 to further work on music. Today, he actively plays and sings in The Jerry Miller Band. Though he has yet to release any new solo music, he plays venues and shows all around Tacoma. He performs at beneficial events, such as the Handicapped Challenge Fundraiser and Blues Festival. LouieFest is another annual festival where Miller performs, and also a place where what’s left of Moby Grape reunite.

Recently, local musicians of Tacoma put on fundraiser concerts to help Miller raise money after his home was lost in a flash flood, where most of his memorabilia and precious belongings were destroyed. It seems as if Miller is on the down low nowadays but still hasn’t given up his passion for music. According to Inlander, “He never rehearses, and says most of his practice comes from teaching guitar two to three times a week for $50 a lesson. The local gigs and lessons — combined with Social Security, a few royalties and occasional tours with aging members from ’60s supergroups like Quicksilver Messenger Service or Jefferson Airplane — all enable Miller to get by.”

Jerry Miller Band performing Now I See at The Valley in Tacoma, WA in 2017:

Jerry Miller Band instrumental performance in 2018:

About the Author

Melissa Garcia prepared this article as her final project for TARTS 225: Musical History of Tacoma, at the University of Washington, Tacoma. At the time she took the class in Spring Quarter 2019, she was a senior majoring in Arts, Media, and Culture.

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