The Story of Blues Legend - Curly "Barefoot" Miller
I'd Rather Dance Than Eat: The Curly "Barefoot" Miller Story
It is a temperate Texas night as the truck pulls up to the Greenville Avenue Bar & Grill. Inside the musicians are tuning, preparing to launch into the Monday night jam. Richard Chalk, producer/owner of TopCat Records, gets out of the truck and goes over to help his passenger out. Tap shoes touch the pavement as the man in the striped cotton suit positions his walker to move him forward. Walker in place, the seventy something year old man adjusts his straw hat and begins slowly, step by step moving up to the sidewalk; clicking the metal bottoms of his shoes with every shuffle of his feet.
It is official: the legendary Curly "Barefoot" Miller has arrived and is ready to tear it up on the stage. Unknown to anyone here, this will be one of his last performances.
Miller is an almost mythical figure among the Dallas Blues Illuminati. The mere mention of his name will propagate jocund tales of his infamous escapades from the mouths of his fellow musicians. One thing is certain, Curly is a beloved character by everyone around him. Ernest Meyers once said, "Don't just count your years, make your years count." With that same vivacity, Miller has done a lot of living in his seventy something years and has these wonderful stories to prove it.
George Miller, better known as Curly "Barefoot" Miller passed away on May 2nd of a heart attack and stroke. Miller was born in the Charity Hospital in New Orleans, and grew up dancing in the streets of the French Quarter. His parents were actors with Barnum and Bailey. "Mom and Daddy worked there all their life," he tells me, "till they got killed." They died in a tragic fire in Louisiana. Curly remembers dancing on ferry boats up and down the Mississippi River and learning his steps behind the soda wagons. His first work as a performer was part of a tap dancing/shoe shining trio known as "Kidney Stew, Pork Chop and Hambone." "I started out when I was about five years old," Curly says, "We were dancing up and down the street, selling papers and shining shoes. Then all of the sudden, we got this group together. We tried to be like the Nicholas Brothers. But they were famous. We weren't. We were just beginning."
"I started playing music when I was about fourteen years old," Curly says,"I played piano, bass, upright, big bass, and drums."
Inspired by the steps of Peg Leg Bates and Bill Robinson, Miller perfected his stomp dancing in front of mirrors and working out dance moves in the bath tub. "I was in the shower and Louis Armstrong come on." Curly says. It was in the tub that Miller discovered his talent for tap dancing without shoes, hence the birth of the nickname. He found that by slapping his feet on the ground in a certain way, it sounded as if he was tap dancing. It wasn't long before he took this talent out of the wash room and on to the stage.
He served several tours of duty with the Navy, entertaining troops in the USO along side Bob Hope and a variety of stars. During one of his years of service onboard a ship, Miller had a run in with an angry dentist who pulled all of his teeth. The first time I heard the story, the dispute had been over some hoodoo dirt. He had gone home to New Orleans and brought back some magic dirt to sell to a shipmate. When the fellow discovered that the magic dirt was in fact just dirt, he got a gang together to hold Miller down and extract all of his teeth.
"The war was going on," Curly says, the story a little different this time around, "He told me to loan him some money. I wouldn't loan him no money. He said, 'well, I'll fix you.' But I didn't know they were gonna pull my teeth out. That bastard pulled all my teeth out."
As wild as it sounds, the stories surrounding Miller get even wilder. One time, Miller decided to sew Christmas lights into his clothes for a performance. He plugged the cord in and began to dance. Of course, guess who stepped in a puddle of water and blew every light in the place? "I almost electrocuted myself that time." Curly tells me. Miller was shot across the room but left his tap shoes sitting there smoking. As usual an electrifying performance.
After his tumultuous navy days, he traveled around the country, performing and handling odd jobs. He peddled Hadacol, a cure all "medicine" made of White Lightening, sugar and flavoring. "It was a medicine that would clean you out." Curly tells me. Hadacol was one of the first sponsors of the early television shows of the 1950's. While many celebrities professed the virtues of this miracle giggle water, Curly was working on the business end of the product. He would order 55 gallon barrels of White Lightening from Muskogee, Oklahoma. It would arrive via the Redball Motor Freight. He would then mix it up and bottle it. Of course when the local sheriff showed up and wanted to know who was in charge, guess who ended up spending a night in jail?
In Waco, Miller found employment entertaining audiences of Dr. Tate'smMedicine Show. Again the essential cure all involved was not exactly medicinally sound, but Miller enjoyed performing his jokes and dance routines for the eager to be healed patrons of the tent show. "That stuff would make you throw away your stick," Curly says, referring to the so called medicine. "That's what we were selling. The medicine."
He eventually settled in Dallas, Texas where he became a regular, memorable face among the area jams. Living off VA checks and tips, Miller made do with his resources till a stroke left him relying on a walker to move around. Despite the obstacles, Miller still had the magic and when he danced, he enchanted.
James Buck and Mark Pollock stumbled onto Miller and got him to play with their band. It was around this time, Curly caught the attention of Richard Chalk. At the time, Chalk was putting together a CD with Joe Jonas and Robert Ealey. After some talk among the participants, Curly was asked to be included on the compilation. In 1991, he made the recordings with Cold Blue Steel and the Joe Jonas Band for the TopCat Records release "Texas Bluesmen."
"He came in and just created some magic," says Richard Chalk, "He did a couple of songs in one take that just blow you away. I have never heard him do them better."
Through Chalk, Miller toured Europe, performing his unique brand of dancing, joke telling, singing, piano playing, and drumming to enthusiastic crowds. "Curly steals the show." Richard says. "I don't care if Jimi Hendrix was up to perform. Curly could come up and steal the show. Unbelievable persona."
"I enjoyed it," Miller tells me about his European tours, "And I got paid too."
A twenty year old documentary about Curly flickers on the TV screen. A then sixty something year old Miller is up on top of a wooden Coke Cola crate, pounding out pulsating rhythms with his tap shoes. He smiles at the camera and turns a flip on the stage. Curly touched many lives during his stay here on planet Earth. He had amazing gifts and he seemed happiest when he up in front of a crowd, howling and dancing the night away.
"I've had fun man," Curly tells me, "Performing is my life. I'd rather sing and dance than eat. I always keep my tap shoes on. You never know when somebody might want you to dance."
(Special Thanks to Richard Chalk and James Buck)
- Bill Fountain