Back in the 1970s, before 16mm film came my way, I was an avid collector of 78s, and one of the first discs to cross my path was a Count Basie’s recording from 1944 called “Taps Miller.” I recall being taken by Buck Clayton’s arrangemen, as well as with the soloists Buddy Tate and Lucky Thompson, among others. (I only later learned that the excellent drumming was by Shadow Wilson.) The meaning of the song’s title was a mystery to me, and the music was so good, I really didn’t care.
It was only later that I learned that Taps Miller was an popular singer, tap dancer, and trumpet player who performed throughout New York City in the 1930s and 1940s. He was a very busy artist. And he was featured in the floor show at Smalls Paradise, in the Broadway production of Shuffle Along of 1943, and on stage at the Lafayette Theater, Apollo Theater, Harlem Opera House and Café Society. And this was when he wasn’t touring with Jimmy Lunceford, Don Redman or Tiny Bradford. Miller was active into the 1950s, and he toured Europe early in the decade, recording with Buck Clayton and Mezz Mezzrow.
The Soundie is Miller’s only appearance on screen, a performance of his composition titled “How Do,” although it is re-titled “Song and Dance Man” on screen. Miller sings, solos on trumpet, and does some find tap dancing, to boot.
Pay close attention to what you see and hear because I suspect this is one of those rare Soundies that was filmed live, at least in part. The first clue is that one hears ambient crowd noise in the background encouraging Miller’s performance. A comment is shouted out by one of the extra (it might well be songwriter Claude DeMetrius) and it is in perfect sync. This is not something that director William Forest Crouch would have paid attention to if the entire soundtrack was pre-recorded. (This type of crowd noise is extremely rare in Soundies, and the only other example I can recall is a pair of Soundies by the Bye Trio, filmed and recorded at the same session.)
The arrangement opens with a direct quote from Coleman Hawkins’ “Boff Boff” (soon known as “Mop Mop”), recorded here a couple of months before Hawkins waxed the tune for Commodore. This melody and rhythmic pattern had undoubtedly been in circulation for quite some time, although it is quite special to hears it used in this Soundie. The sync on both the vocal and the tap dance is so strong that I question filming to playback – I am not so certain about the trumpet solo, and I hope some musicians can share their thoughts.
Here is one scenario that suggests what might have happened here. The Soundie was produced during the recording ban, so the band accompanying Miller would be a composed of non-union musicians…or possibly union musicians working under the radar. While it is possible that the musicians are off screen, playing while the filming (and vocal/tap work by Miller) was in progress, although it is more likely that a pre-recorded track was played, with Taps singing and dancing over the pre-recorded track. At the same time, the entire performance could have been produced in the usual pre-recorded manner, but somehow it just doesn’t feel like that.
There is a bottom line, however: In the end it really doesn’t matter. Here we have “Taps” Miller, well-known, popular and prolific stage performer, caught on film with one of his patented routines. Once again, the Soundies “Time Machine” has preserved a performance by a musical artist whose work would be otherwise lost to history and memory.