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Vol. LXIV, No. 46
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
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Fred Miller Sings, Narrates Cole Porter’s “Life Beyond Good and Evil” at Library

Ellen Gilbert

Sunday marked the Princeton Public Library debut of Fred Miller, although, the musician-actor noted, he’s been working in the area for some 30 years. A good-sized crowd showed up in the library’s Community Room on a beautiful afternoon to hear him sing and talk about the American composer Cole Porter (1891-1964).

Mr. Miller was introduced as “a musical treasure,” and indeed, he has a trove of stories and songs, both familiar and obscure, about Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, and other composers usually associated with the “Great American Songbook.”

Having decided that a career as a classical musician wasn’t for him, Mr. Miller was around 20 years old when he heard a recording of Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter and “a light went on.” This music, “so simple but so profoundly moving,” became a mainstay in his life.

He started out with a repertoire of six lecture-and-song programs; today he has 65.

Noting that Cole Porter was neither a New Yorker, a Jew, nor the product of an impoverished background, Mr. Miller described him as “a creature apart” from his Tin Pan Alley contemporaries. While other composers “got married, stayed at home, and wrote songs,” the young man from Peru (pronounced with a long “e”), Indiana was a kind of early jet-setter.

“He was a very complex fellow with a lot of edges,” observed Mr. Miller. Noting that he “lived a life beyond good and evil,” Mr. Miller read off a litany of adjectives like “hedonist, Victorian, homosexual, snob, momma’s boy, pathological liar, and compulsive,” to describe this “peerless songwriter.” As if to prove his point, Mr. Miller’s opening number on Sunday afternoon was a medley of songs that included “Anything Goes” and “Let’s Misbehave.”

Facing the audience from behind an upright piano, Mr. Miller’s clear enunciation of Porter’s witty lyrics was a real plus. He gamely sang a number of Porter standards, interspersed with descriptions of the “lifestyles of the rich and famous as only Porter would know.” This was a child whose good grades in school made the news in the local paper, Mr. Miller noted. Later, when traveling through Europe, Porter and his wife, Linda Lee, didn’t stay in hotels, they rented an entire chateau or palazzo. One “over the top” party in Venice led to “a polite invitation” to leave that city.

Mr. Miller credited Irving Berlin, who visited the Lido on his honeymoon, with bringing Porter back to the United States after a decade of living in “grand style” abroad. “If you’re serious about being a songwriter,” Mr. Miller reported Berlin as saying, “come back to New York City.” Porter did, and found immediate success in 1928 as the composer and lyricist for a show called Paris. The score included Porter’s inimitable “Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love).” Musical success, as well as emotional heartbreak and a riding accident that left Porter confined to a wheelchair, followed.

Mr. Miller’s facility with tricky lyrics and knowledge of more obscure songs was nowhere better evident than in his rendition of “The Tale of the Oyster” (“Down by the sea lived a lonesome oyster,/Ev’ry day getting sadder and moister”). His website can be found at

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