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Iconic East Austin musician had tune, tale for every occasion

ERNEST MAE MILLER, 1927-2010

Patrick Beach and Michael Corcoran
Ernest Mae Miller was fixture at old New Orleans Club,\u2009\u2009Radisson.

Ernie Mae Miller the granddaughter of Anderson High School namesake L.C. Anderson, a mainstay of East Austin life and a blues and jazz pianist and vocalist whose career exceeded a half-century died Wednesday. She was 83.

Until about three years ago, Miller had been a performer at the downtown Radisson's TGIF Red, Hot & Blues Sunday brunch , but her career took her from Austin to what is now Prairie View A&M University, the Apollo Theater and a storied residency beginning in the early 1950s at the New Orleans Club (where she played everything from slightly risqué jazz to "The Eyes of Texas" on game days) on Red River Street. She was inducted into the Austin Music Hall of Fame in 2007.

"Ernest Mae is an Austin treasure," said state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, whose family was friends and neighbors of Miller's for "three generations."

"She will be greatly, dearly missed by so many who had the pleasure of hearing an angel play the ivories."

Miller had been suffering from multiple myeloma , which is a cancer of plasma cells, and other problems, according to her family.

Miller was born in Austin in 1927 and learned piano by ear while very young. She would later remember listening as her grandmother played records on a Victrola for hours. She took lessons for a time from a teacher in Waco. At Anderson High School, where there was no need for a piano player, she switched to saxophone. It was also while in high school, family members recalled, that she used to sneak out of the house to go see Count Basie or Duke Ellington when they were passing through town.

During World War II, she played saxophone in the Prairie View Co-eds, the African American all-girl swing band that toured nationally. Miller's son Phillip said his mother spent about three years at Prairie View and then transferred to Huston-Tillotson in Austin but left before graduating.

Miller switched back to piano and started playing at the old Dinty Moore restaurant and bar on West Sixth Street. It was at the New Orleans Club, at 11th and Red River streets, that Miller established herself as perhaps the premiere musician from East Austin. She recorded a live album, "At the New Orleans," which displayed a range from Billie Holiday-styled vocals to swinging Dixieland. One of the songs from that album, "Little Girl Blue," was later covered by Janis Joplin, who lived in Austin during Miller's heyday.

Earlier, a marriage to James "Spizzy" Canfield, whom Miller met at the Apollo, produced one son, Kenneth, now of Dallas, but did not last. She later married Hammitt Miller, whose first name she never tired of noting rhymed with "dammit." With Hammitt she had five more sons: Duane, of Round Rock; Emmitt, now deceased; Paul, the only musician in the family; and Phillip, both of Austin; and Gordon, who serves in the U.S. Navy and lives in Goose Creek, S.C.

Miller's adventures made her a natural storyteller and comedian, Phillip Miller said. She talked about going to the movies with Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, about meeting Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald. Back in Austin she counted as friends members of Lyndon Johnson's family, businessman and philanthropist Lowell Lebermann, former Gov. Ann Richards and humorist Cactus Pryor, on whose television show Miller used to appear.

"She made lifelong friendships," Phillip Miller said.

"I was putting the obituary together, and I thought, this is going to be a challenge — how do I make it not a book?" said her daughter-in-law Greta Canfield.

Miller stayed busy through the years, playing many of Austin's finer hotel lounges and restaurants. But her residencies at such long-gone clubs as the Flamingo Lounge, the Jade Room and the Commodore Perry Hotel reserve for her an important place in Austin music history.

Although bedridden in recent days in her Austin home, Miller found solace in music even as the end of her life loomed. Greta Canfield said that during a visit Monday, they put on Miller's live CD from the New Orleans Club. Upon hearing her "I Am Woman," Miller lifted her arms as if reaching for the keyboard and made sounds as if she was singing.

"We were amazed," Canfield said. "We played the entire CD for her, and you could see her trying to move those hands. That was her life. That was where she was the most comfortable. It was music."

She died early Wednesday, with her sister, Fanny Brooks, and sons Phillip and Paul on hand.

Arrangements are pending at King-Tears Mortuary.

pbeach@statesman.com; 445-3603

mcorcoran@statesman.com; 445-3652