'This young man is gonna be dangerous," thought Hazel Miller after she let a Boulder college kid named Todd sit in for a few old blues numbers during her set at a local bar.
True to her prediction, it took just a few more years for the kid and his band to work their way up from playing frat parties to becoming one of the biggest rock acts in America. In 1993, Big Head Todd and the Monsters released their major-label debut, Sister Sweetly, which would go platinum on the strength of three hit singles.
But first, the band needed a backup singer for the record release party. So Todd Mohr invited Miller, and the stunningly soulful singer, who'd supported herself and her kids for much of the previous decade by working day labor, maid and gardening gigs, turned out to be pretty dangerous herself.
"It was one of the most amazing reactions I've ever had in my entire life," she recalls during a break from cleaning her own house in preparation for a visit from her grandkids. "All I sang was two words, 'It's alright,' and they started screaming. It freaked me out."
The band's manager called her at home the next morning and asked her to come back for a show that evening. "I was off that weekend and I was wondering what I was gonna do for money," says Miller. "They paid me $100 bucks for each show, for one song! No one had ever paid me that before, not in Denver."
The family went out to celebrate in style. "We went to the supermarket and really shopped, instead of just buying exactly what was on the list. And, for the first time in God knows when, they got home from school on Monday and they had steak on the table."
The favor had been returned. And would continue to be, with interest.
"I thought, 'Man, I don't know who this kid is, but I love him.'"
Denver City Breakdown
Becoming one of Denver's most beloved singers was about the last thing on Hazel Miller's mind back in 1984, when she and her kids piled into a rental van and left their native Kentucky for the promised land, otherwise known as California.
"I had an old friend who was leaving her husband — I think he probably would have beat her to death if she hadn't left. She had three kids, I had my three, and the rental truck broke down in Denver. Actually, it started breaking down in Indiana, but I was too far west to turn around and go back."
The two families took refuge in a motel off Colfax Avenue and soon realized prostitutes were working out of there. So they relocated to a public housing project directly across the highway from the old McNichols Sports Arena. "We were the only black family, and they gave us the blues," says Miller, recalling how her first-grader was chased home every day after school.
But by year's end, they were earning enough money to rent a small house. "I used to spend my weekends sitting in with any band that would let me sing," she remembers. A few years later, she was making a living playing music, her band Rich Relations touring nationally and performing USO dates in Central America, Europe and the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the association with Big Head Todd and the Monsters continued. Miller went out with them on a six-week tour in 1996, and was surprised when Mohr called not long after.
"He goes, 'How would you feel about joining the band?' I'm like, 'I don't think your management's going to like that.' He goes, 'Let me worry about that.' And true to his word, less than a week later in the mail came my package for a 12-week tour. And I was with them from 1996 to 2001, and I still do Red Rocks with them."
I ask Miller, who sings on six tracks from the band's 2010 Rocksteady album, why she'd been concerned in the first place.
"Let's see, I was in my 40s, they were in their late 20s. I think Todd was maybe 30, 31. And I was the only woman on the bus, and the only black person backstage for miles."
As it turned out, the music bond made any cultural differences irrelevant. One of Miller's fondest memories was finally making it across the highway to play McNichols Arena (later leveled after the Nuggets and Avalanche relocated to the Pepsi Center).
"I was like, 'Yes, lord, out of the ghetto. Thank you Jesus.' And I showed the guys in the parking lot. I said, 'You see those projects over there?' And they're like, 'Yeah?' I said, 'I lived there.'"
On her own records, Miller's rich alto vocals move beautifully from Aretha Franklin passion to Ella Fitzgerald cool, all the while steering clear of the vocal mannerisms that have made American Idol the gold standard of melismatic excess.
"In all honesty, I think these poor misguided young people think that they sound black if they go through these vocal calisthenics," says Miller, "and unfortunately there are a lot of young black singers who think the same thing. And most of us black singers, we listen to it and go, 'What the hell are they singing?' I just think it's unnecessary. If you sing a true rendition of the song, you have done your job."
Which Miller continues to do, gigging at least twice weekly and planning the long overdue follow-up to her 2005 Icons album. She says she recently hooked up with Kenny Passarelli, the bass legend who's been playing with Otis Taylor of late, and is hoping a recording project may come out of that.
She also goes back to Louisville every now and again, where old friends complain that the pay scale is the same as it was when she left. Back then, she'd been paid a one-time fee to record the city's promotional song, "Look What We Can Do," which continues to close a local TV station's broadcast every night. "I made $50, and was then labeled uncooperative because I wouldn't agree to go anywhere they sent me and sing this song for free. I had kids to feed, I had a job to find, I said no."
Still, it did give her the opportunity to sing with the local symphony. "And I got to ride in the Derby Parade with my kids in a big old convertible, and we're waving and all my old neighbors from the projects are waving."
Miller says she still gets offers to play for free there, and was surprised when a TV interviewer recently asked when she's coming home. "They were really amazed by my answer and I thought, 'Oh, you need not be.' Denver is a place where you can play your music and make a living. I have built a life here and I have no intention of giving up, ever."