How God Kept Me Normal
By Jody Miller, with Jim Spencer
As I stepped up to the microphone before an enormous crowd in San Diego, California to sing the National Anthem, I caught a glimpse of the President of the United States standing behind me on the stage. Beside him was the next President of the United States. Both were smiling broadly and applauding—applauding for me—Myrna Miller, from little old Blanchard, Oklahoma. It sorta took my breath away.
I had come a long way from that dusty little Oklahoma town. I’m now known as Jody Miller, pop/country recording star. I’ve been fortunate enough to have lots of hit records, to have won a Grammy, and to have recorded songs in Italian and German as well as English. I’ve toured with Bob Hope to sing to our brave troops and have performed with some of America’s most popular musicians. The journey has been amazing. And now, as I think back on it, God had His hand on me all the way. Otherwise I would never have arrived on that stage whole, free, and—well—normal.
* * * * * *
My life didn’t start out particularly normal. When I was born just a week before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, my family would not have been mistaken for the Cleaver family from “Leave it to Beaver.” And my parents, God love ’em, would not have been mistaken for Robert Young and Jane Wyatt, the Andersons from “Father Knows Best.” In fact, my older sister Carol tells me our family, in today’s parlance, definitely would have been considered dysfunctional.
Maybe the first tip-off that my early life would be a bumpy ride was that I was actually born on a car trip! Yep, Mamma and Daddy were driving from Blanchard to Oakland and stopped in Phoenix to usher me into the world. My family, including my four older sisters, lived in Blanchard until the end of WWII. Then Daddy got a job as a mechanic in Oakland and we trundled off like the Grapes of Wrath Joads to sunny California. When we first got there we went to some sort of camp with lots of other people. I was about six years old, so I’m not exactly sure what the camp was. I think it was where all the “Okies” gathered when they arrived in California—like in the Dust Bowl days.
Oakland was a boomtown during and after World War II. We eventually moved to a big old house on 50th Avenue. It was right by the railroad tracks so trains would come by each day and shake everything in the house. It must have been a mansion at one time: two-stories, surrounded by eucalyptus trees, and it had a rock pond in the front yard with a rock bridge over it! Dad would often wind up in the pond when he would come home under the influence. We would find eyeglasses, coins, and sometimes his watch in that pond.
While Dad worked, Mom raised five girls. I was the youngest, and then there was Carol, Shirley, Pat and the eldest, Barbara. I guess Pat was my pick of the litter. She was so smart. She learned to play the guitar switching the strings so she could play left-handed.
One thing I can say about my dad is that he was an extremely talented musician. He played fiddle as well as anyone I have ever heard. We were all musical. The best memories of that time are of my family singing together. Everybody harmonized. Since I was the baby, all the real harmony parts were taken, so I had to find my own. My little part came out sounding something like Chinese.
Pat taught me to harmonize. She was a little rebel, but I idolized her and I was her tiny partner in crime. She was seven years older than me and when she decided she could smoke, I became her lookout ’cause Mamma would have skinned her if she caught her.
As small as I was, my parents thought I was a real entertainer. Mamma enrolled me in a singing contest at the Oakland Auditorium. I took second singing “Mona Lisa.”
Tragedy struck our family in 1949. Pat and I were home alone. She wanted to smoke and hid in the bathroom to light up. I was taking a nap. An explosion rocked the house. Pat flew out of the bathroom critically burned. She looked like a monster. Police and firemen swarmed the apartment. It seemed to me like everyone in America came running into our house.
A leaking gas line had blown up when Pat lit her cigarette. She was hospitalized for a year-and-a-half, enduring 76 skin graft operations. When she finally came home, covered with bandages, I was her guide. Taking hold of her finger, I led her on walks. She would say, “Can’t you walk a little faster, master?” I remember strangers staring at her as if she were inhuman. To this day, I can’t stand to see anybody put down because of his or her appearance or race.
Our family struggled. Mom got a settlement from the gas company for Pat. My parents tried hard to hang together. They still thought I was a star and Daddy would sneak me into bars on 14th Street which was two blocks from our house. I’d climb up on a table and sing my heart out.
Someone once said, “With enough love, they’ll make it as a family.” Well, I guess there wasn’t that much love. Daddy began drinking heavier than ever. We moved over a bar in a ratty apartment on 14th Street. Mamma took a job as a waitress, met a man and left her family for him. I was shuffled around for a while and then sent to live with my grandma Miller back in Blanchard.
* * * * * *
When I arrived in Blanchard, I was eight years old, had a small suitcase, and had to find Grandma Miller’s place on my own. Of course the town population was only 750 in 1949—it’s bigger today, so now we can boast of 3 stoplights. Back then there were no paved streets and the wind was blowing dust. I’m not sure how I found her little house, but when I arrived, she hobbled down the front steps from the porch. She was 78 years old—70 years older than me. She was wearing a bonnet and an apron and she was chewing a little stick. It was snuff. Squinting at me she croaked, “Who air you?”
How can I describe this angelic being in a broken-down body? She was everything to me. A mamma when I needed one, a spiritual giant in plain clothes, and not one to mince words. Grandma didn’t go to church but listened to radio preachers, prayed, and read her Bible. And she prayed for me. (And for Carol who showed up not long after I got there).
Grandma and Carol and I snapped peas on that front porch, listening to music on the radio. Music was in my soul even then. Music was more than just entertainment to me, it was—and is—life! It is the anointing of joy that raises me above all the problems of this world. When I am singing, or listening to great music, I’m touching the face of God.
Grandma was first and foremost a Christian. No child should be without a person like her in his/her life. Grandma sent me to First Baptist Church every Sunday and she is probably the biggest gift God ever gave me outside of the gift of Salvation and the gift of music. Funny, though, I didn’t find salvation fully during the rest of the next ten years in Blanchard. I knew God, I loved Him, but I didn’t know him in the way Grandma did—not then, anyway.
My sister Carol remembers Grandma too. Grandma talked real “old timey.” Said things like “Did you stob your toe?” And, “Those folks’ll wanna borry something.”
I grew to love the people at First Baptist Church. They were like a family to me, so kind and caring. In due course I said a prayer to accept the Lord. I’m not a theologian and there is so much about God I have yet to learn. Though I was serious in my prayer, I wouldn’t discover until decades later the full implications of surrendering one’s life to Christ.
* * * * * *
Two events really showed me that music would be a big part of my life. Every summer I would take the bus or train back to California to be with Mother. On one of those visits I heard Mario Lanza sing “La donna mobile” (which means “The lady is fickle” from Verdi’s Rigoletto. I went nuts over that recording! I couldn’t believe anyone could sing like that. I listened to the record over and over until I had learned the Italian version phonetically. But the day I knew I would devote my life to singing was the day I first heard Debbie Reynolds sing “Tammy.” I sang that song to my sisters and they went wild. Back then, I watched the TV show “Hit Parade” and said to myself, “One day I’ll be there on TV.”
I loved sports and played basketball in high school. Sports also got me interested in the boy who would eventually be my husband, Monty Brooks. He was so athletic; he stood out way above the crowd.
After I graduated, I got a job as a secretary at the state capital in Oklahoma City. After work I went to the library and memorized 200 folk songs which I practiced in my room at YWCA. I could not only sing all the verses to “Aunt Rody,” I could also tell you why her old gray goose died!
I was soon singing (and getting paid for it!) at The Jester, a small coffeehouse just off the OU campus. One night I was opening for Mike Settle, a well-known folk singer who was my age. Mike went on to perform with “The New Christy Minstrels” and “Kenny Rogers and the First Edition.” At that time, the leading folk music trio was “The Limelighters.” They knew Mike and came to see him. Lou Gottlieb, the group’s bass singer and spokesman, saw me and gave me his agent’s name in Los Angeles. He encouraged me to move to Los Angeles, saying I would have to do so if I were serious about a music career.
The two things every small town girl did back then was graduate from high school and get married. I finally persuaded Monty to marry me, and with his encouragement, we borrowed enough money from his parents to drive to California where we got jobs and I began chasing my dreams. A series of events—which today I have to say were orchestrated by the Lord—landed me a record contract with Capitol Records within six months of moving to California.
God had given me several gifts: my voice, the support of my husband, and my extreme self-confidence (I banged on doors and told anyone who listened I was the best singer they had ever heard—and I believed it!)
* * * * * *
My career took off immediately. I started cutting records, traveling and recording in Europe, and within two years I had won a Grammy for my recording of “Queen of the House.” [You can read more about my secular career on my “biography” page on this web site.]
While fame and fortune are great, your soul can’t feed on them. Have you noticed that the wealthy and famous are not always the happiest people? We were never meant to get our satisfaction from the things of this world. But, you know, everybody has to learn that for themselves. As the old song says, “Mama may have, Papa may have, But God bless the child who’s got his own.”
God was so good to me. In all those years in the glitz and glitter of the spotlight, in the recording studio, headlining in Las Vegas, touring with the Beach Boys, Bob Hope, and others—somehow I was not taken down by pride. Somehow, I knew who I was—and who I wasn’t. I also knew who I wanted to be when it all began to fade. And it has to fade.
However, nobody—surely not me—enjoys the slide down the ladder of importance. The good news is, that more often than not, it is that very slide that causes us to cast our eyes heavenward.
My search for heaven developed, not suddenly, but in increments. I continued to make wonderful recordings both for Capitol and later for Columbia’s Epic Records. I worked with some of the most talented musicians and arrangers in the business. And some of them were the nicest people you ever want to meet, but there were others. I saw the shipwrecked lives of those who could not bear to see their star fading. I saw what alcohol, drugs, and loose living can do to the body, but more so to the soul.
And to be absolutely honest, I paid some of those prices myself. The strains of touring and stardom ate away at my little family. Early in my career God blessed us with our darling daughter Robin. (Who by the way is a very talented singer in her own right). When Robin was of school age, Monty and I decided we would move back to Blanchard to live. We had been in Hollywood for eight years.
My career was going pretty good and I felt I could live anywhere in the world I wanted. I would stay home, but fly to my engagements. So we moved home. Guess what? That was hard, too! Everything was so different, and I knew Monty wasn’t happy. My contract with Capitol had run it’s course and it was not renewed. I didn’t know why at the time, but a lot of good acts on Capitol got the same treatment. Later, I came to realize that music tastes change. I started in the business in folk music, but that was fading. I transitioned to pop music, but the Beatles turned that upside down—The British Invasion. I was trying to find my niche, I was tired, my family was tired, and I really didn’t know what to do. When invited back to Church, I rarely went, partly because of my schedule, but also because I simply didn’t have the desire. My little Christian light was burning pretty low. It was certainly hidden under a bushel.
To say it plainly, I knew who the Lord was, but I didn’t really know Him.
* * * * * *
The Bible says that God knows how to keep what has been given to Him (II Tim. 1:12). I believe He remembered my child’s heart which had said “Yes” to him forty years earlier. So, he wonderfully put me on a collision course with Him.
In 1970 I went to Nashville and signed with Columbia records. We had great success with the Epic Label and even got another Grammy Nomination for my single “He’s So Fine”. I started working with big names like Red Skelton, Don Rickles, Bob Newhart and Roy Clark. I worked Vegas, Tahoe and Reno. Nevertheless, life was still flat and tasteless. I was very lonely out there on the road with my family in Blanchard. I started to drink for the first time in my life.
Things came to a head for me in 1981. I was playing the 4 star Fairmont Hotel in Dallas living the “good life,” when I injured my neck playing tennis. A woman came to my room to give me a therapeutic massage. During her session, she asked if she could pray for me. I thought it was kinda strange, but you know how those Christians are! So I let her. When she finished my massage, she told me to take a hot shower, wrap up in a blanket and go to bed. She took her table and left.
During my nap I was awakened by a loud and ugly scream or shout! It frightened me. I didn’t know what had happened. As I have pondered that event over the years, I have come to think that God was setting me free in a very special way—I experienced a deliverance from some sort of evil that had taken root in me. I do not know how to fully explain this event. But, almost immediately I decided to retire—I went home.
I’d like to say that when I got home everything was rosy. But it wasn’t. No matter what changes around you, nothing really comes together until something changes within you—deep within you.
I was home for seven years. During that time, I began yearning, once again, to record. This time it wasn’t just about my career. I believe it was a righteous desire to exercise the gift God has given me. Since I didn’t have a recording contract, I produced a project myself. I recorded ten Patriotic Songs and named the project “My Country.” Shortly after that, George Bush (the first George Bush), who was running for President in 1988, invited me to join him and sing at his campaign rallies. The crowds were huge and the people were pumped. Their enthusiasm was deafening! In the beginning of this whirlwind, I thought I had become the next Kate Smith.
Uh, well maybe not. I soon learned that patriotic music doesn’t sell. People love to hear you sing the National Anthem, but how many people do you know who sit around listening to patriotic music hour after hour? After the rallies, there I was, flat-footed and wondering—once again—what had happened. Where was I going? I loved to sing more than anything else in the world. But where did I belong?
The Bible tells us that the Lord draws you to Him. I believe that. I decided, sort of in desperation, to produce my own show at a resort in Oklahoma. It was a great show: We had a great fiddle player, a solid band, and my daughter Robin joined me on vocals. But nobody came to the show and the few who did requested Gospel songs. I was stymied.
One night I went back stage to talk to the band. I was looking for direction. I didn’t know what to do. When I peeked in their dressing room, I saw them on their knees praying. Later they said they were praying for me. Without even knowing it I had hired a band of Christian musicians!
Within a week their prayer was answered.
I got a phone call from Cal Denison, a musician who had a studio in Blackwell, Oklahoma. Cal said, “Miss Miller, do you remember I told you that if you would come to my studio and give me an autographed picture, I would record you?” When I told him I wanted to do a Gospel album, he was so happy he offered to cut a full ten-song CD for me!
At Cal’s studio, we began preparing for the session. After we had selected the songs, he laid the tracks himself, and all I had to do was walk in, take my place in the sound booth, and sing.
I don’t know what happened to me, but after going into the sound booth, I reached for the headset; I hesitated. Cal said “Jody, are you ready?” I remember asking him to give me a minute. I placed the headset on my head and went down on my knees and started talking to the Lord. Asking forgiveness. I submitted myself fully to Him. I said, “From now on, I want to work for You!”
He said, “Yes, come home daughter, come home.”
* * * * * *
In that little studio in 1993 I fully submitted to the Lord and I have never regretted it. I still perform and I still have big plans to use my gift to bless people. I’d love to do an album of Fifties music, for example.
I still live on our ranch outside of little Blanchard, but in 2014 I lost my husband to a terrible lung disease. Robin lives less than a mile away. She has given me 2 marvelous grandchildren, Montana and Layla.
I attend Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Blanchard. I think that Grandma would be proud of me. She never really got to see my career take off. When I tried to tell her, just before she died, she said, “Jest as long as you don’t sing anya that hilly-billy music.” Today my sister, Carol, lives just a few miles away. I am in close touch with my sister Barbara. I even have a little sister, Vivian, my mother’s daughter by her second marriage. My sister Shirley died of cancer in 2006. Pat died in 1983 after struggling bravely with cancer. She’s still my hero.
I think it is a miracle that I survived the dangerous journey though all the glamour and glitz, the fame and fortune, and all the other traps of stardom to arrive home safely and—some people say—miraculously normal.
And, most of all, I am grateful to have found the safe shelter of the loving arms of my Savior, Jesus.