Disco DJ Jerry Miller talks to DiscoMusic.com about the dance music scene in Portland, Oregon during the 1970s and 1980s. Can one vacant Victorian house really hold a load of Disco partygoers?
Jerry Miller interview written By Bernard Lopez of DiscoMusic.com
Tucked away in the Pacific Northwest and a little over three hours away from Seattle is the rapidly expanding city of Portland, Oregon. Most, including myself, conjure up the image of logs floating down a river and people wearing flannel shirts when we think of this area of the US. It is a city however that has seen much growth in the last three decades not just in the building of skyscrapers, but in its entertainment sector as well. Disco; of course, factors into this picture and so to the gay/mixed bar known as Embers where Jerry Miller began his DJ career in 1978.
Where are the Disco Records in Portland?
In 1970 Jerry Miller moved to Portland to pursue employment as a food broker. Through the years he would buy plenty of records including the new Disco 12" singles that started appearing around 1975-6. Jerry explains that during that time very few stores carried 12" singles and those that did relegated it to one small row in a bin. Undeterred, he continued to seek out and buy more music and play it at home for his personal enjoyment. It was just a little hobby and nothing more. His first 12" purchase was Van McCoy's "The Hustle" on AVCO.
He and his friends would go out to the local joints to hear the newest music albeit the music was not played by DJ's nor mixed. The clubs that existed then were nothing more than a bar with a jukebox serving drinks in paper cups.
The First Disco Party
In 1975 Jerry's roommate Gary Huntley, who was an electronics buff who could build and repair nearly anything, put together a massive sound system complete with a mixer and hand built speakers. The two had no idea what to do with this beast. It was soon suggested that they throw a party for friends in an old Victorian home. There was plenty of space for the equipment and partygoers since the house was being renovated and had all its interior walls removed with only the wall studs and exterior walls left standing. Since Jerry was up-to-date with the music he became the DJ although he couldn't and didn't mix. What he did have was a knack for playing what the "people" wanted and getting them to dance and have a great time.
What initially started as a small gathering for close friends soon attracted huge crowds and became an every other week affair moving around from one house or warehouse to another. There was no admission fee; it was simply for everyone to come and have a good time.
As the years went by they attracted the attention and disdain of the bar owners and DJs in downtown Portland who were losing business due to Jerry's "house parties." The location and times of these parties were never really disclosed ahead of time but, when word got around all the bar patrons would quickly leave and head over to the private party.
Since the parties were usually held later at night Jerry and his friends would go to the local bars to hang out and listen to the music for a few hours before. Jerry would try to talk with these DJ's, but they did not want to explain their techniques let alone speak with him since they saw him as a threat. They made it very clear that he was not welcome.
Showdown At Embers
It was on one of these routine forays into the bars in 1978 that soon brought about a face-to-face confrontation between Jerry and Embers owner Steve Suss. Steve asked Jerry flat out, "Why are you trying to take my business." Jerry replied that he wasn't and was merely throwing parties for his friends and that no money was even made. Steve was a shrewd businessperson and knew that he wouldn't be able to stop Jerry despite his threats of police action to close down the parties. After talking for about forty-five minutes Steve asked Jerry whether he wanted to go to work for him as an after-hours DJ from 1:00AM to 4:00am. Jerry was shocked and said yes on the spot and was scheduled to begin the following Friday.
The other DJ's and bar employees were unhappy with this and did everything they could to make Jerry Miller feel unwelcome. They even went as far as pretending to fall down whenever he "train wrecked" a mix to rub it in. Heck, even Jerry's sound man, known as "Mother Dan" didn't want to help him out of any jams in the beginning. He did a once-over of the sound system and then told Jerry "you're on your own-I'm not going to help you out if you get stuck." In due time though they all came to respect each other and became good friends.
In the beginning Jerry didn't know how to mix, but was still able to pack the dance floor which the experienced DJ's couldn't do. Jerry insists it was simply because they (the experienced DJ's) failed to play what the people wanted. They were playing more of a slowed down R & B groove peaking at 125 BPM whereas the crowd wanted faster and that's what Jerry gave them. In due time he taught himself how to mix and became very proficient at it.
Records that Jerry Miller routinely played:
- Let Me Take You Dancing - Bryan Adams 1979 A&M (Jerry's # 1 song and one which he began every set with so that everyone knew he was up in the booth)
- Disco Inferno - The Trammps 1976 Atlantic Records
- Bump Me Baby - Dolly Silverspoon 1975 Cotton Records
- One Less Bell to Answer - The 5th Dimension 1975? Bell Records
- Dream Express - Midnight Dream 1979 MCA Records
- Pillow Talk – Sylvia 1973 Vibration Records
- Boogie Man (parts one and two - Brooklyn People 1976 Cherd Records
- Disco Lady - Johnnie Taylor 1976 Columbia Records
- She's A Disco Queen – Oliver Sain 1975 AbetRecords
- Mac Arthur Park – Donna Summer 1978 Casablanca Records
- Have You Seen Her - Chi-Lites 1970? – Bellaphon Dancing Free (Disco Version) – Hot Ice 1976 Rage
- Do It (Like You Ain't Got No Backbone) - Force of Nature 1976 Philadelphia International Records
- Born To Get Down (Born to Mess Around) – Muscle Shoals Horns 1976 Bang Records
- Soul Man (parts one and two) - Isaac Hayes / David Porter 1976 Warner/Spector Records
- Instant Love - Sylvia Love 1979 RCA Records
- N. Y. You Got Me Dancing - Andrea True Connection 1977 Buddah Records
- More More More - Andrea True Connection Buddah Records
- Knight's In White Satin – Giorgio 1976 Oasis/Casablanca Records
- Dancer - Gino Soccio 1979 RFC Records
- Tryouts For The Human Race – Sparks 1979 Elektra Records
- Feels Like I'm In Love – Kelly Marie 1979 Calibre Records
- Set Me Free - The Three Degrees 1980 Ariola Records
- Love Is In You – Nightlife Unlimited 1979 Casablanca Records
- Pick Me Up, I'll Dance - Melba Moore 1978 Epic Records
- I Am What I Am – Gloria Gaynor Silver Blue Records
- Sadness In My Eyes - The Duncan Sisters 1979 Casablanca Records
- The Visitors - Gino Soccio 1979 Celebration Records
- My Baby's Baby - Liquid Gold 1979 Parachute Records
- I Don't Want The Night To End - Sylvie Vartan 1979 RCA Records
- Hold On I'm Comin' - Karen Silver 1979 Arista Records
Jerry Miller's all time top ten appears at the end of this story.
It's at around this time (1980) that Jerry Miller and a friend went down to California to visit the famed Trocadero Transfer. They had a hard time getting in, but were soon admitted. Once inside he saw someone who took him up to the DJ booth to meet Bobby Viteritti. Jerry recalls watching the master at work and finally getting a chance to speak with him and found him very friendly. Jerry says he was only able to stay in the booth for about ten minutes, but that it was "amazing." The whole place and atmosphere were for that matter. He simply says, "I was in Disco heaven, it was everything I had ever dreamed in being a large disco with incredible sound & lighting…"
By 1982 Jerry Miller had become the head DJ and music programmer as well as becoming a Billboard reporter representing Embers for Oregon. Fellow Ember's DJ George Adams who was retiring from music to pursue another career bequeathed the Billboard spot to him. Even with all the promos and test pressings he was receiving he continued to buy music especially imports to keep the dancers happy. No style of dance music was safe from his turntables. He played it all.
Embers eventually relocated to bigger quarters to accommodate the ever-increasing crowds. The new Embers consisted of two large buildings connected by a 20-ft. tunnel. In the front bar was a DJ booth and drag shows. Go through the tunnel to the back room dubbed the "Avenue" and one was treated to the biggest dance floor in all of Oregon which is where Jerry and his future mate Patrick would spin on Fridays and Saturdays till 4:00 AM. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights were run on reel to reel tapes. Wednesday's were for western dancers only while Thursdays nights were packed since that was cheap beer night. As the years passed, everything from Disco to Techno was played.
On the 15th of August, 1984 Jerry took the plunge and opened Turntable Mary's in Portland. A 1,200 square foot vinyl record store where DJs could find the latest 12 inch dance singles. He soon had all the area DJs and clubs as well as many out-of-state clients buying their product from him.
With a booming business and everything else appearing to be going well, Jerry tested HIV positive in 1986. He was able to continue with his shop and DJ at Embers till 1995 when his health finally prevented him from continuing. Even with a strong will to live Jerry readily admits that he sorely misses not being able to do what gives him the most pleasure and that is being involved in music.
In 1987 and between 1989-1992- Jerry & Patrick took time off from Embers to play huge charity events at the coliseum featuring well known acts such as Sylvester, The Village People, Thelma Houston, 2 Ton's of Fun, Pamela Stanley, Sharon Redd and Lipps Inc. In addition they raised thousands for the Cascade AIDS Project.
Jerry and Patrick have been together since 1989 and own a home in Portland and still maintain their sizeable record collection along with their cats. They have been good friends of DiscoMusic.com since becoming regular visitors. Thanks guys!
Jerry's Top 25 Disco Tracks:
- Dancing Queen - Abba
- Let Me Take You Dancing - Bryan Adams
- I Love The Nite Life - Alicia Bridges
- Turn The Beat Around - Vicki Sue Robinson
- Jam & Spoon - Right In the Night
- Hold On To My Love - Jimmy Ruffin
- Just Pick Me Up I'll Dance - Melba Moore
- I Will Survive - Gloria Gaynor
- The Visitors - Abba
- Relight My Fire - Dan Hartman
- More, More, More - Andrea True Connection
- Lovin' Is Really My Game - Brainstorm
- Don't Leave Me This Way - Thelma Houston
- Love Pains - Yvonne Elleman
- Don't Leave Me This Way - Communards
- Love Insurance - Sharon Redd
- I Am What I Am - La Cage Aux Folles
- Band Of Gold - Sylvester
- Heart Of Glass - Blondie
- Planet Claire - B52's
- Tarzan Boy - Baltimora
- Hey Hey Guy - Ken Laslow
- Small Town Boy - Bronski Beat
- I Wanna Be A Cowboy - Boy's Don't Cry
- Together Forever - Rick Astley
Written by Bernard F. Lopez (December 20, 2000)
Copyright © 2000 by Bernard F. Lopez
All rights reserved
Jan. 21, 2002
Dear DiscoMusic.com readers,
Over the weekend I received some very sad news about a good friend of mine and of DiscoMusic.com. His name is Jerry Miller a Portland area DJ for almost 20 years. Many may have read the interview that I conducted with him back in 2000 or even interacted with him on the forums here.
His long-time partner Patrick Jarvis wrote me the following e-mail:
I have some bad news to tell you, Jerry passed away Thursday (Jan 17, 2002) at 1:15 am PST... due to his meds. (the very long term use of harsh pills, the radiation and chemotherapy) his kidneys failed on new years day....he let them try some short term measures but in the end he just struggled in the hospital for a week and a half...
He knew what was going on and what the end result would be and asked for his well known wish to go home and have his life end with me and his babies (kitties) around him.
He went very peacefully and he was so happy when we got him home and he saw his gold records... he said "I MADE IT!!!!"
He had two goals left:
One- to make 2002 (that night he asked if I remembered how upset he was on new years 1998 when he got all worked up about the fact he would not see new years 2000????!!!!!!!)
And two- to make his fiftieth birthday in April, 2002...
I am going to throw him "Jerry's Last Dance" for his birthday at the club where he worked for 18 years... I am going to play some of his favorites out of the collection and then play one of his program tapes so he can take a turn at the turntables one last time and be there for his birthday
I then replied to Pat's e-mail to express my sorrow and he answered back:
He would want an ending to his interview and he loved to talk to people via your message board...
I will send you the invitation to "Jerry's Last Dance" when the owner of The Embers and I figure out all the details... I would like it if you would include it in his interview as well...
Just like when he was alive... the news is spreading fast that Jerry is playing in April and it looks like many, many people are coming to do the "boot scoot" in his honor one last time... he would be so proud.