Ponder the mysterious disappearance of blues singer Luella Miller

By Mike Greenblatt

“Rattlesnake, rattlesnake, what makes you worry me so?
I know that you were danger when you crawled up in front of my door.       
Must have been a boa constrictor, rattlesnakes don’t bite so hard.
And I know that he was dangerous when he crawled up in my yard.”

Luella Miller Rattlesnake Groan

Luella Miller. Courtesy Blues Images.

So sings Luella Miller — well, after she moans and groans — alongside the flyin’ fiddle of  the legendary Lonnie Johnson [1899-1970], who played for Charlie Creath’s Jazz-O-Maniacs and on his own records.

“There’s a classic photo of him that I intend to use next year of him standing there in a suit and tie with a violin,” promises John Tefteller of Tefteller’s World’s Rarest Records.
But who was seated at the ivories for Miller’s session? Some suspect it was pioneering stride pianist James P. Johnson [1894-1955] of New Jersey, whose distinctive playing techniques bridged the ragtime and jazz eras. Then again, it could be pianist James Johnson (without the P), who was known to perform with Miller on occasion. Chances are, we’ll never know.

“One would have to dig up the actual recording logs of who was in the studio and who got paid that day to find out for sure,” says Tefteller, “and all that stuff was long ago destroyed.”

The song, which was released on Vocalion 1081, was recorded at Miller’s second session for the label on Jan. 28, 1927, in New York City. The performer dubbed “The Singing Comedienne” sounds in good spirits and in command. But don’t assume that her nickname was a nod to a second occupation as a stand-up comic.

Luella Miller Rattlesnake Groan

The ad for Luella Miller’s “Rattlesnake Groan” bills her as a comedienne. Courtesy Blues Images.

“That phrase was applied by the record companies to try to make the records more appealing to a bigger audience. If they just called her a blues singer, she would have been typecast as such, but if they called her a ‘singing comedienne,’ she could also be booked on the vaudeville stage and, thus, make more money,” Tefteller explains.

Whatever title she used, Miller must have been a big star at the time, as her picture was plastered on Vocalion sleeves advertising all the label’s other records. Her records — “Carrier Pigeon Blues” and “Black Snake Wiggle” — were hits.

“If you really pay attention to the words to some of those songs,” adds Tefteller, “she’s not singing about exactly what you might think she’s singing about.”

The mystery of Miller begins after her last session in Chicago in 1928, when she disappeared without a trace. It seems unlikely that such a star would simply cease to exist, but nothing is known of her after that last session. Was she murdered? Did she have to go into hiding? Or did something else happen?

“Maybe she just got married and decided to quit singing to stay home and raise a family,” Tefteller speculates.

Nobody even seems to know where Miller originated. There are those who swear she was a long, tall Texan gal. Others say she came from St. Louis.

“A lot of these old blues singers have been left in obscurity because, frankly, even blues historians just don’t have the time to research death certificates and such, but if someone wanted to, they certainly could find out if she chanced upon foul play or not. It would just take hours and hours of assiduous research,” Tefteller said.

Regardless of where she came from or disappeared to, if you want a tangible connection to Luella Miller in the form of “Rattle Snake Groan,” it’s going to set you back at least a few hundred bucks.

“I’ve seen them on occasion,” explains Tefteller, “but usually not in great shape. The one we used for the CD [accompanying the 2014 Blues Images calendar] was in perfect condition. That’s why it sounds so good. I would say a functional used one would go for about $300, and one in absolutely Mint condition would fetch upwards of $1,000.” GM

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