Hazel Miller got into music as a kid, while doing chores.
“My mother had a rule: Saturdays were for cleaning the house,” she says. “My brother would put on a record and by the end of the day we would’ve played everything from Motown to Sly and the Family Stone.”
Miller was the fifth of seven children from a Roman Catholic family raised in “the projects” of Louisville, Kentucky. At Catholic school, a nun in the first grade told Miller, “Sing louder; they’ll follow you,” and a few years later it was clear that was true.
“In the third grade I got to sing with the eighth graders one year for Christmas, and I was absolutely thrilled,” she says. “I think I’ve been looking for that attention ever since.”
Miller likes to laugh, and she brings positivity and warmth into every room she enters. Nearly every step of her story, before she arrived in Colorado in 1984, features Miller breaking away from someone who tried to tell her what she could and couldn’t do.
As a teenager, Miller sang backup for local bands when she could, and even spent a month on the road singing with Al Green.
“They needed someone to sing backup because the girl who sang with them was pregnant and her husband wanted her to stay at home,” she says. “When school was about to start, I said, ‘Guys, I had the time of my life,’ and I went home. My brother came to pick me up and we drove from Memphis back to Louisville and it’s one of the best memories of my life.”
But after high school, there was a roadblock.
“I got married,” she says with a somewhat sour face. “It wasn’t blissful, but I made a choice. He didn’t want me to sing. He said it made him nervous, and I really missed it.”
‘You wanna sing something?’
Miller’s husband eventually left Louisville, while she stayed in the Bluegrass State with her 2-year-old son. She kept hearing a band rehearsing in their neighborhood, and the two would walk by just to listen and wave at the band.
“Finally this guy said, ‘Hey, you wanna sing something? Because you keep coming by.’ So I did this Aretha Franklin song and I got a call,” she says. “Their singer was married, and she was pregnant with her third child, and her husband said, ‘Enough.’ I got the gig. I kept it for four years.”
By 1984, Miller was ready for big things. With stardom in Los Angeles in mind, she rented a U-Haul that repeatedly broke down, attached her van to the back of it, and left Kentucky with six kids (including two of her own), along with a friend who was escaping an abusive husband.
“The night we were loading into the big truck, her husband beat her up pretty bad. I said, ‘Look — if you grab some clothes for you and your kids, you can come with me,’” she remembers. “We made it as far as Denver.”
Miller started living with her kids in a ragged motel on East Colfax in those early days on the Front Range. Though she ended up in Denver by accident, one of her boys wasn’t going to let her forget they left Kentucky for a reason.
“Here we are in Colorado, and I was working, watering plants,” she remembers. “My 7-year-old came to me and said, ‘If all you gonna do is water plants, can we go home?’ So that Sunday I started going over to Five Points, sitting in, and within three months I got hired to do a wedding, and I’ve been working [as a singer] ever since.”
‘The time of my life’
Miller has sung the national anthem before Denver Broncos games, performed at Red Rocks, toured with local staples and fulfilled just about every bucket-list item for Colorado musicians. Her voice even greets visitors taking trains to the main terminal at Denver International Airport. But she’s also performed at the White House, toured with the U.S. military, and sung with many of her heroes — from the Temptations, to James Brown, to Herbie Hancock.
Virtually every summer concert series stage along the Front Range features Miller’s smile, her swagger, and her powerful voice. Big Head Todd and the Monsters tasked Miller with singing lead vocals on “Hard Times Come Again No More” in 2019, recording a moving live performance in an empty El Chapultepec in Denver that coincidentally became somewhat of an anthem for the pandemic.
More than perhaps anywhere else, though, Miller is a beloved local star in Boulder, where she has become a household name.
“I’ve walked on stage in Boulder and felt like Aretha Franklin. People are so good to me in Boulder,” she says. “There’s something about Colorado. That first five years, my sister called and was like, ‘You coming back?’ and I said, ‘I think I’m home.’ [Now] I know I’m home. I’ve been here 39 years come August 14 of this year. There is nothing I could’ve done in L.A. to top what I’ve done in Colorado. I’ve had the time of my life.”
Asked what it’s been like to live and work for nearly four decades in the state’s predominantly white Front Range communities, Miller’s answer comes in a heartbeat.
“Colorado has given me a different perspective, a different way to look at the world. It’s no longer black-and-white. It’s no longer have-and-have-not,” she says. “I’ve had more problems getting jobs as a woman singer than being a Black woman singer. I’ve had moments in Colorado that would’ve never happened to me in L.A. and would’ve never happened in Louisville. So, yeah, Colorado’s my home. I love it here.”
Miller has released studio albums through the years, and much of her original work can be found on streaming services, but after arriving in Denver her focus on being a recording star fizzled.
“The live audiences in Colorado cut that short,” she says. “How in the world can I walk into a studio and get the love in there that I get from a live audience?”
In addition to playing with her band all over Colorado, Miller mentors young singers like Julia Kirkwood of Fort Collins, helping them put more soul into their singing and nudging them to come out of their shells on stage. Miller will turn 70 this June, and she’s humble talking not just about what she’s given this area with her singing, but with what music has given her.
“I sing because I need it. It makes my soul happy,” she says. “It’s how I pray. It’s how I grieve. It’s how I celebrate.”
ON STAGE: Hazel Miller and the Collective. 7 p.m. Saturday, March 11, Boulder Elks Lodge & Event Center, 3975 28th St. Tickets here.