Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Musician who celebrated Spokane’s environmental makeover remembered with gift to mayor

Expo ’74 left Spokane many artifacts still visible to this day, including Riverfront Park and the Garbage Goat. Less remembered are the many songs written to commemorate the passage of the world’s fair.

By June 3, 1974, Spokesman-Review reporter Bill Morlin rattled off a “quick count” of at least eight songs and another published only on sheet music.

“It appears just about anybody who can hum a tune or plunk a musical note has tried to cash in on the Spokane Expo theme,” Morling wrote. “From a local rock group that plays teen-age dances, a former tavern owner who plays the clarinet, a retired organ dealer, to a Florida man who does nightclub numbers.”

Not long after Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown took office, as the city and various organizations prepared to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Spokane hosting the world’s fair, she received a letter and package containing an unopened 45-rpm record. In the letter, Cindy Young explained that her father, country music singer Dale Miller, was among the many musicians who had hoped to create the defining song of Expo ’74.

The album cover for “Dale Sings Songs of the Fair City” makes this goal explicit, colored only in the white, lime green and pale blue of the Expo ’74 logo, which itself is printed not once but twice under an image of people wandering under gondolas and looking at the falls and mountains.

Today, that album sits next to a modern record player Brown has set up just outside her seventh floor office at City Hall. But at the time, the relatively poor performance discouraged Miller, whose big break continued to elude him.

Many musicians hoping to capture some of the event’s magic did so by crooning about how nice a place Spokane was to visit, or how it was better than Santa Fe or Saint Paul, as Bob Bellows whispered in his easy listening track “Yes, You Can in Spokane.” Interestingly, the albums celebrating the Lilac City followed not long after a more popular song, Tom Hall’s 1973 track “Spokane Motel Blues,” in which Hall laments being stuck in the city when “I should be someplace else.”

Miller, instead, went all in on the actual theme of the International Exposition on the Environment, noting in the track straightforwardly named “Expo ’74” that the city had removed the web of railroads covering much of the river downtown and singing “Spokane will show the world how we’re cleaning up the land, your water and fresh air from sea to sea.” He recorded and performed the songs singing alongside his wife, Jeanne, his brother, Bill, his daughter, Young, and a friend and fellow musician Duffy White, who like the Millers was from Priest River, Idaho.

Miller submitted the record to a contest launched by fair organizers to pick the Expo’s official theme song, but came in second after Jean Anthony Greif’s “Meet Me by the River.” Though he would tell The Spokesman-Review later that year the album sold 5,000 copies locally, it didn’t become the big hit he had hoped for, Young said in an interview.

Young recalled traveling with him and the family since she was a little girl, performing around the Northwest to promote his first album, “Potter County.” Though Young had three brothers, she was the child most involved in her father’s music, she said. Not long after the poor sales of the Expo ’74 record, however, he hung up his guitar – a relief to Jeanne, Young said, as raising four children on the road took its toll.

It was a relief to Miller, too, in a way. He didn’t like to leave Idaho, Young said, or its mountains or fishing.

By the time Young graduated high school she returned home to discover, for the first time in her life, there were no guitars in the house. The family had settled down for good, and Miller found work in the mining industry.

It was the end of a decadeslong journey. Miller, born in South Dakota but raised in Priest River since he was 2, had worked as a musician since he was 11, taking a job performing on Dr. Cowan’s Old Time Party radio show. He arrived in the studio with a homemade guitar equipped with an old toothbrush in place of the guitar bridge, until someone from the studio bought him a replacement bridge. He later worked on “The Clyde and Slim Show,” a Spokane-based old time radio show, and appeared on the KXLY-TV program “Saddle Up With Slim.”

He and Jeanne were practically kids themselves when they started having their four children, Young said. Jeanne learned the bass guitar so she could perform in her husband’s band, and Young eventually took up the tambourine and microphone.

His stints on the air and in public eventually garnered the attention of musician-turned-record producer Charles Edward “Rusty” York. Miller drove from Idaho to New York with Jeanne and two brothers, passing through an area with an active tornado on the way, Young recalled.

On the drive, Miller wrote the A-side track to the record he’d cut in New York, “Potter County,” which appeared alongside the B-side “Take Me Back to Pennsylvania.” The album was apparently a hit out east – which Miller learned not from York or from a flood of royalty checks, but from an article in a magazine.

“Dad didn’t hear from back east, he didn’t hear from Rusty York – he never received a penny for that record,” Young said. “He didn’t know how to copyright his music, he was just a country boy.”

When Expo-fever hit Spokane, Miller had seen another opportunity to make it big.

“But we were only able to book like three shows the whole Expo ’74; Dad never had a chance to promote the record,” Young said. “He just quit the music thing. He just gave up the music business. He had put everything into it he could.”

A number of the unsold, sealed records were stored away for 50 years. But with a bit of Expo-fever returning to the city for the 50th anniversary celebration, Young saw an opportunity to share a piece of her fathers and the city’s legacy, shipping a copy to the mayor.

“I thought that was really awesome,” Brown said in an April interview.