Summerville-based rock 'n' roller Troy Miller, 43, may not look like a typical seafarer. With his newly grown dreads and barrel-chested frame, he resembles a bouncer at a hip club more than a career military man who spent years in the Navy and Coast Guard. He doesn't quite look like the stereotypical, hard-rockin'-frontman, either. But he embraces the role.
"I used to always sing out loud, but I never had an outlet for my singing," Miller says. "I used to go to karaoke all the time and tried to sing as well as I could. But karaoke's kind of jaded; things don't always sound as good as they should, but it's like being live without a net, so it's good practice. When the opportunity came along to actually be in a band, I jumped on it."
Miller grew up in Stony Brook, N.Y., on the western end of Long Island. After a year of college in the state, he switched gears and joined the Navy.
"I showed up in Charleston right after I joined," he says. "I remember that it was Dec. 31, 11:30 at night, and I was upset because I felt like I should have been in New York watching the ball drop in Times Square."
Miller served four years in the Navy before joining the U.S. Coast Guard in 1992. In the Navy, he worked as an operations specialist, earning a rank of E6. He served 16 years in the Charleston sector of the Coast Guard before retiring in 2008.
There is a contrast between singing one's heart out at a local bar and serving on a Navy ship or Coast Guard vessel.
"When I served years ago, I never thought I'd be fronting a rock band," Miller says. "I always admired bands and imagined what it might be like to do the rock 'n' roll lifestyle — like Robert Plant or Joe Elliott or whatever. When I started playing with Top Jimmy, I got to do my thing on stage, but I also stayed in the real world. I did my military duty and put on my uniform during the day."
A veteran bar band with a lengthy set of classic and contemporary rock hits, Top Jimmy first came together in the summer of 2004. The band's current lineup features Miller on the mic alongside guitarist Chris Williams, bassist Craig Campany, and drummer Adrien Roy.
"I was out one night with some friends to see the local band TrickKnee," Miller remembers. "I was friends with some of them, and they often let me get up on stage and sing a few songs. Adam Bradley, their drummer at the time, approached me with the idea of trying out for a new band. I sat in with them one time. They were like, 'Dude, you wanna be in the band?' I said sure. We had no name and no gigs."
Bradley had to leave the band just as they starting putting their first shows together. Roy stepped in as the timekeeper.
"We picked a band name, solidified the set, and went out and started hooking up the shows," Miller says. "I attempted to play guitar, but it got in the way of my singing, so I quickly put it down. Everyone was committed. The money started flowing in, and we really got rolling. There've been a few people in and out of the band, but we're still here, man."
The band's setlist balances the bluesy hard rock of Hendrix, Clapton, Zeppelin, and Skynyrd with the heavier, metallic rock of Van Halen, Def Leppard, and AC/DC, plus a big dose of alternative rock like Green Day, STP, and Pearl Jam.
"I'm really into rock — every type of rock, rap, R&B. It doesn't really matter the genre. I love it all," Miller says.
Miller's voice cuts through the distorted guitar tones and drum fills. He has a touch of old-school — a la Buddy Miles and Sly Stone — from time to time, too.
In a way, Miller's military experience has helped Top Jimmy gain a local military audience. Veterans of the Navy and Air Force who still reside in the Charleston area know about Miller's service. Some bars and music venues around town cater to the military community and regularly book the band. But Miller believes it's the band's combination of rock styles and positive onstage vibe that draws their crowds.
"The way that Top Jimmy fits into the Charleston band scene is funny," Miller says. "We have a special place in every region. We'll play them all the time, and people from the neighborhoods always come out."
In West Ashley, Famous Joe's seems to be Top Jimmy's home spot these days. They have played at Fat Boys up in Moncks Corner quite a bit in recent years. The band used to play weekly at Sportz Cafe and the old Pickled Parrot in North Charleston, but now they perform at K.C. Mulligan's and other hot spots. In Summerville, they rock out at Montreaux, O'Lacy's, and Southern Comfort. Their favorite downtown venue is Wet Willie's.
"We've played every Kickin' Chicken in the area at least five times apiece," Miller says. "We've tried to play the Dive in Goose Creek. I really want to play on a military base like that because I served and I know what it's like to be sitting on a base with nothing to do. They have national acts there, but the concerts are far and few between. I'd like to branch out into the downtown area and the beach clubs, too."
The band plans to record a batch of original tunes this year. Their debut single, an acoustic guitar drive ballad titled "Anything Better," enjoyed airplay on 98X's weekly show Local X.
"You know, we just celebrated the band's 200th show a few weeks ago," Miller adds. "We should have had way more that 200 shows by now, but I had to go on several patrols for three months at a time ... you know how it goes."
Top Jimmy performs at Shooters in Summerville on Fri. Sept. 17, at K.C. Mulligan's in North Charleston on Fri. Sept. 24, and at Famous Joe's in West Ashley on Sat. Sept. 25. Visit myspace.com/topjimmyband for more info.