CARRIE TURNER HAD A DATE. SHE WAS GOING TO THE FLAmingo, the best nightclub that admitted black people in Memphis, Tenn., in 1955. Giddy with anticipation, Carrie primped in the glow of the neon flamingo over the club's door. She climbed rickety stairs to a ballroom that shook to the jazz of Phineas Newborn Jr. and his orchestra.
Newborn's saxophonist was a tall, bespectacled young man. Utterly cool in black pants and an emerald jacket, Saul Miller blew a hot tenor sax. More important to Carrie, "He was a handsome thing. All the girls had their eyes on Saul." But it was Carrie he had invited to the show, and when the band took a break, he asked her to dance to "Stardust," playing on the club's phonograph. Carrie, slow dancing with the best-looking man in the room, thought: "This could be the start of something good."
Today Carrie Turner Miller, 61, stands in the den of the Miller home in Riverside, Calif. She nearly swoons remembering that dance. "My friends were so jealous!" Saul, 60, still thin as a reed, sits on the sofa with his long legs crossed. "Yes," he says. He and his wife are surrounded by trophies, plaques and framed certificates, 315 gleaming reminders of their children's many dates with destiny.
Thirty-six years ago in Memphis, a jazzman and a nurse fell in love. And while Saul and Carrie Miller are not the most famous couple in America, they have raised one of America's best-known families.
Saul Miller Jr., 34, blows his horn for the President of the United States as a saxophonist for the elite Air Force band, the Airmen of Note.
Darrell Miller, 33, played five major-league seasons for the California Angels before moving to the front office as the team's director of community relations.
Cheryl Miller, 27, the only eight-time All-American in basketball history--male or female--was the best female player ever. After draping herself in stars and stripes as the heroine of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team, "Miss Magic" became a sports commentator for ABC and ESPN.
Reggie Miller, 25, is the Indiana Pacers' $3- million-a-year all-star.
Tammy Miller, 23, attended Cal State Fullerton on a volleyball scholarship and earned her degree in criminal justice last May; she is currently applying to law school.
Showing off a photo of Cheryl schmoozing with Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Saul winks at his wife. "Guess we did OK," he says.
Says Carrie: "It wasn't easy, baby."
A BASKETBALL PLAYER AT MEMPHIS' ALL-BLACK HAMILTON high in the 1940s, Saul Miller moonlighted as a radio musician, jamming with B.B. King on WDIA during his lunch hours. After starring on Lemoyne College's basketball team, he backed Lionel Hampton, John Coltrane and Ike Turner. "He was hot," says Saul Jr., who played a club gig with his father decades later. "I was cool," Saul admits. But splitting weekend cash with the jazz-blues greats was no way to build a future. Saul had joined the Air Force in 1951; he re-enlisted in '56, after he got married, trading his dreams of musical immortality for a regular paycheck.
In barracks all over the Great Plains states, he took his horn to the latrine and practiced in midnight silence, fingering the keys, imagining the music he'd make if he could cut loose and wake his buddies with a blues reveille. Saul was smart--a computer-systems superintendent who operated the Strategic Air Command's mainframe in Omaha--but he was still a sax fiend. On weekend passes, he played "town tamer," introducing his visiting musical friends to new territory. Saul would stroll into a club and uncork his sax, "styling" by holding the horn behind his back and playing it over his shoulder, showing off to the locals.
Carrie, a registered nurse, was often the only black woman in the hospitals where she worked. She felt the hate in some of her patients, heard "nigger" spat behind her back. Carrie bit her lip. She went home, slept a few hours, woke early and made sure her kids had hot meals every single morning for 20 years: 7,305 mornings in a row.
Saul was transferred to March Air Force Base in 1963, and the family settled in Riverside. Blessed by good genes and Carrie's oatmeal, the kids grew tall and strong. Each found a way to emulate dad, the 6-foot-5 giant who expected perfection from his brood. Saul Jr., who quickly tired of team sports--"running laps, being a number"--took up the sax. Darrell, the studious jock, with the best Miller grades in high school (as an Angels catcher, he would computerize opposing players' stats and tendencies), helped Junior play deputy dad when their father worked late. But it was Cheryl, daddy's tomboy princess, who made the Millers famous.
"You love them all, all the same," Carrie says, "but Cheryl just shined." She was Carrie's most difficult birth, a blue baby born with her umbilical cord pulled tight around her neck. But once she got her breath, Cheryl turned golden. Even now she is the startling one, a 6-foot-3 tower of grace and quick wit, her eyes light brown with green rims around the irises.