For months upon months, I’ve watched as Popdose readers have slammed the guy who got me into pop music as a pre-teen – and has held a special place in my heart ever since.
That guy is none other than Steve Miller.
Laugh if you want to. But your image of Steve Miller is probably only from “The Joker,” “Abracadabra” and (shudder) “Bongo Bongo.”
My perception of him is quite different. Because in my eyes, it’s the pre-fame Steve Miller that’s pretty special.
Did you know that the late Les Paul was his godfather and taught him his first guitar chords? That the great T-Bone Walker introduced him to the blues? That his youthful days in Chicago included jamming with the likes of Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Paul Butterfield? That his early band once backed Chuck Berry on a live record? That on his first few albums, his bandmates were longtime friends Boz Scaggs and Ben Sidran? That his third album included a jam with none other than Paul McCartney while he was still a Beatle? That legendary keyboardist Nicky Hopkins played on two albums and co-composed a song with Miller? That among the many fans of this underrated guitarist are master axemen such as Eric Johnson, Robbin Ford, George Thorogood, Jimmie Vaughan and Joe Satriani?
No? I’m not surprised. Which is why I asked our estimable host Jeff (a Steve Miller hater himself) if I could put together an ultimate Popdose Guide to the Steve Miller Band. Many months later (way too many), I’ve finally delivered what I promised.
I hope to give you a new appreciation for Stevie “Guitar” Miller as an incredibly gifted songsmith. A lifelong eclectic. And a pretty dynamite guitarist.
If nothing else, I hope to clue you in to all those cryptic lyrics from “The Joker.” A huge hint: Many of them come from early SMB songs.
The guide will be broken into two parts: The pre-fame Steve Miller of 1968-1973, when most of his airplay was confined to the FM “ghetto.” The second go round, we’ll feature the post-fame SMB when songs like “The Joker,” “Take The Money and Run” and “Jet Airliner” made him one of the biggest multi-platinum acts of the 70s.
Although I was introduced to the latter version, as I delved deeper into his back catalogue, I found myself preferring the former.
A little background first. Miller was born in Wisconsin, the son of a music-loving doctor named George “Sonny” Miller and Bertha, an amateur jazz singer. Not only was his family well-to-do, but Dr. Miller was the only guy in town with a reel-to-reel recorder. Thus, when touring musicians came to see a doctor before their shows, Dr. Miller invariably struck up a friendship with them and invited them back to his place after they performed. That’s how Dr. Miller got to know Les Paul and eventually served as best man at Paul’s wedding to his partner, Mary Ford.
You can hear an early recording of Paul encouraging a very young Steve Miller on both Miller’s 1994 boxed set and Paul’s 2005 album, in which the two combine on “Fly Like An Eagle.” Miller has described Paul as a heavy influence on his playing style, both in terms of technique and the in-studio experimentation that has been the hallmark of some of Miller’s best work.
Another major influence on Miller’s playing style was Walker, who was a frequent visitor to the Miller household when the family moved to Dallas from Wisconsin. It blessed him with a lifelong love of the blues, which has manifested itself in the songs Miller would choose to cover, as well as his own compositions.
In Dallas, Miller struck up a friendship with classmate William Scaggs and formed his first band. He formed another band with Ben Sidran when they were both attending University of Wisconsin-Madison called the Ardells. But Miller wasn’t interested in finishing school. So despite protests from his father, he went to Chicago to become a blues musician.
Through a series of events, Miller wound up in San Francisco during the Summer of Love. There, he formed a band that backed Chuck Berry on a live recording, reunited with Scaggs, played the Fillmore 104 times, performed at the Monterrey Pop Festival and ultimately was the subject of a fierce label bidding war. Miller signed with Capitol, but only after extracting a rare promise: He had to have complete artistic control over the final product of everything he released. “That was absolutely critical to my career,” he later said.
Released in May 1968 , the band’s first album Children of the Future saw Miller meshing the psychedelia of Haight-Asbury with his blues-tinged sound. It included audio collages like the 5:18 “The Beauty of Time Is That It’s Snowing,” outright blues stompers such as “Roll With It” and “Fanny Mae” and the Pink Floydesque “In My First Mind” and the title track. The song “Stepping Stone” is perhaps a wistful hint what could have been a fruitful artistic partnership: Scaggs contributes the scathingly brilliant vocals and exhorts Miller to “go” as the band’s leader launches into a fiery guitar solo.
But the unquestioned highlight was the song that preceded it: a gentle Scaggs tune called “Baby’s Calling Me Home” in which the future “Lowdown” singer croons sweetly with an acoustic guitar and harpsichord as his only accompaniment.
Whereas the first album was definitely a product of its time, right down to its psychedelic cover, the band’s second album saw the Steve Miller Band crafting a sound that would soon become more uniquely its own. Released just five months later in October, 1968, Sailor contained Miller’s first hit “Livin’ in the U.S.A,” which received extensive airplay on the free-form FM stations at the time. It also included Miller’s cover of “Gangster of Love” by Johnny “Guitar” Watson – a song that would almost become his own.
You didn’t like pointless “Macho City” off Miller’s “Circle of Love?” Truth is, neither did I. Here’s something far more palatable: “Song for Our Ancestors,” an audio collage with back-and-forth San Francisco foghorns that morphs into a laid-back Haight-Asbury jam. Seguing right into it is the gorgeous and deceptively complex “Dear Mary” with Miller singing in a near falsetto that resembles a slowed-down version of “Penny Lane” – right down to the final piccolo trumpet solo.
The second side of Sailor is almost entirely made up of blues-tinged rocking numbers – many filled with the anger and sense of social outrage that was not only characteristic of the time, but most of Miller’s early work. (“Living in the U.S.A,” a stompalong that Miller has continued to make a staple of his concerts, was a slam on everything from television to cheeseburgers. “Everybody’s kickin’ sand/Even politicians/We’re living in a plastic land.”) An exception was the achingly lush “Quicksilver Girl,” a song that Big Chill fans might remember was featured fairly prominently in the film – but only made it onto the second “More Songs” soundtrack album.
Scaggs would sing and write three of the album’s 10 songs – including the collection’s closers “Dime a Dance Romance” and “Overdrive” – the latter a tune that meshes a pedal steel with a hard-driving Bo Diddley beat.
It would turn out to be Scaggs’ farewell performance. With the help of Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, Scaggs secured a solo deal with Atlantic Records and exited the group.
No worries, however. For the band’s third album in 1969, Miller picked up an old but new band member – ex-classmate Sidran, who actually played the harpsichord part on “Baby’s Calling Me Home” but otherwise didn’t participate on the first two albums. Sidran co-authored four of the album’s nine tracks including the optimistic title track and “Space Cowboy.” Yes, as in “some people call me the Space Cowboy” from “The Joker.” As someone on Wikipedia rightly pointed out, the guitar riff on this FM radio hit is almost a direct ripoff of “Lady Madonna.” Typical of Miller’s social consciousness of the time, the song once again railed against the power elite, while also making fun of the utopianism expressed by the flower power folks.
Somehow, Miller and Sidran never got in trouble for that bit of plagiarism. In fact, during the recording sessions, Miller was visited by labelmate Paul McCartney, who was still very much a Beatle. In one of his few forays away from the Fab Four before the breakup, Macca proceeded to jam with Miller on the song “My Dark Hour” with the two men playing all the instruments – McCartney contributing drums, bass, one of the guitar lines and backing vocals. If you thought that Elvis Costello was the only McCartney songwriting partner other than John Lennon to bring out his rough edges, you haven’t heard this song. It’s a blues stomper, with guitar lines dripping with acid, punchy drumming and nasty vocal lines worthy of Muddy, Buddy and all the other blues greats. McCartney is billed on the record as “Paul Ramon,” a name he once used when the Beatles were still the Quarrymen.
Despite the fact that I treasure this song as a Beatlemaniac, it’s not my favorite on Brave New World. That honor (?) would go to “Kow Kow Calculator,” a cryptic song that benefits from an incredible contribution from another rock great. Having lost his keyboardist Jim Peterman since “Sailor,” Miller turned to Nicky Hopkins. The session man’s session man, Hopkins may have never had a chance to turn in such an incredible performance during his illustrious career. The coda from Hopkins makes the slowly building song worth listening to the very end every time. (At one point, YouTube had an inferior live performance of this tune that is keyboard-less – demonstrating how important Hopkins was to this track)
Clocking in at just under 30 minutes, this record concludes an album trilogy that many purists believe was Miller at his very best. As Rolling Stone pointed out at the time, BNW “proved so much better than it had a right to be after Boz Scaggs’ departure. “ For sure, Miller unleashed some of his best work during this span, which lasted just over a year. It also probably helped to have a young Glyn Johns making his debut as a producer on all three releases, a few years before he hooked up with the Who, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and became one of the top rock producers of the ’70s.
But there was some good stuff yet to come from Mr. Miller, who was still a few years away from worldwide fame.
For his next album, Sidran was back. And so was Hopkins, who this time played on five of Your Saving Grace’s eight cuts and co-wrote the beautifully haunting “Baby’s House” – making him, for all intents and purposes, a de facto member of the Steve Miller Band.
“Steve Miller just keeps taking care of business,” wrote Rolling Stone’s Ed Leimbacher, in praising the album in a roundabout way. “Miller’s albums and individual tracks seem more like a Work in Progress, little disparate pieces that fit together in odd ways, bits on a later album relating back to something on Sailor, say, and linking it to Brave New World. One of these years, the whole opus will fall into place.”
For me, it fell into place on at least two of the eight tracks on this album, which saw Miller delving more into blues and gospel.
On “Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around,” Miller throws his moral support behind the civil rights movement while unleashing some of his fieriest guitar licks yet. If anyone wondered why he was called Stevie “Guitar” Miller, they didn’t after hearing this track – a breathless stomp that lasts just under two and a half minutes.
Just in case people thought Miller was taking himself too seriously, the future Joker threw a curveball with one of rock’s most peculiarly titled songs, “The Last Wombat in Mecca.” Accompanied by a bottleneck guitar, an acoustic guitar and a snare drum, drummer Tim Davis puts on his best faux blues voice, purposely doesn’t quite keep time with the ragged ensemble and unleashes a fun little number on listeners.
In the early days at least, the Steve Miller Band was a true band. Miller didn’t mind when others would write or even take over the lead vocals on certain songs. Davis, who had sang a few tracks on the early albums, co-wrote with Miller what turned out to be the album’s title track. Davis also sang what remains my favorite all-time Steve Miller Band song. Sometimes, I wander into one of those outlet mall Bose stores and start playing “Your Saving Grace” on one of their iPod docks. Inevitably, one of the salesmen comes over and asks me who is playing. “The Steve Miller Band,” I reply, smiling. I love the inevitable look of shock and surprise on his face. (Given Hopkins’ keyboard line and Davis’ fragile tenor, which slightly resembles Steve Winwood’s, most people probably think it’s a long-lost Traffic track)
Davis is the perfect vocalist for this soulful song, the album’s final track and the band’s final message to the love decade. Hopkins is once again given lots of space to play, this time on the organ. And Miller breaks in with the spacey bridge that puts a new spin on the proceedings, yet somehow fits into the song as it slowly builds to its conclusion. Go ahead: I defy you to not be singing along by the time it reaches its climax.
Davis would wind up the longest-lasting original band member – the only one to remain for the band’s next release, Number 5, which saw the collective down to Miller, Davis and newcomer Bobby Winkelman. He would remain a lifelong friend of Miller, even co-writing the songs “Who Do You Love” and “Out of the Night” on the 1984 Miller album, Italian X-Rays (Yeah, the one with “Bongo Bongo” and “Shangri-La.”)
Writes Miller in the liner notes to his box set about “Who Do You Love,” a personal favorite of his: “This is the last song I wrote with Tim Davis. Tim was dying at the time from diabetes and it had taken a terrible toll on him. But he never lost his good humor…When Tim Davis passed out of the light into the darkness, he took the heart of the first Steve Miller Band with him. But he left me with a deep sense of love and joy in my heart for having known him and having spent as much time together as we did. I still feel his presence and influence when I’m working on new music.”
But we’re digressing here. Back to Number 5, an album that holds a special place in many SMB fans heart despite the fact that it was released amid the kind of musical turmoil that almost mirrored the tumultuous times.
I also really like it – if only because it is Miller’s most eclectic effort: A South of the Border ditty complete with Mariachi trumpets (“Hot Chili”), a country tune that included Nashville session men Charlie McCoy on harmonica, fiddler Buddy Spicher, and guitarist Wayne Moss called “Going to the Country.”
Written by ex-bandmate Sidran, there was even a tango called, oddly enough, “Steve Miller’s Midnight Tango.”
Rarer still, the mostly straight Miller praised the use of cannabis on the rambling tune “Tokin’s” that would not have been out of place on a Grateful Dead album.
But the part of the album that received the most attention was its second side – Miller’s strongest socio-political statement yet, a three-song suite that included the Hendrix-infuenced “Industrial Complex Hex,” the spacier and dark “Jackson-Kent Blues” and the elegiac “Never Kill Another Man,” which once again put Miller’s anti-war sentiments front and center behind a full string section. Addressing returning war veterans, Miller does his best Neil Young impression – that is, without the whine.
Despite the adventurousness inherent in the album and its overall success, there was plenty of drama behind the scenes. The band was falling apart. So was Miller’s marriage. To salvage what he could, Miller traveled to Nashville alone to rerecord many of the tracks himself and with other session musicians.
Although Miller and his cohorts had recorded five albums in less than three years, Capitol Records wanted more. Miller began recording material with a new ensemble that included Jack King on drums and future Journey member Ross Valory on bass. Right after its first mix, Capitol finalized what Miller felt was unfinished and inferior product. Released in September 1971, Rock Love was almost completely disavowed by Miller from the get-go – and it is one that even the most ardent fans can barely tolerate, save for the opening track, a live version of “The Gangster is Back.”
The next album, Recall the Beginning … A Journey from Eden, saw Miller continue his slow transition up the pop ladder. Although mostly ignored upon its release and never really liked by Miller, who resisted releasing both this album and Rock Love on CD for the longest time, the band’s seventh album is nonetheless a solid collection of songs that offers all kinds of clues as to where Miller was going.
Most obviously, the evidence comes in the albums second track: “Enter Maurice.” Yes, that Maurice. Who does indeed speak of “the pompatous of love,” one year before “The Joker” became Miller’s first big hit. The made-up word was not Miller’s. It actually came from a 1954 doo-wop tune by the Medallions, according to Cecil Adams of the Straight Dope.
This song is a lot of fun. As far as doo-wop parodies go, in my view, it is on par with Frank Zappa’s Cruising With Ruben & the Jets (1968). It features orgasmic screams from the female chorus, a basso narrator and the final lyrics delivered in deadpan style by Miller. “Just remember sweetheart/I bought myself a gun/And I will be the only one.”
There’s nothing quite as hilarious on the rest of the album, which definitely has its moments. Lyrically, Miller has never been the best wordsmith. He stumbles between his brand of earnest (if clichéd) social criticism and the dreamy idealism that would mark his later work.
But musically, Miller keeps Journey… on a steady groove.
The moody title track features a haunting melody punctuated by a well-placed string section.
“Somebody Somewhere Help Me” has a killer bass line that, along with a Chicago-style brass section, helps the song lift off. On the album, you hear all kinds of musical snippets that Miller would employ to greater success on his biggest albums, 1976’s Fly Like An Eagle and 1977’s Book of Dreams. Produced by Sidran (a jazz buff who would go on host an NPR jazz show), the album features the debut of drummer Gary Mallaber, who would play an essential role in the recording of Miller’s Fly Like An Eagle and Abracadabra (1982).
Right after the album was released, the transition between the two Steve Millers began.
Involved in a serious car accident shortly after the album hit the stores, Miller was out of commission for months. It apparently left him with a lot of time to think. His next album would be the last under that groundbreaking deal that gave him (Rock Love notwithstanding) unprecedented artistic control over what he recorded.
Obviously, he wanted that deal to continue. As he recounted in the excellent DVD documentary that accompanies the 2006 30th anniversary re-release of Fly Like An Eagle, he decided at that point to drop all political commentary and record songs that adopted a more optimistic outlook on life.
We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here, but a perfect example is a song that Miller started recording in 1972. Initially called “In the Ghetto,” it’s another social critique – one that finds Miller (among other things) criticizing the American government for its treatment of Native Americans. Remember: This was the time of the “Billy Jack” movies and the takeover of Wounded Knee by American Indian activists.
Sound familiar? Take away the heavy blues chords, Miller’s belligerent delivery, the Hammond organ and you have the song that would become “Fly Like an Eagle” – without any of the optimism. Most notably, you don’t hear the lyric “There’s a solution” anywhere within its confines.
Tune in next week when Steve Miller leaves behind his days as a politically-oriented artist confined to FM radio ghetto – and creates one of Homer Simpson’s favorite songs.