Graham Reid | | 2 min read
Hearing Steve Miller play his fine-tuned and smoothly upholstered hits like Abracadabra, The Joker, Fly Like an Eagle and Jet Airliner – as he will do when he tours with Santana in March – it might be hard to reconcile them as coming from the same guy who earned his chops playing rhythm guitar in Buddy Guy's band in Chicago's toughest blues clubs, and then was one of the more interesting and experimental artists to emerge from the San Francisco hippie scene in the late 60s.
Steve Miller's career pivots on a couple of key points: that catchy guitar-effect wolf whistle in quasi-autobiographical The Joker from 73 (after the line “some people call me Maurice”) then the album Fly Like An Eagle of 76 which delivered the popular radio-friendly hits Take the Money and Run, Rockin' Me and the cool funk of the title track.
Before those points Miller, out of Texas, had done the hard yards with Guy's band, played with Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters then, on the advice of Chicago bluesman Paul Butterfield, relocated to San Francisco where he formed the Steve Miller Band (originally the Steve Miller Blues Band).
They played the Fillmore West and the Monterey Pop Festival, and over five albums in 26 months (some with Stones' producer Glyn Johns) Miller delivered a fascinating mix of stretched-out rock, blues, experimental electronics (he was quickly onto the Mellotron and sonic effects) as well as smart pop and even flickers of country-rock and Tex-Mex on the album Number 5 recorded in Nashville in '70.
In his band for the first two albums Children of the Future and Sailor (both 68) was singer/guitarist Boz Scaggs – who subsequent solo career also went the smooth soul-pop route – and for their third album Brave New World guests included keyboard player Nicky Hopkins and an uncredited Paul McCartney who co-wrote My Dark Hour with Miller. Also in the group for three albums was pianist Ben Sidran who went on to a credible jazz career.
Many of Miller's albums – with extensive liner notes – have recently been reissued, and those first five are worth exploring for a very different Steve Miller from the one best known for addictive hits which slotted right in to the new sound of FM radio and AOR (Album Oriented Rock) coming out of America's West Coast in the 70s and swept up Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles. Stuff we now call “classic rock”.
Miller certainly delivered his share of classic rock songs – his Young Hearts; Complete Greatest Hits from 2003 was certified gold in New Zealand and the first half of the 22 tracks are all instantly recognisable. “There's about 14 songs my audience really wants to hear,” he told Rolling Stone a couple of years ago. That makes a 90 minute show right there.
But beyond those hits was a smart songwriter with an ear for cool funk and blues, a superb (and much underrated) guitarist and someone who hasn't forgotten his roots. His 2010 album Bingo! – his first in 17 years – was all blues covers (“It's a party record, man. It's about getting up and getting ready to dance”) and he so enjoyed doing them he had enough left over for the 2011 album Let Your Hair Down.
The reissue of 10 key albums from his back-catalogue – from Children of the Future to Italian X-Rays in 84 – assures a fascinating journey because Steve Miller (whether you call him the space cowboy, the gangster of love, Maurice or whatever ) has always had more musical depth and breadth than a dozen or so smooth hits.