Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 5 November 1943, Milwaukee WI) Guitarist, bandleader. His mother was a singer; his father, George 'Sonny' Miller, was a pathologist, an inventor and a music fan who recorded live jazz for his own enjoyment. He shared an interest in electronics and materials with guitarist Les Paul; they made guitar picks out of Plexiglass, and Miller was best man when Les Paul married Mary Ford. 

The family moved to Dallas, where people like T-Bone Walker came to call at their home. Steve Miller attended a prep school called St Mark's and formed a combo called the Marksmen with brother Jimmy and another teenager, William 'Boz' Scaggs. After high school he went to Chicago play the blues. The Miller/Goldberg Blues Band (with guitarist Barry Goldberg) made single 'Mother Song'; Miller retired due to management problems to become a janitor at a recording studio, but came back and went to the West Coast in 1966, at the height of San Francisco's burgeoning scene. He found that his band and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (with Mike Bloomfield) were tighter and played better: 'In Chicago, people would take each other's gigs. You had to defend your turf... In San Francisco, it took people 15 minutes just to tune their guitars.' 

The first Steve Miller Blues Band included Tim Davis on drums, Lonnie Turner on bass and James 'Curley' Cooke, guitar. They recorded backing Chuck Berry at Fillmore (they played the Fillmore West over 100 times); Scaggs returned from India to replace Cooke and Jim Peterman was added on organ; they played at Monterey, recorded three songs for Revolution '68 (a badly dated period film), signed with Capitol for a record-breaking advance and the promise of artistic freedom, and recorded Children Of The Future '68 with producer Glyn Johns in London, dropping 'blues' from the band's name but including blues classics like 'Key To The Highway'. The adventurous format of the first side of the LP, with five segued Miller tunes, was reminiscent of Sgt Pepper, which Johns had engineered; the title track was notable for sound effects, later a Miller trademark. Sailor '68 was a classic of the era, including the psychedelic 'Song For Our Ancestors', while 'Living In The USA' featured driving harmonica and was their first Hot 100 entry (re-entering the top 50 '74). Brave New World and Your Saving Grace '69 featured Ben Sidran as keyboardist (and producer), Scaggs and Peterman having left; the latter also had Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, and standout tracks were the gentle country pop of title track and atmospheric 'Motherless Children', a traditional song given new treatment. Number Five '70 exaggerated the country content, being recorded in Nashville; Turner and Davis quit and Rock Love '71 was a half live/half studio mess, with bassist Ross Vallory and Jack King on drums. Recall The Beginning '72 introduced ex-Van Morrison drummer Gary Mallaber and Sweet Inspirations bassist Gerald Johnson; it featured Miller's trademark high/low octave harmonies.

Miller was working hard and not making a lot of money and was thinking of leaving the music business; he turned in The Joker '73 to fulfill his contract. It was a number two album in the USA, the title track a number one hit single, a jokey piece of country picking, showcasing personae (Space Cowboy, Gangster of Love, Maurice, etc) he'd used in past songs. Miller had enough money to do as he pleased; he retired to country life for a while and came back to music with Fly Like An Eagle '76 and Book Of Dreams '77, made at the same sessions and featuring synth-linked tracks in the style of an updated Children Of The Future. (One track on Fly Like An Eagle featured James Cotton on harmonica.) He now scored consistent hit singles: 'Take The Money And Run' no. 11, 'Rock'n Me' no. 1 USA/11 UK, 'Fly Like An Eagle' and 'Jet Airliner' both top ten USA. Circle Of Love '81 was off the boil, with a confused country-rock title track and an 18-minute disco track, 'Macho City'. But Mallaber's band Kid Lightning supplied guitarists/songwriters John Massaro and Kenny Lee Lewis and a revival with Abracadabra '82 and its danceable title track, no. 1 USA/2 UK. Live '83 was followed by the disappointing Italian X-Rays '84; Living In The 20th Century '86 was a return to blues roots, partly a tribute to Jimmy Reed.

Never predictable, Miller continued playing Buddy Guy blues live, and paddled in the MOR mainstream for periods, needing outside stimuli from his personnel to keep him honest. There are parallels with Jefferson Starship, the only other SF survivors of the '60s. Born 2B Blue '88 on Capitol was co-produced with Sidran, ballads and standards with guests Sidran, Milt Jackson, Phil Woods. 'The Joker' was used  in a TV commercial in Britain in the 1990s and rush-released by EMI as a CD single in an awful transfer.

At live shows in the 21st century he never fails to give the audience his famous hits, but sneaks in the blues too.  Steve Miller Band Live From Chicago is a two-DVD one-CD set (including a visit to the Chicago neighborhood where the blues clubs used to be), made in 2007, released in May 2008, and he was recording albums of blues standards with soul singer Sonny Charles (ex-Checkmates), perhaps to be sold on his website. Bingo! was his first studio album in many years, released in June 2010, and Let Your Hair Down was due in Spring 2011. Miller was the first act announced to play on the main stage of the new SteelStacks campus in Bethlehem Pennsylvania, during the city's annual Musikfest in August 2011.