Steve Miller finds great musical freedom in the old and the new

Categories: Chicago Sun-Times

July 2, 2010

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Sun-Times

Like all veteran rockers, Steve Miller is booked in every major city in North America each year to perform a catalog of songs that helped define every hot, wet, American summer from his generation forward to even the high school graduating class of 2010.

Miller has been playing these songs for almost 40 years and says he has yet to sicken of them because of simple math: Every live set features about 26 songs, 14 of which he is obliged to deliver: “The Joker,” “Jungle Love,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Jet Airliner” and on and on.

“That leaves me 12 songs to do whatever I want to do,” he says.

This summer, that free space means a journey back to the golden era of blues and R&B, including Chicago’s. Miller may be best known as a powerhouse hit-maker who in the 1970s helped usher in FM rock radio by stockpiling it with three-minute hits, but before announcing his career in 1973 with “The Joker,” Miller spent years in the Midwest and then San Francisco learning from and then competing for gigs with the towering figures of the post-War blues era.

Miller’s latest album, “Bingo!” (Roadrunner) is his first in 17 years and features R&B and blues singles from Chicago (Otis Rush’s “All Your Love”), New Orleans (Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo”) and Texas (Jimmy Vaughan’s “Don’t Cha Know”). The playfulness, turbocharged guitar riffs and layered harmonies will be familiar to anyone owning Miller’s first greatest hits collection, which to date has sold over 13 million copies and is the 35th best-selling album of all time, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

“The greatest hits [album] is a record that, for a 13-year-old kid, is the first record they buy. They love its harmonies and hooks, and it’s saucy and it’s naughty and it’s cute and they can sing along. It’s my honor to introduce kids to that, but also to jazz and blues,” he says, speaking by phone from his home in Ketchum, Idaho. “So I’ll sing ‘Nature Boy’ and do some jazz tunes and then go, ‘This is by Hank Williams’ and ‘This is by Muddy Waters’ and ‘This is Jimmy Reed.’ Does the world want to put me in a box? Of course they do … I don’t let them do that … the tour is the most exciting creative part of the whole thing.”

Miller was born in Milwaukee where he remembers living room recording sessions with his father — a doctor who was a home recording enthusiast — and Les Paul and Mary Ford, whom his parents knew informally. Soon after, Miller’s family relocated to Dallas, where his father befriended more musicians he cajoled to the family home to test his latest equipment. Miller remembers learning certain licks from T-Bone Walker, Freddie King and others. At 14 he was backing up Jimmy Reed and booking shows at local fraternity houses, earning $2,000 a month.

But it wasn’t until he moved again, this time to Chicago, that Miller got a real schooling. “For the first time I was in a musical scene with adults, grown, mature men … it was serious music. It was exactly what I was looking for,” he says.

But future rock stars were not being made in Chicago, they were being signed to major labels in San Francisco, where promoter Bill Graham gave new bands a platform and helped create the concert business that put them on the road for most of the year. Miller moved there in 1967 and soon got a record contract. Several albums and thousands of touring miles later, he wrote “The Joker” and everything changed yet again.

“It was a song about dope, and [radio programmers] didn’t know that, and all the sudden I have this No. 1 song. Then came [the album] ‘Fly Like an Eagle,’ full of hits. I hit my stride. I was making records that FM radio wanted,” he says.

The latest album is allowing him to revisit songs he first played in his high school band days. While they likely will be new to younger fans, who still show up to hear him perform live today, his own classics can be traced back to his Midwestern childhood and those early living room recording sessions with Les Paul and Mary Ford.

“My singles are very much like their singles: Three-part harmonies and then you double them and have six voices. I absorbed that like a sponge,” he says.

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