Steve Miller’s Musical Garden

Categories: Offbeat

April 24, 2023

By Mark Guarino

Steve Miller was a mainstay of commercial radio in the 1970s based on his steady flow of endurable hits—“The Joker,” “Livin’ in the USA,” “Take the Money and Run,” “Rock’n Me,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Jet Airliner,” “Jungle Love,” and “Abracadabra” among them. But most people may not know that his musical roots go beyond the psychedelic rock sound he honed with the Steve Miller Band.

Now 79, Miller grew up in Milwaukee and outside Dallas where his parents, both jazz aficionados, opened their home to blues, gospel, and jazz musicians who were early mentors. Stints in Chicago and San Francisco helped strengthen his virtuosity and songcraft. These days, between touring on his older catalog, Miller is involved curating and hosting shows at Jazz at Lincoln Center where Wynton Marsalis personally invited him to join the board.

Miller, who plays Jazz Fest on Saturday, April 29, talked recently about this career. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Jazz Fest kicks off another summer of touring for you. What does it mean for you to return?
For me, it’s the center of all the culture of the blues. When I go to New Orleans and play, it feels like I’m at home in the middle of it all. You don’t have to explain it to people. It’s a very special thing. It’s like where musically, the racial barriers have come down. It’s this place where everything came together—it’s that gumbo, man. It’s trite to say, but it’s exactly how I feel when I get there.

When people look at your background beyond your hits, you can hear the strains of every kind of American roots music. I know you heard Texas blues when you grew up in that state and Chicago blues when you played with Buddy Guy. But how did you discover New Orleans music?
It was part of the neighborhood. New Orleans music was part of our pop music growing up. In the early ’50s, before Top 10 radio got hold of everything, the pop music in Texas was stuff from New Orleans—Fats Domino, Jimmy Reed, Little Walter—that was stuff played on the radio that everybody listened to. That was one of the great things growing up in Dallas, although it was horribly and grotesquely segregated, musically it wasn’t. So, I got exposed to the music on the radio and on records.

You were interacting with Black artists when you were very young. Like Texas, Chicago was famously segregated in the early 1960s when you arrived there. As a young White guitarist, what was that like to navigate when playing with these musicians?
I was comfortable from my experience in Texas. When I was 14, we backed up Jimmy Reed. T-Bone Walker was a family friend. I was really comfortable navigating a situation where it was completely racist. We were a really different family. We weren’t like kids that grew up in Texas with that built-in prejudice. I also was used to moving around. The first time I came to Chicago and saw the blues scene, I was so cocky. I was watching [Paul] Butterfield’s band, which was just phenomenal. I remember walking in and saying, “I could do this shit. This is what this is all about? Give me a bass player and drummer…I want to go to work immediately!”

I was lucky. I had a cousin who was a lawyer who lived on the Near North Side. I had a room in the back. I was three blocks from Rush Street but then started going to the South Side. I remember going over to see Howlin’ Wolf for the first time at Silvio’s on the West Side of Chicago. It was a really, really rough neighborhood. But we went anyway. It was a shotgun house with a long skinny bar. [Guitarist] Hubert Sumlin was on the bandstand playing, the band all had turquoise tuxedos, it was a wedding cake bandstand with the drummer on the top. There was no Howlin’ Wolf. I asked the bartender where he was and was told, “Oh, he’s in the back room.” I opened the door and there was Howlin’ Wolf sitting in a chair with his harmonica singing and entertaining 500 people in a side room that looked like a high school cafeteria. All the lights were on. I slithered around to the back. As I was watching, Howlin’ Wolf said to crowd, “I want you to be nice to these White boys, they’re friends of mine.” I had never met him. So, you just felt protected as a musician. You could go in and out. We all played together.

Your parents were outliers because they hosted Black musicians in their home and exposed you to music that you weren’t supposed to hear. What made them so different from other adults in their day?
I had often wondered that. They were raised in Missouri near Jefferson City. They were like country people. But they were musicians. On my mother’s side, there were three musicians in the family. Everybody played piano. I had an uncle who played hot jazz violin with [bandleader] Paul Whitman. They were just dirt-poor farmers. I always like, “How did these hillbillies from Missouri become so hip? How did they know all this stuff?” I think it was all the radio. They were as hip as they could be about Kansas City jazz. And they had a record collection that wouldn’t stop.

My dad was a pathologist. But he was also a master electrician, a master mason, a master carpenter, a boat builder. And he always had a great hi-fi system. In Milwaukee, there were parties with Les Paul, Charlies Mingus, people like that were kind of around and at our house. They were drinking, they were having parties, they were staying up late. There was this hipster scene going in Milwaukee. When we got out of Milwaukee, the next thing I knew my dad was recording Sister Rosetta Tharpe at some Baptist church in Texas. We didn’t even know who she was. He was a music man. And my mother could sing like Ella Fitzgerald, and her sisters could really sing too. There was lots of singing going on.

My dad would go out to see people play. He’d just ask the musicians, “Can I bring my tape recorder” and they’d always say, “Yeah sure.” There was never a problem about that. It was way before most people had tape recorders. It was a Magnecord, which was the most professional recording machine there was at the time. And the recordings he made were great.

Do any of them survive?
I have a bunch of T-Bone. And I have some of Les Paul. And there’s some others that I haven’t really gone into for years. There are 20 cuts of T-Bone that are amazing. They are beautifully recorded and beautifully played. It’s better than his records. And he is with a really great pianist whom I can’t identify. And they were at our house. I was nine at the time. I was sitting next to T-Bone watching him play.

Do you plan to release them?
We’re working on that. The plan is to release the T-Bone recordings. I’ve already given away tons of copies to friends and musicians like [the late] B.B. King.

Your last few records focused on music that influenced you. Are you still writing songs?
I am. The pandemic was a life-changing thing for me. I’ve been writing lots of music and some lyrics and I’m working with the guys and we’re working up stuff. It’s kind of weird because making records right now is really like a lost cause. But despite that, we’re still playing a lot of new stuff. I got inspired during the pandemic. I got into writing again. I was also listening to [jazz saxophonist] Eddie Harris and [jazz drummer] Chico Hamilton during the pandemic. They are on my mind all the time. I’m listening to all their recordings and that’s kind of where I think I’m headed.

There are different places where you can push my audience and some places where you can’t. I played all over the United States for 50 years nonstop. And I love touring. I love live performances and I love my audience. But there have been times where I felt I was really in a box and couldn’t get out of it. I know they’re here to hear me play “The Joker,” I know they want to hear “Jungle Love” and “Take the Money and Run” and “Fly Like an Eagle.” There’re 14 or 15 songs I have to play.

So how do I go from “Jungle Love” to Chico Hamilton and the blues? The good thing is, now that I’ve lived so long and played so long, my audience is getting a lot hipper. It wasn’t like that in the ’90s where it was like, “You gotta play the greatest hits or forget it.” There’s room to expand now. And the great thing is that it keeps growing. But the greatest hits are a big part of what makes our audience and brings it together and we always respect that. But I also get to do these shows at Jazz at Lincoln Center. So, I do a little bit of both.

You have a catalog of hits that have sustained you for your entire career. Which song are you most proud of?
“Fly like an Eagle.” Just because it’s a piece of music that really states the human condition and confronts it in a very simple and straightforward way. It makes people think without thumping them on the chest with your forefinger. It’s an inspirational song and I always love it because anything can happen. It’s like a plant in a garden—it’s different every time we play it, it’s different every time we water it, it’s different every season. Musically it has all that room, and lyrically it was magical to write. I remember working really, really, really hard on that. I recorded it three different times with three different groups of people until I got it the way I wanted it. I remember doing vocal overdubs and being bored to death getting all these pieces right. Then it came out and people responded to it. It was like I made this compact seed that grew into this unbelievable garden.

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