Miller time: Rock legend to play Huntington Center April 23Written by Alan Sculley | | ASculley@toledofreepress.com
A lot of people divide Steve Miller’s career into two distinct eras.
There was the bluesy psychedelic rock/pop period from 1967 through 1972 that produced five albums that gained him considerable credibility as a songwriter and guitarist, but little in the way of commercial success.
Then beginning with the 1973 album, “The Joker,” came the pop era that saw Miller become one of the most popular artists in rock music. With subsequent albums such as “Fly Like An Eagle,” “Book Of Dreams” and “Abracadabra,” Miller reeled off radio hit after radio hit, sold some 13 million records and went from playing theaters to stadiums.
Miller, who will play the Huntington Center on April 23 with Gregg Allman, certainly considers “The Joker” album a turning point in his career. But he says the kind of pop songs that made him a king of radio — “Fly Like An Eagle,” “Jet Airliner,” “Jungle Love” and “Rockin’ Me” — were nothing new for him.
The transition from blues-influenced rocker to master pop craftsman was something Miller had been working on since before he moved to San Francisco in the mid-1960s and became part of a Bay Area scene that was introducing the world to the likes of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.
“I had been working on pop tunes and stuff from the early ‘60s (on),” Miller said in a recent phone interview. “I always liked pop-blues, R&B and Motown, anything that really sounded good. And there were lots of really great sounding hits … So I was always writing four-part harmony tunes and working on stuff like that.”
“The Joker” arrived at a time when Miller had nearly given up on becoming a major star. He had been on the road or in the studio pretty much nonstop for seven years, and the grind had taken its toll. He was selling about 200,000 albums a year — an impressive total — but he wasn’t on the radio or making enough money to enjoy anything resembling a good living.
“I was just on the road all the time, but not really making enough money to buy a house or do anything,” Miller said. “The tax rate back then was 88 percent. It was insane. So I was keeping 12 cents on the dollar.”
Before starting what he thought might be his final tour, Miller was told by someone at his record company that he thought “The Joker” was a hit. Miller brushed it aside. His major concern was that Capitol Records would have his albums in the stores in cities along his tour route — something that often didn’t happen on his previous tours.
When he returned from the tour, Miller still didn’t know “The Joker” had become a hit single.
“There was a check for $385,000 in my mailbox when I got back,” Miller said, remembering his shock over his sudden financial windfall.
He hasn’t had to worry about finances since, as albums like “Fly Like An Eagle,” “Book Of Dreams” and “Abracadabra,” gave him hit singles and a fan base that continues to fill amphitheaters every time Miller tours.
Miller understands the lasting appeal of songs such as “Jet Airliner” and “Fly Like An Eagle.”
“What it is, is it’s a great song that everybody could sing,” he said. “It’s got great harmony in it, it’s got a really good (basic) track and it’s fun. That’s what I was trying to do. I wasn’t trying to make something for radio. I was trying to make something that was going to make radio something good.”
Miller isn’t just reflecting on the stadium-filling days of his career these days. On April 19, he releases the CD “Let Your Hair Down,” which like his 2010 CD, “Bingo,” celebrates his roots in blues and R&B.
Those were the styles of music that Miller first pursued after he arrived in Chicago in 1964, just as that city’s blues scene was in its final glory days. Miller has plenty of memories of the Chicago clubs, his gigs and especially seeing and getting to know blues greats such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and James Cotton, who played nightly in clubs that often held only 125 people or so.
“They were just working every night,” Miller said. “I saw Muddy a hundred times, you know, I mean, ‘Wow!’”
Miller and keyboardist Barry Goldberg formed a band and became a fixture in the clubs. Then the Miller-Goldberg Band was signed by Epic Records and went to New York for a few months. When he came back to Chicago around Christmas of 1965, the blues scene was dead, as all of the main stars had gotten the chance to go on tour.
Miller acutely understood why the musicians left Chicago, and he quickly followed suit, relocating to San Francisco.
“As soon as everybody got famous, they stopped working in clubs,” said Miller, noting fights and shootings were common during shows. “Who wants to work in a club? That was from nine at night until four in the morning for $200 a week if you were Muddy Waters and $125 a week if you were me. So everybody was really glad to get the hell out of there.”
Needless to say, Miller has been playing his music in much more hospitable environments ever since his Chicago days, with theaters, arenas and outdoor amphitheaters again the common venues on this year’s tour.
Miller’s exceptional band is back for this run, with singer Sonny Charles, formerly of the group the Checkmates, in the lineup.
“He’s a great, great singer,” Miller said. “It’s kind of like having Otis Redding join the band. He’s that good.”
Charles was part of the recording session three years ago that produced the material for both the “Let Your Hair Down” and “Bingo” CDs, as was harmonica player Norton Buffalo, Miller’s right hand man in his band for 33 years until he died of cancer in October of 2009.
“We went into Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, (filmmaker George) Lucas’ place where he records all the ‘Star Wars’ soundtracks,” Miller said. “We got Andy Johns to be our engineer. He’s done all the Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones albums. And we cut 41 of these tracks.”
The 41 tracks are covers of blues and R&B songs that Miller selected specifically for the recording session. “Let Your Hair Down” features tracks by T-Bone Walker, Jimmy Reed, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Jimmy McCracklin and others.
Miller went into the session not even worrying about whether the recordings would ever be released, and he sat on the tracks until he found the right record deal for the two CDs — with Roadrunner/Loud & Proud Records.
“My thinking was I just wanted to get these 41 great songs recorded. I wasn’t worried about whether they came out or what,” Miller said. “I had the band all dialed in. We had all the right amps and equipment. We were there to have a great time and we did. And when it came out, it was so much better than we thought it would be.
“We’re kicking it,” he said. “Andy’s recording, it’s every guitar player’s dream to have Andy Johns record the band and it’s the biggest bass, drums and guitar sound you ever heard in your life.”