Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Steve Miller, along with the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane/Starship, is one of the few artists whose career skyrocketed out of the music scene in San Francisco during the 1960s. “Miller has ascended with the confidence that comes from thinking that you’ve always belonged there,” wrote John Milward in the Rolling Stone Record Guide. Miller found his fame and fortune in the Bay Area by way of Chicago via Texas and Wisconsin. Born and raised in Milwaukee til age five, he began playing guitar just one year before the family moved to Dallas. Miller’s first lessons came from friends and patients of his father, a proctologist. Les Paul and Mary Ford, T-Bone Walker, Tal Farlow, Charles Mingus, and Red Norvo frequented their household and Miller’s father often recorded the artists in various nightclub settings.
With such a remarkable foundation to start with, Miller formed his first band, the Marksmen, at just twelve years of age. Schoolmate Boz Scaggs joined the group after Miller taught the ninth-grader some basics on the guitar. Together they played fraternity dances and parties throughout their high school days until it was time to start college. Miller enrolled at the University of Wisconsin aiming for a degree in English. He played with four or five bands before settling with the Ardells, who played during the school term, and the Fabulous Knight Trains, his summertime band. Scaggs came up from Texas to join Miller and their collaboration lasted three years.
Miller told Dan Forte in Guitar Player that “the Beatles came out, and it just blew my mind that they could get a record contract and people thought they were so different. It was like what we were doing, but nobody ever thought we would make records.” Miller took a year off to go to Europe to absorb a different musical culture before heading back to Wisconsin. During summer break, he went to Chicago to check out the clubs and ended up staying for two years. Along with Barry Goldberg he formed the Goldberg-Miller Blues Band and began performing amongst the seasoned veterans of the Windy City. “You had to be good,” Miller said in Guitar Player, “it was a very competitive situation, and you either had it or you didn’t. When we were in Chicago, we knew we were playing better music than anybody on either coast.”
In 1966 Miller went back to Texas with the intention of finishing school, but, after hearing so much about the California music explosion, he decided to go west. Within four days of his arrival, Miller had formed a band and was playing at the Avalon Ballroom, combining, as Gene Santoro wrote in Guitar World, “polished ballads with polished blues with polished psychedelic musical clouds of sound.” He soon summoned Scaggs to return
Born October 5, 1943, in Milwaukee, Wis.; father was a medical doctor.
Education: Attended University of Wisconsin during early 1960s.
Formed several bands (with Boz Skaggs) while in high school in Dallas, Tex., including the Marksmen, c. 1955, the Ardells, c. 1961, and the Fabulous Knight Trains, c. 1962; formed (with Barry Goldberg) the Miller-Goldberg Band, Chicago 1964; formed (with Boz Scaggs) the Steve Miller Band in San Francisco, 1966.
Addresses: Office— P.O. Box 4127, Bellevue, WA 98040.
from Sweden (where the singer had become somewhat of a star in his own right) and the Steve Miller Band became headliners. Having played for money for well over a decade by now, Miller was disappointed with the lack of professionalism displayed by the “hippie” bands. “I wasn’t into the real heavy-duty drug experience, the continually ongoing trip,” he told Rolling Stone’s Charles Perry. “I was more into getting a record contract, making music, traveling around the world and stuff.”
He achieved that goal after nearly ten months of negotiating with thirteen different record companies. In 1967 Capitol Records signed Miller to a landmark contract that virutally set the standard for future bands. “They weren’t ready for middle-class, educated people,” Miller told Guitar Player, “What they were expecting was dummies.” His shrewd business sense paid off with an offer that included a $50, 000 advance, a $10, 000 bonus for one year, four one-year options which would total $750, 000 if taken, complete artistic control over the product and an unprecedented 32 cents an album (12 cents was the norm). “We were in a perfect position. The record companies, typically not understanding anything about the music, were given instructions to go to San Francisco and sign those acts,” he said in Rolling Stone.” They knew that we were one of the four popular groups…. They wanted to sign the phenomena.”
After the Monterey Pop Festival in August of 1967, Miller was fed up with the drug culture and broke loose from the West Coast. Cream had just released their Fresh Cream LP and Miller was obsessed with Eric Clapton’s guitar work. “He totally captured my mind, soul, and spirit,” Miller confessed to Guitar Player.” I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the will to practice that way.” Wanting a sound similar to Clapton’s, and not being able to get it from American engineers, he headed to London to record his first album, Children of the Future. With the single “Living in the USA,” the LP sold an impressive 150, 000 copies.
Also in 1968, Miller released Sailor, which, according to Bruce Malamut in Guitar World, is “without question one of the Great Five rock albums of all time.” These two LPs, in addition to his third (Brave New World, containing the single “Space Cowboy”) constitute the best of Miller’s early work. Produced by Glyn Johns, they have a definite British sound and, as John Milward wrote in the Rolling Stone Record Guide, follow a formula of “well-produced bunches of songs that ran together like rock and roll suites.”
It would take five more albums before Miller would reign again. The Joker (1973) went gold, as did the title track, which also was a number one single in the States. For the next ten years Miller would have a string of hits: “Fly Like An Eagle,” “Take the Money and Run,” “Rock ’n’ Me” (from Books of Dreams), another gold album with Circle of Love, and the platinum-selling Abracadabra (with the title track being his third number one single). Miller seemed to have found a formula for creating catchy songs that relied on keyboards, multi-tracked vocals, and special effects more than on the standard guitar solo. “It’s like a game, like a crossword puzzle,” Miller explained in Guitar Player.” And as long as you get some tunes that’ve got feeling and soul and substance to them, there you go.”
He may have overdid the studio tricks, however, on his 1984 album Italian X-Rays. Recorded on a prototype Sony multitrack “digital domain” recording system, it was too bogged down with electronics to really go anywhere. He toned down considerably for Living in the 20th Century with side one consisting of standard Miller fare (” I Want to Make The World Turn Around”) and side two featuring all blues selections. The album was dedicated to the late Jimmy Reed, whom Miller had the honor of backing up in Dallas when he was only fourteen. Miller’s blues playing is tasty and seemingly effortless, having picked it up naturally from artists like Reed and T-Bone Walker instead of studying it like so many other guitarists have done. “Blues is the well, the inspiration for me,” he told Matt Resnicoff in Guitar World. “It’s just part of me. I hear it, I feel it, I know it.”
Miller took even more of commercial chance on his next LP, Born 2 B Blue. After doing some work on jazzman Ben Sidran’s live album (On The Live Side), Miller decided to record a disc of standards, including “Zip-a-dee-doo-day,” “God Bless the Child,” and “Ya Ya.” “It’s better to have this to do than to go back and do “Jungle Love” one more time,” he told Guitar World of the music, calling it a “real challenge, and a good one, and that’s what saved my career. I was getting real tired of making rock ’n’ roll albums.” Sidran, who helped Miller with the project’s jazz arrangements, had previously worked with Miller and cowrote “Space Cowboy”.
Throughout his career, Steve Miller had tried to let his music speak for itself and to avoid the superstar label. His album covers contain blurry photos of himself and he often uses different personalities both in and out of music, including the Gangster of Love, the Space Cowboy, and Maurice. “The problem with images is that once you take a solid image as an entertainer, it’s hard to back out,” he told Tim Cahill in Rolling Stone. “I like to slip in and out of characters…. I would rather not be recognizable on the street.” His sound, on the other hand, is very identifiable.
Released by Capitol
Children of the Future, 1968.
Brave New World, 1969.
Your Saving Grace, 1969.
Number Five, 1970.
Rock Love, 1971.
Recall the Beginning … A Journey From Eden, 1972.
The Joker, 1973.
Fly Like an Eagle, 1976.
Book of Dreams, 1977.
Greatest Hits, 74 - 78, 1978.
Circle of Love, 1982.
Steve Miller Live, 1983.
Italian X-Rays, 1984.
Living in the 20th Century, 1984.
Born 2 B Blue, 1988.
With Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry Live at the Fillmore Auditorium, Mercury, 1967.
Christgau, Robert, Christgau’s Record Guide, Ticknor & Fields, 1981.
Logan, Nick, and Bob Woffinden, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock, Harmony, 1977.
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, edited by Jim Miller, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1976.
The Rolling Stone Record Guide, edited by Dave Marsh with John Swenson, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
Guitar Player, January, 1978; February, 1987.
Guitar World, September, 1983; March, 1985; November, 1985; February, 1989.
Rolling Stone, February 26, 1976; June 17, 1976; July 15, 1976; February 10, 1977; July 14, 1977.
—Calen D. Stone
"Miller, Steve." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/miller-steve
"Miller, Steve." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved January 23, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/miller-steve
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