Photo: Tim Brown
The history of Steve Miller and the Steve Miller Band is not just his story, but also the story of rock 'n' roll and the technology that has driven both recording and live concert performances. During the past five decades, Miller has not only seen it all, but he's played a part in much of it. It starts with a 50-yard-line seat at the birth of both rock 'n' roll and home recording, and guitar lessons from the likes of Les Paul and T-Bone Walker. Then the story moves into rough-and-tumble Chicago blues clubs, through the explosive psychedelic music revolution of late-'60s San Francisco and on into the '70s and '80s, when Miller became king of the AOR radio format. Miller continues to this day with the occasional new album and regular sold-out concert tours, and his many hits are now played on “classic rock” stations. His pace has slowed somewhat, but the fire still burns in him: Music is still his life and he is every bit the dedicated craftsman and raucous guitar slinger he's always been. Just out is a remastered 30th-anniversary edition of his landmark Fly Like an Eagle album, which also includes a DVD of the current Steve Miller Band in concert. And now, at the TEC Awards ceremony to be held during AES this month, Miller will come full-circle, receiving the Mix Foundation's Les Paul Award in the city where he first made his name, San Francisco.
“I'm deeply honored,” Miller says, as he pours another cup of coffee during our conversation in his fabulous recording studio. Like his adjoining home, the studio sits in the middle of a beautiful Idaho mountain landscape, complete with trout stream. In this wonderful retreat from the road, Miller and his wife, Kim, care for a passel of rescued dogs and maintain a serene and sane lifestyle. He is the first to admit that being able to stay viable in the music industry all these years has meant knowing when to take some time off, and this is the place to do it.
As you might expect, there are scads of guitar amps and axes in the studio, which is centered around a Digidesign Pro Tools HD system. Previously, the room had an SSL console, followed by a Euphonix. Miller picks up a gold Fender guitar and slices out some cool jazzy blues chords through some amps he is testing. “We are always on a tone quest,” he says. Indeed, it's that questing spirit that has kept Miller vital and looking forward. The glories of his past allow him the grace of a sedentary life he refuses to accept: There's too much to do, too much music to play. He's been this way since he got his first guitar, at age 4.
“My dad used to tape touring acts that would play at this popular local club in Milwaukee,” Miller says, digging into his mental attic. A music buff, Dr. Miller (he was a pathologist) had a Magnacorder deck, which in 1949 was a rare commodity, and he would invite touring musicians over to the house to hang out and run some tape. He struck up a friendship with Les Paul and Mary Ford early on in their career, and Les even gave young Miller some rudimentary guitar lessons when he was still a tot. Later, when Dr. Miller moved the family to Dallas from Milwaukee, musical greats such as Walker and others would come by the Miller house, and they offered guitar tips to young Miller, who also learned a bit about recording from watching his father's “home studio” in action. “I've got recordings from 1951 and 1952 of T-Bone Walker playing at our house,” Miller says. “I was this little 9-year-old kid, sitting there at this great blues musician's feet. Charles Mingus and Tal Farlow and all these guys were hanging out at the house all the time.”
Not surprisingly, this indoctrination inspired Miller to get out in the world and play. “I had already seen Les do multitrack recordings, my dad was making Plexiglas pick guards for Les, and I already understood about record promotion from watching Ricky Nelson's sets on Ozzie and Harriet [the Nelson family's hit TV show in the late '50s and early '60s] — they'd have that weird little party they would do at the end of the show with Ricky's band: ‘Here is Ricky's new single!’ I got a Les Paul Junior guitar and started a band. My first band started out just like Ricky Nelson did: We got $75 to play 20-minute sets between the dance records at local parties; we did about 500 gigs.” Among the players in one of that group's incarnations was Miller's buddy Boz Scaggs, who would also play in Miller's band while Miller was attending the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and would later join the Steve Miller Band in San Francisco before embarking on his own incredibly successful solo carreer.
During his senior year at Wisconsin, Miller traveled to Copenhagen to study literature and creative writing. “I thought I was going to get a master's, then a doctorate, and then become a teacher because there was always this pressure to get a ‘real job,’” he recalls. During a visit from his parents, he received the talk. “‘Steve, what are you going to do?’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I'd really like to go to Chicago and play blues.’” Miller had been there once and seen Paul Butterfield, and it left an unshakable impression on him. Butterfield even had a record contract. “I thought that maybe there was a chance for me,” Miller says. “After that one year in Denmark where I wasn't playing at all and was really depressed about it, I just had to play music. Well, my dad looked at me with a look like he was going to hit me with a two-by-four, but my mother said, ‘That's a great idea. You're young, you're not married. Why don't you go to Chicago and see if you can make it?’ It was like a getting a green card — I went right to Chicago.
“In Chicago,” he continues, “I joined up with local musician Barry Goldberg, and we competed directly for gigs with Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield. There were like five clubs — Silvio's, the Peppermint Lounge, Big John's and a couple of others. It was like graduate school for music — great for your chops, working every day and these guys were adults playing real serious music. But it did not take me long to realize that playing in clubs wasn't really the life I wanted. We would play from 9 at night until 4 in the morning, six nights for $125 a week.”
Eventually heading back to Dallas, Miller decided he wanted a more formal music education, but after that plan was derailed by various administrative hassles, “I put a bed in the Volkswagon bus I'd had since high school, loaded in my amplifier, my tape recorder, my tapes, my guitar and I just sort of went out to the highway, and it was either east to New York or west to California,” Miller recalls. He ended up heading to San Francisco, arriving on a Sunday evening and making a beeline straight to The Fillmore. “I had five bucks in my pocket, and Butterfield was billed with Jefferson Airplane, who had just that night brought Grace Slick into their band. It was a place with 1,500 people in there and it was all about music. It wasn't a place where drunks and mafia guys were beating each other up, which was what the nightclub business in Chicago was about.
“That night at The Fillmore, my eyes were like saucers. I immediately weaseled my way into playing with Paul [Butterfield] that night — he let me come up and announced that I was Steve Miller, who was coming to San Francisco! I got a big round of applause.”
Miller with Fly Like an Eagle bassist Lonnie Turner and drummer Gary Mallaber
For the next several months, Miller lived in his van in the Berkeley hills, playing with a band he put together locally. Random gigs kept the heat on and fed the group while he figured out what to do next. “It was really different, because for a lot of the bands, it was more of a social phenomenon,” he says. “Some of the bands were just awful. I loved Country Joe & The Fish, and I loved going to see the Grateful Dead and listening to Jerry Garcia rap for 20 minutes. So I had to learn a whole new thing. I had just been into playing music. I wasn't into being a celebrity or rock star or dressing like Mick Jagger.”
He called an old bandmate, Tim Davis, found Lonnie Turner and other guys from Madison, and they all moved into a little house in the Berkeley flats for $125 a month. Miller bought and cooked the food and kept the household together, eventually selling the tape recorder so they could have money for gas and heat. The owner of the Matrix club hired them; then the band started getting recognized by The Fillmore bookers as an act that could also back up touring blues musicians. “I could back up Chuck Berry — these other bands couldn't do it; they didn't know how,” he comments. Eventually, the Steve Miller Blues Band — they later dropped “Blues” from the name — became a top headliner at The Fillmore themselves.
“It was 1966, and there was just this revolution that was going on — in art and in posters, in theater, in newspapers, in production of sound and lights. It was just a kid's dream, and I was able to make a living. Then I got my recording contract. There were 14 record companies trying to sign me all at once, and I was able to play them all against each other. I had already been through having my songwriting stolen from me and having a bad manager in Chicago. I knew I had to have 100-percent artistic control. I knew I had to have a strong enough contract to be able to make five records, not one. I knew I had to own my own publishing. I had all these demands. Because there was this feeding frenzy going on, I had guys telling me, ‘I'll give you anything you want.’” Negotiations carried on for nine months, but Miller eventually got everything he asked for, setting a new standard in the record business for others to follow.
In 1968, the very unionized Capitol Studios in Los Angeles was not exactly a friendly place for this new breed of flower child, folky-blues rockers from San Francisco. “The first night, the engineers walked out,” Miller relates. “They even had a union guy that would come and just sit there and make sure we didn't touch the engineering works.” After a couple of nights of false starts in this stifling environment, Miller called up his executive producer at Capitol, John Paladino, and vented his frustration. The solution? Miller and company were sent to EMI London to work with engineer Glyn Johns to record their first album. “Led Zeppelin came in at the end [of our sessions],” Miller recalls. “Jimmy Page sat at the console and listened to us mix all the electronic music and such on Children of the Future; that's the kind of world it was for us.” And it was just the beginning. The Steve Miller Band's second album, Sailor, yielded the hit “Living in the U.S.A.,” and by the time Brave New World came out in 1969, he was well-established as an FM radio favorite.
“SPACE COWBOY” TO “JOKER”
By 1972, Steve Miller had sold a lot of records. But, he muses, “We were still this underground progressive rock band. I had my own concepts and my own ideas. I had been around recording all my life, paying attention to getting good sound. When we went to London to Olympic Studios, Dick Swettenham was there — this great engineer, console builder and visionary. I got him to build me a custom console — a small one that had little boxes for the musicians so each musician had an earphone set that had sliders for all eight tracks, plus stereo panning, which was just unheard of. I had had all these problems with engineers understanding what I wanted to hear, compared to what they were listening to through some big speakers. I'd go, ‘Hey, put a set of earphones on and listen to this!’ I wanted hands-on. I wanted to perfect the equipment.
“Even before I left Texas and went to San Francisco, I had a job at Jack Maxon's Fort Worth studio — he's the guy that started Showco. I was the janitor. When there was downtime between the jingle sessions going on, I'd get in there and do multitracking like I'd seen Les and Mary do. I did harmony parts myself, bass parts and so on. That is how I learned how to write and make music. As soon as I could afford it, just about after the third album, I got a 3M tape recorder with the metal cases so I could take it wherever I wanted.
“In about 1972,” he continues, picking up his earlier thread, “we were just about done as this underground act, and we recorded The Joker. I had no idea that the title song would be a big hit single; it was just a song I had recorded. We were into this [grind of] 200 cities a year, record, 200 more cities kind of thing.” During this time, the album's title track became a huge hit, heavy on both AM and FM rotations. “The Joker” took the Steve Miller Band into the big time.
After that, Miller took some time off to focus on writing and recording. He worked on some basic tracks with Mike Fusaro at CBS Studios in San Francisco, then took the tapes home to work with on his custom 8-track console and 3M deck setup. Next he returned to Capitol Studios, but after more frustrating interactions there, Miller called engineer Jim Gaines, who was working up at Kaye Smith Studios in Seattle. Miller arrived in Seattle with a truck packed with tapes and ended up working for 17 very full days.
With so much creative flow going, Fly Like an Eagle offered an intoxicating blend of inventive guitar and synthesizer textures, Miller's patented vocal harmonies and hooks galore. It was, most agree, a rock 'n' roll masterpiece. “Rock 'N Me” became a Number One hit. The title song and “Take the Money and Run” both charted high, and the album as a whole made it to Number 3 on its way to selling many millions. The follow-up album, Book of Dreams, was also largely taken from the very prolific sessions for Fly Like an Eagle. More hits followed, including “Jet Airliner,” “Jungle Love” and “Swingtown” (see “Classic Tracks” in the August 2006 Mix), cementing Miller's reputation as one of the premier artists of the era. “Abra-Ca-Dabra,” which came out in 1982, was also a huge single for Miller, both in the U.S. and internationally.
Fortunately, Miller has saved much of his taped legacy, and now it has been digitized and safely stored in his personal tape vault. “Steve is so meticulous,” says longtime friend and former Steve Miller Band guitarist David Denny, who, along with Bay Area producer/engineer Tom Size, has been part of a several-year process of tape preservation, analog-to-digital transfer and cataloging Miller's vast collection of all kinds of media: recordings off his dad's equipment, all the studio sessions of his career (there are 30 archived takes of the title track to Fly Like an Eagle alone!), countless live concerts through the years and performances with many of Miller's contemporaries.
Miller was one of the first users of in-ear monitors; here, he points to an early system developed by Steven Ambrose.
Photo: Tim Brown
The day I visited, Denny cues up the 16-track Pro Tools HD archive of the title track of the 1969 Your Saving Grace. The track sheet has only one track listed for engineer/co-producer Johns' drum mix, and sure enough, when Denny solos the track, it's clear that it is all that was needed. That song wasn't a huge hit as compared to what was to come later for Miller, but it's still stunningly beautiful and effective. As Denny fades in the rest of the tracks, the acoustic guitars, organ and bass support a silky voice and the gauzy “Summer of Love” poem through the bridge. This is one of literally thousands of tracks in a collection from 50 years of recording activity.
Walking through Miller's tape vault and seeing the extensive audio and video archives borders on the surreal. It's much like being able to walk through decades of music as a tourist. Stage banners hang from the skylights, and myriad road cases, guitars, amplifiers and much more have been collected like souvenirs of a life spent largely on the road and in studios. Upstairs, along with the vault, are many of Miller's cherished guitars, including a '60s Gibson Les Paul Deluxe signed by some of his own heroes, including Les and Paul McCartney. After this year's TEC Awards, Miller will have another Les Paul for his trophy case — this one symbolic of his status as a creative innovator in both music and technology. It is a richly deserved honor.
Miller has reached a comfort zone in his life and career that's to be envied. His catalog still sells many thousands of CDs per year. He tours when he wants to, with one of the best bands in the business. If rock 'n' roll's story is Steve Miller's, too, it's nice to see that it's in such good hands and with a bright future ahead.
Craig Dalton is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area.