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Steve Miller Band

A blues-driven rock/pop group, rather than just the enigmatic singer/guitarist (astonishingly, the eponymous leader only released one “solo” album as his star faded), San Francisco’s ever-evolving STEVE MILLER BAND took time to establish themselves as a bona fide chart act. It would take a car accident in 1972 (a year in which he suffered a broken neck and, in turn, hepatitis), to bring a cooler, catchier combo to chart-topping status. This was of course courtesy of landmark platter, `The Joker’. An album of the same name, plus the stylish, spaced-out follow-up, “Fly Like An Eagle”, ensured that messrs Miller, newbie drummer Gary Mallaber and the long-serving bassist Lonnie Turner, were at the top of their game for years to come.
Milwaukee-born/Dallas-raised STEVE MILLER had kick-started his career at the tender age of 12, when he formed school band, The Marksmen, spurred on by his music-doting father, a pathologist-cum-sound engineer who had been good friends of guitar-smith LES PAUL and his musical accomplice, Mary Ford; other stars to frequent his parents’ house were CHARLES MINGUS and T-BONE WALKER. It was at this stage that Steve struck up a partnership with classmate and future pop-blues star, BOZ SCAGGS, but it wouldn’t be until the early 60s, that he and his buddy would gel under The Ardells moniker; along with keyboard-player Ben Sidran, they duly became The Fabulous Night Train.
In 1964, after a brief spell in Denmark on a senior year semester, MILLER moved out to Chicago, where he jammed and sessioned with the likes of MUDDY WATERS, HOWLIN’ WOLF and BUDDY GUY, having worked with PAUL BUTTERFIELD. The following year, Steve partnered Barry Goldberg in the group, The World War III Band, who as the Goldberg-Miller Blues Band, issued a one-off 45 for Epic Records: `The Mother Song’. Unimpressed by his brief stays in the Big Apple, the Windy City and the Lone Star State (his intention was to complete his studies at the University of Texas at Austin), an almost penniless Steve took his VW van and rolled up to San Francisco where the BUTTERFIELD BLUES BAND and JEFFERSON AIRPLANE were playing the Fillmore.
Needless to say, he loved what he saw and stayed forthwith, forming his psychedelic-blues combo in late ’66 to accompany the legendary rock’n’roller CHUCK BERRY on his concert set, “Live At Fillmore Auditorium” (1967); at this stage, The Miller Band, were completed by bassist Lonnie Turner, drummer Tim Davis and keyboardist Jim Peterman; the latter having just superseded James “Curly” Cooke.
As The STEVE MILLER BAND, a June 1967 appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival, resulted in the group signing to Capitol Records, where three tracks (`Superbyrd’, `Your Old Lady’ and `Mercury Blues’) eventually found their way on to United Artists-financed “Revolution” film soundtrack (other groups comprised The QUICKSILVER MESSENGER SERVICE and MOTHER EARTH). Meanwhile, the lead man once again hooked up with Scaggs (plus the main hub) on the quintet’s Glyn Johns-produced debut album, CHILDREN OF THE FUTURE (1968) {*8}, a record that was more than worthy of its No.134 peak position. Very much in the harmony-driven West Coast style (lying upright in between the ‘Dead and QMS), MILLER and Co furnished the set with two Boz cuts (`Baby’s Callin’ Me Home’ and `Steppin’ Stone’), a couple of covers (including BUSTER BROWN’s `Fanny Mae’ and BIG BILL BROONZY’s `Key To The Highway’) and Steve’s positively hazy and humming title track and `In My First Mind’.
The debut’s mild commercial success was somewhat overshadowed by the rush-released Top 30 follow-up, SAILOR (1968) {*8}, which introduced the band’s trademark through JOHNNY “GUITAR” WATSON’s funky `Gangster Of Love’ motif. At times sprawling through a hotchpotch of kaleidoscopic riffing (the ghostly opener `Song For Our Ancestors’ featured foghorn intro), bubblegum psych (`My Friend’, `Quicksilver Girl’ and `Living In The U.S.A.’) plus Brit-blues style via JIMMY REED’s `You’re So Fine’, to say the SMB were horizontal was almost an understatement.
The absence of Peterman and the solo-bound BOZ SCAGGS – superseded by Ben Sidran and fill-in co-producer Glyn Johns respectively – mattered zilch for the progression of The STEVE MILLER BAND and their BRAVE NEW WORLD (1969) {*8} set. Selling even more copies than their previous record (the excellent `My Dark Hour’ spotlighted Paul Ramon – aka McCARTNEY – as a guest player/voice), seasoned session player Nicky Hopkins fed in his two-penn’orth on `Kow Kow’. Lonnie’s sole contribution was `LT’s Midnight Dream’ (Davis’ `Can’t You Hear Your Daddy’s Heartbeat’ was decidedly HENDRIX), while that man Sidran was behind collaborative pieces such as `Seasons’, `Celebration Song’ and `Space Cowboy’; the latter track Steve personified.
Retaining the wunderkind talent of Hopkins for the follow-up set, YOUR SAVING GRACE (1969) {*7} took the SMB in other funkier directions; e.g. opener `Little Girl’. Still in trippy mode, fused with a smidgen of gospel-soul and country-blues (courtesy of `Don’t Let Nobody Turn You Around’ and Turner’s `The Lost Wombat In Mecca’ respectively), there was still room for a sadder than sad take of trad cue, `Motherless Children’.
With each successive LP, SMB had moved further away from their neo-psychedelic experimentation which had characterised their earlier releases, but with bassist Bobby Winkelman and harmonica C&W session man Charlie McCoy in tow, NUMBER 5 (1970) {*7} was another in a consecutive run of Top 40 sets. Recorded in Nashville, its country-tinged cuts came in the shape of `Going To The Country’ (featuring fiddler Buddy Spicher), `Tokin’s’ (featuring banjo by Bobby Thompson), and the mariachi `Hot Chili’. While side one highlights came by way of `Good Morning’ and `I Love You’, the schizoid flipside produced a triumvirate of socio-political cues in `Industrial Military Complex Hex’, `Jackson-Kent Blues’ and `Never Kill Another Man’.
What came next surely rated as his most bizarre and cut-throat LP of MILLER’s entire career. Hiring a fresh backing band, the HENDRIX-styled ROCK LOVE (1971) {*2} – coming as it did a year after Jimi o.d.’d – was a shocker of the highest order, a part live set of purile blues tracks recorded with a self-indulgent, carefree swagger. Led out by JGW’s `The Gangster Is Back’, there was further lengthy diversions in `Love Shock’ and the Jack McDuff/“Vas Dis”-like studio piece, `Deliverance’.
With Sidran at least back at the helm for the much-improved RECALL THE BEGINNING… A JOURNEY FROM EDEN (1972) {*6}, Steve could do little to patch up his once-powerful aura with his audience; it also failed to reach the Top 100; while drummer Jack King was retained, his short-stop bassist Ross Valory later became part of JOURNEY. As sprawling sets go, “Recall…” did have a sense of nostalgia in dirges like the doo-wop `Enter Maurice’ (keeping an on-going alter-ego on the march), while `Heal Your Heart’ drew from the funk; the subdued `Love’s Riddle’, `High On You Mama’ and the CSN-esque `Journey From Eden’ drew from folk fraternity.
After a lean couple of years in recuperation from an automobile accident, MILLER and Co hit pay-dirt with `The Joker’, a ready-made jewel that lyrically revived his/JGW’s “Gangster Of Love” theme. Although it was always regarded as a classic in Old Blighty, the platter still failed to make its mark chart-wise, that is, until 1990, when it reached No.1 after being given fresh exposure on a Levi jeans TV ad. The accompanying THE JOKER (1973) {*6} set, became his/their biggest selling record to date in the States, staying in the chart for over nine months. With a band that included John King (drums), Gerald Johnson (bass) and Dick Thompson (keyboards); Lonnie Turner performed on the sole live piece, `Evil’ and “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow contributed pedal steel on `Something To Believe In’, not everything was hunky dory, as goofball tracks such as golden nugget `Mary Lou’ and Steve’s `Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma’ suggested; probably short on a few songs, the man kept the blues diluted by way of `Come On In My Kitchen’ and `Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash’ (an R&B hit for The Clovers).
After a prolonged break, the “Space Cowboy” and Co returned in 1976 with their most accessible and commercial album to date, FLY LIKE AN EAGLE {*8}. The record showcased a more straightforward approach with finely crafted songs and strong hooks, spawning a slew of hit singles that even reached the UK Top 20. Its mind-blowing platinum-selling title track was a positive relapse back to the cool breeze psychedelia MILLER had flirted with back in the late 60s, while `Take The Money And Run’ and `Rock’n Me’, also soared high. Saturated by possible hit fodder such as the country-fied `Dance, Dance, Dance’, `Wild Mountain Honey’ and K.C. Douglas’s `Mercury Blues’ (the sappy SAM COOKE cue `You Send Me’ was rather ordinary), the STEVE MILLER BAND had signposted their trippy rock to the masses.
Augmented by David Denny (guitar, vocals; ex-Terry & The Pirates), Byron Allred (keyboards) and Greg Douglass (slide guitar), their next effort BOOK OF DREAMS (1977) {*8} was almost as huge; landing at No.2 Stateside and Top 20 in Britain. At a time when new wave was kicking into gear, the spaced-out Steve was trying his hand at prog-rock, albeit with a few short synth pieces that TODD RUNDGREN might’ve been proud of. But if it was hit singles one was after, there was no shortage of meat here; `Jet Airliner’, `Jungle Love’ and `Swingtown’, guilty pleasures for FM-friendly lovers.
Following another hiatus, the band released CIRCLE OF LOVE (1981) {*5}, a collection of renaissance rockers that stuck more or less to MILLER’s proven formula – but not principle; Denny and Douglass were now out of the picture. Harking back to that disastrous early 70s period, only `Heart Like A Wheel’ and the title track had any say in the charts, and with a 16-minute ZAPPA-meets-SPIRIT-esque exercise `Macho City’, fans almost turned off full-time.
But once again, magic MILLER time was back in full swing with the band’s 1982 album, ABRACADABRA {*6}, its title track a worldwide chart-topping smash, with its quirky jack-in-the-box new wave-pop feel making it a quintessential early 80s record. The album itself sounded somewhat laboured, with only a couple of dirges (`Cool Magic’ and `Give It Up’) reaching a “low”-point in the charts; `Keep Me Wondering Why’ was offered up to the Brits; the addition of co-pensmiths John Massaro and Kenny Lee Lewis (Norton Buffalo had been again added on harmonica), made J. GEILS-esque run-through of `Never Say Go’, impossible for MTV-unfriendly punters to latch onto.
After an unremarkable LIVE! (1983) {*5} album that failed even to reach the Top 100, and a few equally disappointing and formulaic studio sets in ITALIAN X RAYS (1984) {*4} and LIVING IN THE 20st CENTURY (1986) {*5}, the “Joker” man was possibly feeling the pinch, although the latter record had restored some chart pride having reached No.65. It was also an album to get back to his blues roots, nostalgic nuggets such as `My Babe’, `Big Boss Man’, `Caress Me Baby’ and `Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby’ bunched-up together with no apparent afterthought.
Although still working alongside Ben Sidran and Ricky Peterson (keyboards), Billy Peterson (bass), Gordy Knutson (drums) and Bob Malach (saxophone) – the core of the future SMB – a complete set of covers via the rootsy smooth-jazz solo record, BORN 2B BLUE (1988) {*5}. Uncharacteristic and somewhat ill-advised in a career that was full of peaks and troughs, Lee Dorsey (`Ya Ya’), Billie Holiday (`God Bless The Child’), Mel Torme (`Born To Be Blue’) and others of that ilk were well familiar to an older generation.
WIDE RIVER (1993) {*5} restored the STEVE MILLER BAND to their long-lost fans, although there was no “Joker” in the pack (with the exception of the opening title track), as his backing band, including Leo Sidran – son of Ben – took credit for several of the pieces; once again, Steve had no qualms about dishing in a few blues numbers in ELMORE JAMES’ `Stranger
Blues’ and OTIS RUSH’s `All Your Love (I Miss Loving)’.
Posted missing from the studio but still managing to hook up with JOE COCKER and others on the post-millennium nostalgic-rock circuit, The STEVE MILLER BAND were heads down and back in full swing in 2010 for comeback covers set, BINGO! {*6}. Together with harmonica man Norton Buffalo (who’d passed away from lung cancer on October 30, 2009), Kenny Lee Lewis, Billy Peterson, Gordy Knudtson, Joseph Wooten, and on extra vox, Sonny Charles, MILLER puts his touch on freewheeling electric blues from the works of JIMMIE VAUGHAN, B.B. KING, JIMMY REED, ELMORE JAMES, HOWLIN’ WOLF, et al. Not so commercially fruitful, as the previous record had landed a Top 40 place, Roadrunner Runners were also behind LET YOUR HAIR DOWN (2011) {*6}. Stripped from the same sessions at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch, tracks recognisable to blues pundits were `I Got Love If You Want It’, `Pretty Thing’, `Can’t Be Satisfied’ and `Sweet Home Chicago’. MILLER time was now quality time as he seemed at ease with his new groove.
To mark passing the 40th anniversary of his most celebrated set, THE JOKER LIVE: IN CONCERT (2015) {*6} was a return of sorts by STEVE MILLER BAND: Lewis, Knudtson, Wooten and Charles all present and correct. Slightly altered in the running order, but essential nonetheless, the record’s limited-edition presentation suggested the meticulous Miller was not totally enamoured with the final results.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Jul2013-Jun2019

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