Rock legend Steve Miller on learning from the best and keeping the barn door open
As a youngster, Steve Miller had the best music teachers you could ever ask for. I mean, Les Paul and T-Bone Walker? Are you kidding? That's like the ultimate fairy tale for a guitar-crazed kid in the 20th century.
"I grew up in a family where music was on all the time," stresses the 78-year-old rocker from his home in the Hudson Valley, about 90 minutes north of New York City. "My mother was a singer, her brothers were jazz violinists, and Les Paul was my godfather—so I was surrounded by music and thrilled and fascinated by it and that's all I ever wanted to do. Once I saw Les Paul play I was hooked."
Paul taught Miller his first chord, and Walker showed him how to play guitar behind his head and do the splits at the same time, which, as Miller quips, "is a very handy thing to know if you're gonna be in show business." Walker was a family friend of the Millers who used to come over to their house and play.
"T-Bone was the bridge between blues and jazz," notes Miller. "B.B. King and Freddie King and Albert King, and everybody that plays guitar listened to T-Bone. He was the guy who set the basics for playing lead guitar--he and Charlie Christian. So it was really just unbelievably lucky that I was around all these people. And I was just a kid, so I absorbed what they were doing—it was just part of my basic education. And it made a huge difference in my life."
During the early part of his career, in the 1960s, Miller wholeheartedly embraced the blues world that Walker had turned him on to. But by the mid-'70s he turned more to rock, releasing two albums—1976's Fly Like an Eagle and 1977's Book of Dreams—that would certify him as a genuine music legend. Between the two of them those discs would spawn the singles "Take the Money and Run", "Rock'n Me", "Fly Like an Eagle", "Serenade", "Jet Airliner", "Jungle Love", and "Swingtown". One might be tempted to ask Miller if the switch from blues to rock was a natural progression for him, or whether he was consciously trying to get hit songs.
"Well, a little bit of all of it," he replies. "I grew up playing blues in Texas, that was pop music in Texas when I was a kid. I had a blues band when I went to college, and then when I went to Chicago I was playing blues with Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf and Buddy Guy. Played rhythm guitar for Buddy Guy for a while; did all of that.
"And then I got a chance to get a recording contract in California, and that was a completely different world. When I went out to California I just wanted to write my own music, you know. Now, Les Paul had, I think, 25 top-10 singles or something, so I knew what a hit single was, and I knew what radio airplay was, and I knew about all that. I wanted to make a really great album, and I also wanted to make really great singles, so I wanted to do it all."
One of the more interesting facts about the Steve Miller Band's windfall of mid-'70s radio hits is that all the songs from both albums were created at the same time.
"Basically what happened was we recorded all the basic tracks with the three of us—with [bassist ] Lonnie Turner and [drummer] Gary Mallaber. We went to a studio and in about eleven days or so we cut 21, 22, 23, 24 songs, and then I took those tapes to where I had my own eight-track tape recorder, in my living room, and started working on my lyrics and my arrangements and my vocal parts and all that stuff.
"And then somebody else would come into town, like [keyboardist] Joachim Young showed up, and I said, 'Man, would you come over and play B3 on "Fly Like an Eagle"?' He was such a great, great player, you know. And he said, 'Sure', so he came over and did a session, and every now and then there'd be different people that would come in and do session parts and pieces. I was working on about 25 songs, and I worked on it for about 18 months, so I had different people over that time."
Of course, with all that material in hand, it would have been entirely possible for Miller to release both Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams as a double LP—one huge, hit-packed monster of an album—but he'd learned a thing or two from the Beatles about not blowing your creative wad.
"I had spent some time in London and I had got to be in the studio with them while they were recording," he explains, "and I was absolutely amazed to see that they probably had 40 songs in the can that were mixed. I had never run into anybody that was that far ahead of the game, and up to that point it had always been kind of a world where you'd work really hard to make an album, and then you'd go out and tour—and be exhausted—and then you'd come back and go in the studio and make another album.
"It was a very hard way to work," adds Miller, "and I quickly realized after meeting the Beatles and watching them work that it was much smarter to take some time off and get ahead of the game and have something in the can that worked a lot better on many levels. You were ready to release your next song when the market was ready for it, not when you were ready for it. You know, it used to be like, 'Well, the boys just had a huge hit and they've been in the studio for two years and they're trying really hard to follow it up.' I didn't want to be like that. I wanted to just be releasing material. Once I got the barn door open I wanted to keep it open."
Forty-five years or so later, those classic tunes are still kicking up dust, and have made the Steve Miller Band a hot commodity on the concert circuit. Armed with his guitar of choice, the Fender Strat—"Les Paul was my godfather, but he never gave me a Les Paul guitar"—Miller has been touring with a band composed of bassist/backing vocalist Kenny Lee Lewis (since 1982), keyboardist/backing vocalist Joseph Wooten (since '93), guitarist/backing vocalist Jacob Petersen (since 2011), and drummer Ron Wikso, "the new guy" who joined last year, replacing Miller's timekeeper of over 30 years, Gordy Knudtson, who had to hang up the sticks when his wife started having health issues.
Miller had a bit of a health scare himself recently when he got infected with COVID and had to cancel some gigs.
"I had never had it," he says, "and nobody else in the band or crew got it. I don't know how I caught it, but I did. So we're dealing with it. I'm fine now, I feel good, my energy level's good, and it was a mild case. I tested positive for 12 days, though, so I had to cancel some gigs, and we're gonna make up two of those this weekend. Fortunately they're out here on the East Coast, close by, then we'll be back out on the road, heading to Red Rocks [in Colorado]. Then we come out to the West Coast and we're gonna end up in your neighborhood, so I'm really happy to see that. It's gonna be great."
The Steve Miller Band performs at the PNE Amphitheatre on Tuesday (August 30) as part of the PNE Summer Night Concerts series.