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Miller keeps on rockin’

Stewart Oksenhorn

For a decade spanning the early ’70s into the ’80s, making records must have seemed the simplest thing in the world for Steve Miller: make a record, and watch it soar to the top of the charts. Beginning with 1973’s “The Joker,” Miller racked up hit after hit – “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Space Cowboy,” “Rockin’ Me,” “Jet Airliner,” “Abracadabra” – that made his sound a foundation of classic rock.It’s a far different reality for Miller these days, especially in the recording department. His last record of new studio material, “Wide River,” was released back in 1993, and though it yielded the hit single by the same name, Miller called the album “an international fiasco.” For example, after the release of “Wide River,” Miller played his first-ever Australian gig, before a crowd of 80,000. The label that handled the album, however, had shipped merely 3,000 copies to the entire country.”I said, I don’t need this kind of hassle,” said the 60-year-old Miller from Ketchum, Idaho, where he has had a house and recording studio for 20 years. (His primary residence is in Friday Harbor, in Washington state’s San Juan Islands, though his house there is being rebuilt.) “Making a record’s like delivering a baby. Making a record for me now, with all those preconceptions about who I am, is like handing my baby to someone who’s going to kick it and beat it to death – and then say, ‘OK, where’s the next one?'”Miller hardly believes he’s missing anything by not having a contemporary presence on the radio. “When I listen to radio out in the real world, I wouldn’t want to be on radio anyway,” he said. His listening source of choice now is the jazz station on satellite radio.His views on making records aside, Miller is hardly a bitter, forgotten relic of rock’s glory days. He finds plenty to be enthused about in the music arena: his summer-long tour that included dates at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the headlining slot at Jazz Aspen Snowmass’ Labor Day Festival (Sunday, Sept. 5, at 6:30 p.m.); his current onstage collaboration with saxophonist John Handy, a special guest at this weekend’s show; and the prospect of showing audiences that the Steve Miller Band keeps on rockin’. One nice part about being Steve Miller is that you don’t need the assistance of radio programmers and record companies to attract a crowd, or even to find new listeners.

“When you’ve played as long as I have, you develop your own audience,” said Miller, who has never been to Aspen. “Those tunes from the ’70s, kids still discover them and learn them and like them. What that means is, when the Steve Miller Band goes to a gig in Detroit, kids between 12 and 20 are the main audience.”Miller has more to offer those kids than his satchel of hit tunes. A diverse and probably underrated guitarist, Miller throws old blues and even a Coltrane number into his sets.”They hear my songs, but they hear jazz and blues as well. They’ve learned something,” said Miller. “That’s what makes it interesting to me. It’s not playing those 14 songs over and over again for the money. And I like those tunes. They’re positive and have great harmonies. But those songs open doors to a lot of kids. “A lot of people think of me as the guy who just wrote ‘The Joker.’ So we get underestimated a lot. When we show up, we’re a great band. We have a lot to share with an audience.”Once a musician, always a musician

Even more interesting than where Miller is now, or his days as a radio force, is his childhood.As a kid, Miller was surrounded by music, and in no ordinary way. His mother was a jazz-influenced singer and pianist; virtually all of her family were touring musicians. His father, a pathologist by profession, was what Miller refers to as “a tape recorder nut” who, after World War II, pawned most of his belongings to invest in state-of-the-art sound equipment. The elder Miller – often with young Steve in tow – frequented the jazz clubs in the family’s hometown of Milwaukee, and made friends with many of the road musicians. Charles Mingus, Red Norvo and Tad Farlow were visitors to the Miller household. But it was Les Paul, inventor of the electric guitar, who was his father’s closest musician buddy and Steve’s biggest inspiration. At 5, Miller saw Paul, who was just putting his act together with his wife, Mary Ford, at Jimmy Fazio’s Supper Club. Paul became a regular presence at the Miller home. Later on, Miller would watch Paul and Ford on their weekly television slot.”It was then that I said, yeah, I know what I want to do with my life,” said Miller, who got early lessons in multitrack recording and guitar-playing. “Electric guitars, television. And whenever Les Paul would play, other musicians would come to see him. I was picking it all up going, this is great.”When Miller was 7, the family relocated to Dallas. The musical immersion, however, continued, as bluesman T-Bone Walker became a fixture in the family’s living room. Miller still has tapes of Walker playing parties at his house.

At 12, Miller formed his first band, the Marksmen. “Most people say, ‘Isn’t that cute?'” said Miller. “We played every weekend, at country clubs and churches and fraternities. I was on the phone, booking gigs all the time. People would say, ‘$75? That’s a lot.’ And I’d say, sorry, bye. Because we could always get another gig.”At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Miller spent the bulk of his time playing the blues, usually in combos that included his buddy from Texas, singer Boz Scaggs. Through stints in Copenhagen and Chicago in the mid-’60s, Miller remained focused on the blues. When he landed in San Francisco in 1966, he started up the Steve Miller Blues Band. But even as he played the blues, another sound was creeping into his mind.”The Rolling Stones and the Beatles showed up,” said Miller. “That opened my mind to the idea that I could write my own tunes. I had already started to change by the time I got to San Francisco. It was a matter of growth from 1968 to the early ’70s.”Between 1968 and 1972, Miller released six albums. That burst of productivity came to a halt by a car accident that left Miller recuperating in his parents’ Dallas home for eight months. Miller rose from his hiatus with a new sound and new songs in his head; 1973 saw the release of “The Joker,” featuring a catchier, more original vibe. Miller again retreated for a long spell, from 1974-76 – this time to his own home, and its eight-track studio – and again emerged with a batch of songs. The subsequent two albums, 1976’s “Fly Like an Eagle” and 1977’s “Book of Dreams” – both became multimillion sellers.In 1983, following the release of the hit “Abracadabra,” Miller voluntarily took a long sabbatical from the road. He and his wife went boating, sailing the Inside Passage from Seattle to Alaska. It seemed a bad time for his brand of rock ‘n’ roll, and a good time to disappear.

“Heavy metal, hair bands, punk were taking over radio,” said Miller, who released several, largely blues- and jazz-oriented albums during the vacation. “We just took off. Now I look back and say, thank God I did that when I was young.”Miller returned to touring in 1988; when he stopped to take a breath, it was 2000. “Those 12 years seemed like 18 months,” he said. At the end of 2000, he shut the band down again, but continued playing around San Francisco in swing bands, jazz combos, blues bands and sitting in with friends. Miller entertained himself while keeping his name away from the marquee.”You get sort of hammered with your own name,” he explained. “If I use my name in a small club, there will be tons of people saying play ‘The Joker.'”Among the musical relationships Miller nurtured during that period was with saxophonist John Handy. Handy, the head of the jazz program at San Francisco State University, had been an influential figure when Miller arrived in the Bay Area.”He’s on the level of John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderly, that kind of guy,” said Miller. “His band in the ’60s, with guitarist Jerry Hahn, they did a lot of jamming before anyone did that kind of stuff. I listened to him and said, hey, I could play with this guy. Whereas with Coltrane, I never thought I could sit in with him.”

Though the two jammed often over the last few years, Miller was hesitant to invite Handy to join his tour. When Miller finally did ask, Handy accepted. The saxophonist has added a new dimension to the band since debuting as a special guest at the New Orleans Jazzfest.It makes Miller a happy guy. The music is still being stretched. Miller is picky about the dates he books, working primarily at established festivals. His band consists largely of old friends: harmonica player Norton Buffalo, his sidekick since 1976, and bassist Kenny Lee Lewis, who has been with the band for 22 years. He is even considering sticking his toe back in the swamp of the record business; he says he has had some promising talks with a big label and could see releasing a record as early as next year. And if he never has a new hit single, Miller will be content to play his guitar and sing his songs.”I’ve been playing music for about 54 years now,” he said. “So I’m always going to be playing. It’s not a question of retiring. My idea has always been to be a musician – not a celebrity, not a personality, not a rock star.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com


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