The Joker Laughs Last
Fifty years after picking up the guitar, classic-rock icon Steve Miller is still riding high
Of all the ’70s classic-rock musicians who populate FM radio and permeate our popular consciousness, none has enjoyed the staying power of Steve Miller.
Simply singling out No. 1 hits “The Joker,” “Fly Like an Eagle” and “Jungle Love” neglects Miller’s lifetime of shrewd industry moves, accidental twists of fate and brilliant musical moments. Whether learning from the Chicago blues masters, ingratiating himself with the San Francisco psychedelic-rock scene or building a wildly successful business and brand, Steve Miller is one rock ’n’ roller we can all learn from, dance to and marvel at.
When Miller was growing up in the ’50s, his parents weren’t just music fans — they were lifelong friends with electric-guitar virtuoso Les Paul, who encouraged young Steve’s musical proclivities. Sonny Miller, a world-renowned pathologist, was a recording hobbyist, inviting pioneers like T-Bone Walker and Thelonious Monk over to lay down tracks in the family living room while young Steve watched in wonder.
Throughout primary school in Dallas and college in Wisconsin, Steve Miller helmed several hard-working blues bands, but it wasn’t until he dropped out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and moved to Chicago that his career truly took off. He fell in with blues legends like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and Paul Butterfield, but after three years in the cutthroat Chicago scene, Miller packed up his Volkswagen bus for the magical journey west to San Francisco.
Miller’s arrival in 1966 quickly turned into a tale of epic proportions, too. His old friend Butterfield was headlining at the Winterland Ballroom with Jefferson Airplane the very night he hit town. Miller spent his last $5 on a ticket, was invited onstage, told the crowd he was starting a new blues band and, urban legend has it, received a standing ovation.
Further turns of good fortune befell the hastily arranged Steve Miller Band. A backing gig for Chuck Berry at the Fillmore Auditorium in 1967 resulted in an electrifying live album. Capitol Records signed the band to a seven-record deal with a $500,000 advance and unlimited creative freedom. A few of Miller’s goofy personae — The Gangster of Love, Space Cowboy and Maurice — became career-long calling cards. A late-night London recording session in 1968 even yielded a one-off collaboration with Paul McCartney.
Amazingly, these achievements marked but the tip of Steve Miller’s iceberg. He was an early favorite of the new upstart FM rock stations. His 1973 album “The Joker” and its zany but immensely catchy title track zoomed to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Financially buoyed by that success, Miller spent 1974-’75 holed up at home in Northern California, where he churned out two more platinum-selling albums, “Fly Like an Eagle” and “Book of Dreams,” and five more indelible hits, “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Rock’n Me,” “Take the Money and Run,” “Jet Liner” and “Jungle Love.”
By the end of the ’70s, The Steve Miller Band was co-headlining stadium tours with The Eagles and watching its “Greatest Hits 1974-78” album generate millions of dollars in sales. Rather than burning out on the excesses of stardom, however, Miller adjusted well to a life of comfort, reaping the rewards of countless smart business decisions along the way. With the exception of 1982’s “Abracadabra,” however, Miller’s subsequent work was nowhere near as commercially successful as his ’70s material.
Yet the rise of classic-rock radio and baby-boomer nostalgia positioned Miller to capitalize again on his peak of creativity; “The Joker” even reached No. 1 on the charts a second time in 1990 after it was featured in a Levi’s commercial. And when Miller did finally enter the studio again in 2010 after 17 years, he emerged with two full-length albums of obscure blues covers, paying tribute to his humble beginnings and to fallen Steve Miller Band members Norton Buffalo, John King and James Cooke, who all died between 2009-2011.
Anyone who thinks Miller is a washed-up classic rocker resting on his laurels is in for a rude awakening, however. In recent years, he’s performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, headlined the grand opening of the new Austin City Limits, and taught classes at the USC Thornton School of Music. He also devotes time to offering music lessons at California’s Kids Rock Free, saying he still doesn’t take his career — or his success — for granted.
“At my age, I don’t want to screw around,” he told Spinner.com in 2010. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be the guy on the radio that you can’t move. I look at people who are 76 years old and [think], ‘Wow, I wonder how much longer I will be able to do this.’ [But] right now, I feel great. I’m having the greatest time in the world.”