American Icon

By Tom MacIntosh

Some people called him the “space cowboy”, some called him the “gangster of love”, some people called him “Maurice” because he spoke of the “pompatus of love”, and the world knows him as the legendary American guitarist singer/songwriter Steve Miller. He grew up in Wisconsin with jazz-happy parents, his mother Bertha was a singer and his dad George was, besides a pathologist, an amateur recording engineer. It was in this setting that young Steve cultivated his interest in music, and when he met his parents friends Les Paul and Mary Ford, it was all the more clearer. “I would have to say my father’s relationship with Les Paul and T-Bone Walker when I was young. Growing up in Dallas, being part of that phenomenal music scene. I found a way to do what I really wanted to do, which is so important for a kid.

It was in Texas 1955 when Steve formed his first band, The Marksmen, in high school along with his friend Boz Scaggs, whom he taught to play a few chords so he could join the band. Scaggs would later go on to a successful career of his own. Miller attended university studying literature but dropped out to pursue his dream in Chicago. While there, he got to work with harmonica wizard Paul Butterfield, and jammed with the likes of Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and Howlin’ Wolf. In ‘65 he met pianist Barry Goldberg and they formed the Goldberg-Miller Blues Band, got a contract with Epic Records and put out a single The Mother Song

With his career going nowhere he went back to school to finish his degree, but was turned off by the politicisation of the courses so quit again and went to San Francisco lured by the new vibrant sounds of the city. In 1966 he put together The Steve Miller Band: James Cook, guitar, Lonnie Turner, bass, Tim Davis, drums, and Jim Peterman on a Hammond B3 organ. They soon got a gig backing Chuck Berry at the Fillmore West, and was soon joined by his old mate Boz Scaggs for shows at the Magic Mountain Festival and the Monterey pop Festival. In 1968 the released their debut album, Children of the Future, which perfected the psychedelic blues sound that came from the original sources of American roots music, but it flopped, not breaking the top 100 album chart. The next effort, Sailor came out in ‘68 and reached #24 on the charts, with its single, Living in the USA. The subsequent records, Brave New World, Your Saving Grace, both in 1969, and Number 5, a year later fared well on the album charts but failed to produce a hit single. 

Then things began to turn his way in the early 70s. Miller crafted a new pop approach that was exciting, clean and hard to ignore. In 1973 they released The Joker, which became their best commercial success to date with the title song reaching #1 on the charts and made Steve Miller a household name. The tremendous sales numbers of that effort was surpassed by their next record Fly Like an Eagle, which contained 3 hits, Take the Money and Run, Fly like an Eagle, and a second top hit Rock'n Me, tailored, according to Miller after Free’s All Right Now. And the hits just kept coming, Book of Dreams(1977) had the gems, Jungle Love and Jet Airliner.

Steve Miller’s touch on guitar got him more radio airtime that most of his contemporaries, with his Gibson Les Paul Custom electric, to go along with his array of favourites such as the Ibanez Iceman, Fender Telecasters and Strats, Gibson Les Paul Goldtops and ES-335’s among others. His signature sound was easily recognised and eagerly copied by budding guitars the world over. 

In 1978 they released Greatest Hits 1974 -1978, which sold over 13 million copies and led to highly successful tours throughout the 80s and 90s. Behind this amazing triumph, he decided to stop recording for some time until he re-emerged with Circle of Love in ‘81, which didn’t meet the standard he himself had set, but the following year he put out Abracadabra, and 3 of its singles, Cool Magic, Give it Up, landed very well, but the title song shot straight to the top. 

The Steve Miller Band racked up 18 albums; six live, seven compilations, and 29 singles. He left an indelible mark on American pop music and psyche that served as a soundtrack to the masses that admired him. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016, an event he considered “unpleasant”, saying that the hall was full of crooks and thieves, too misogynistic and corrupt for his liking. 

At the end of the day, the ‘space cowboy’ is a living American legend. Beholden to his sound and fans, he still sells records and has amassed an over 40 million dollar fortune for his trouble. A ‘gangster of love’?, well he married four times, so maybe he knows what he means when he speaks of ‘the pompatus of love’.

His birthday is October 5. Happy Birthday Steve Miller!  

(Image header: ©CordonPress)