“I’m a picker, I’m a grinner; I’m a lover and I’m a sinner…”
It’s been forty years since Steve Miller lit up the airwaves with those words, sung over a catchy but rudimentary bass line while speaking of the pompitous of love. “The Joker” was a number one hit for the Steve Miller Band; the album of the same name peaked at number two.
Prior to those records’ commercial success, Steve Miller had had a minor hit single with “Living in the U. S. A.” in 1968. But he had established himself on the “underground” scene as the ‘60s turned into the ‘70s with a string of musically rich albums including Sailor, Brave New World, Your Saving Grace and Number 5. With The Joker, he consciously turned away from hotshot rock guitarist to pop music confectioneer. The transition was complete with the release of Fly Like an Eagle in 1976 and Book of Dreams in 1977. Those albums contained the longtime classic rock radio staples “Rockin’ Me Baby,” “Jet Airliner,” “Jungle Love” and “Fly Like an Eagle.”
Steve Miller was born 70 years ago in Milwaukee, moving to Texas with his family in the second grade. His uncles were musicians, and his father became friends with guitar legend Les Paul. Young Steve learned a lot about guitar from Les Paul and had the chance to see him play in person many times. He was twelve years old when he started his first band.
“I did the same thing when I went up to the University of Wisconsin,” he said in an interview for Gibson guitars. “We started a rock and roll band there. Boz Scaggs was in my junior high school band. When he came up to college, I taught him how to play guitar, which he picked up in, like, six minutes.”
After graduating, he spent three years in Chicago playing and soaking up the blues scene there. But it was the mid ‘60s, and the most interesting musical rumblings were coming from California. Miller headed to San Francisco, arriving just in time for the flower power era.
“There was a feeding frenzy at record companies to sign groups,” he said. “I had 14 record companies negotiating with me for contracts. And they were all jive.”
But Miller held out for artistic control of his own music, and with an attorney friend was able to get what he sought:
“I would not agree to anything until I got everything I wanted. And after nine months, my prosecuting attorney pal got me the contract that I wanted. I got a half a million bucks. I got a no-cut contract for seven records. I got complete artistic control. It was basically enough money to make five records. So that’s what I got and that saved my bacon.”
Those first five records cemented his place as a serious musician, evolving from now-dated psychedelia to timeless blues-based rock. His third album, Brave New World, blasted into the Woodstock summer of 1969 with an electric jolt, and was further expanded upon with Your Saving Grace in December and Number 5 the following spring.
But it was when he stripped his sound down in 1973 that he tore up the charts. “The Joker” was pretty silly, but it was irresistible. References to songs from earlier albums—“Enter Maurice,” “Space Cowboy” and “Gangster of Love” were song titles from previous outings—and borrowing from old R&B songs—“You the cutest thing that I ever did see, I really love your peaches want to shake your tree” is the opening line of The Clovers’ “Lovey Dovey;” The Medallions spoke of “the puppetutes of love” in the 1954 song “The Letter.”
When he brings his current version of the Steve Miller Band to the Ferguson Center on November 10th, he’ll have local native Joseph Wooten on the keys and a setlist packed with songs that everybody knows. If past performances are a predictor, you can count on a heaping helping of hot guitar licks and a bountiful buffet of singalong lyrics. It will be an upbeat trip back to a more upbeat time. These days, there’s nothing wrong with that!