Fake the money and run

Steve Miller learned everything he knows about music while living in Dallas--but has he forgotten it all?

"They were great parties--phenomenal," Steve recalled. "T-Bone would bring a piano and a bass player, and he'd come over at 5 p.m., and we'd hang out and have dinner. He taught me how to play guitar with my legs spread apart and behind my back. The first time I saw T-Bone, I was nine, and T-Bone came at three in the afternoon driving a flesh-colored Cadillac convertible with leopard-skin seat covers. Christ, I thought he was the coolest thing I've ever seen in my life.

"They were parties where people would drink and listen to T-Bone. Real mellow. When you listen to the tapes, T-Bone's talking to my dad. My father had a phenomenal knowledge of music; my mom's family were all musicians. We came from a house that just had hip music. He and my dad would just talk, and he would just play. Pop would come up with one song, T-Bone would come up with another. I remember one party started at eight at night and ended at six the next morning with breakfast. He was just so great. His singing and phrasing were the best, and no one else came close. Every time I picked up a guitar, I heard T-Bone."

When not learning from Walker, a young Steve would turn on the radio and thrill to the exotic sounds pouring from the likes of KNOK, WRR (where Jim Lowe swung the boogie with his "Cat's Caravan" long after the sun had set), and even Gordon McLendon's KLIF, before it went schlock-40. Across town, in Oak Cliff and North Dallas and everywhere in between, the Vaughans and the Nightcaps and even Marvin "Meat Loaf" Aday and Mike Nesmith were listening to the same thing--to Bobby Bland, Bo Diddley, B.B. King, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, and Freddie King singles that turned a bunch of white kids into blues fanatics into rock-and-roll stars. Sonny took his little Steve to the Sportatorium and the Big D Jamboree, to see the likes of Carl Perkins and Frankie Avalon share bills; Steve also played guitar with Dick and Kiz Harp, a husband-and-wife cocktail-jazz duo who played and recorded around town.

In 1955, when he was just 12 and a student at St. Mark's, Steve formed his first band with Barron Cass; though they were just in seventh grade, Miller said, "Barron was an excellent drummer." They rounded up guitarist Bob Hayden, a recent transplant to Dallas from Maryland, and Steve taught his older brother Buddy how to play bass (after all, Buddy Miller could drive the band to gigs), and began practicing every night at each other's houses. The Millers had a barn behind their home, so they liked to play there the most--they could turn it up without getting hassled. And so the Marksmen Combo was born, four upper-class white kids playing the blues; later, a kid from Ohio named William Royce Scaggs--later known simply as Boz Scaggs--joined the Marksmen, along with another singer named Roger Gaulding.

The only other band in town like the Marksmen Combo was the Nightcaps, whose "Wine, Wine, Wine" and "Thunderbird" would shape the Vaughans and ZZ Top. (The Top eventually re-recorded "Thunderbird" on their 1975 album Fandango and copyrighted it as their own, though a Dallas federal judge would later rule there was no infringement.) Both bands played the frat circuit and party scene; they performed at high school (Hillcrest, Woodrow Wilson, St. Mark's) and college parties (SMU, University of Texas, even University of Oklahoma) and a few local clubs, most notably LouAnn's on Greenville Avenue, where, when he was 14, Miller backed up "Bright Lights, Big City" performer Jimmy Reed.

"When I first started playing, there were no rock-and-roll bands," Miller says. "There was just us and the Nightcaps, and we were really in competition with each other. They were a little hipper, because they were older...We got the whole idea for the act from Ozzie and Harriet. They had great music on that show, and they always had stories about Ricky Nelson and James Burton. When we started booking our band, we never told anybody how old we were. We sent out notices to every church and school and country club, played 15-minute intermissions with just drums and guitar. We made $75 for each 15 minutes of work, and we thought we were geniuses. Back then, it was big money. We'd do a couple of shows like that a night. We'd play Jimmy Reed, Bill Doggett, and leave. Eventually, people started wanting rock and roll, and then we'd learn more stuff.

"We had four singers, including Boz, and we did Beach Boy pop-rock harmonies on top of white blues, which was rock and roll. I had this cool band, and a bunch of guys really dug the band. When we showed up and played, the place moved. It wasn't some bullshit band. There's not a nightclub in the world we couldn't have paralyzed." Indeed, a track on Box Set--the instrumental "Candy Cain," recorded by the Marksmen Combo in 1958--reveals that they were a damned good band that could shuffle and swing like men twice their age; even now, 40 years later, it hardly sounds like a discarded relic rescued from the attic.

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