Fake the money and run

Steve Miller's last album was released more than four years ago, and even then, the collection was a three-disc boxed set--one of those cardboard tombstones beneath which most artists bury themselves and what's left of their rotting careers. He has no forthcoming album on any label's release schedule; as far as anyone can tell, he doesn't even have a label--which is rather astonishing, all things being equal in a world where Van Halen and Night Ranger still have deals. Indeed, the only news contained on any of the myriad Web sites maintained by Steve Miller fetishists is that Capitol Records, Miller's home for the past 30 years, had quashed the release of something called Joker's Choice, a best-and-rest-of featuring new and old material. Capitol has also decided not to release a double-disc live album recorded at the Fillmore in 1995. Perhaps it's reliable news, perhaps not: These postings date back to 1996--but who needs to update the present when there isn't one?

So that leaves Steve Miller--born in Milwaukee in October 1943, raised near White Rock Lake from the age of seven till he left for the University of Wisconsin--as nothing but one of those artists who hits the road every year or so and makes some cheap coin hauling out his greatest hits for an audience that knows the set list by heart. Yesterday's innovator is too often today's nostalgia-circuit headliner, and why should Miller--who sold out 16 long years ago, when he released Abracadabra and pulled a dead rabbit out of his hat--be any different? Aging gracefully has never been any rock-and-roller's strong suit. Just ask Miller's old pal Paul McCartney, who showed up on Miller's oft-brilliant 1969 album Brave New World and then had Miller return the favor by getting him to play and write on the golden turd known as Flaming Pie 28 years later. Never trust your idols--they set you up to break your heart every single time.

So maybe Steve Miller is a lost cause; perhaps The Joker's a joke, The Gangster of Love shoots only blanks from here on out, and The Space Cowboy has fallen off his horse and broken his ass. Perhaps this is his ultimate destiny, playing these shed tours every year until someone tells him that enough is enough and the audiences shrink to the thousands and then the hundreds and then the handfuls. (Then again, the classic-rock audience is a most faithful and forgiving lot--just ask the boys in that Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band touring as the real thing.) Maybe Miller will one day land on the CMC International label alongside Pat Benatar, Eddie Money, Styx, Little Feat, Skynyrd, and all the rest of the '70s heroes left to die in the '90s. If so, too bad--he deserved much better.

After all, Steve Miller was never just some kid who got into rock and roll for the chicks, for the cheap thrill of strapping on a guitar, spreading his legs, and straddling the world. He was the son of music fanatics who were best friends with two of the pioneers of the electric guitar: Les Paul, the father of multitrack recording and the solid-body guitar, and Oak Cliff's own Aaron "T-Bone" Walker, the man who put the electricity in blues guitar. Steve was the product of '40s pop and '50s blues, a child who entertained his neighborhood friends with bedroom concerts. He could no more escape music than he could air. It was his destiny.

"I was born to be a musician," Miller said in 1994, during a previously unpublished interview with the Dallas Observer about his days growing up in Dallas. "I sang harmony with my family, and I was surrounded by music all my life. My dad loved Les Paul, and I wanted to be just like that."

In Wisconsin, it was Les Paul--a friend of Miller's father, Dr. George "Sonny" Miller, who was best man at the wedding of Paul and Mary Ford--who encouraged a five-year-old Steve to keep playing that tiny instrument he cradled in his hands and banged around the house. At the beginning of 1994's Box Set, Paul can be heard telling the kid: "You got a good, good voice there...I think you should keep singing like that. That's what I used to do when I was a little kid." To which Steve replies, "But I get embarrassed." Paul laughs and then offers him this: "Steve, you're really gonna go places."

Sonny Miller often recorded Paul and Ford during their nightclub days; he constructed Plexiglas walls long before engineers and producers thought of such things. "By 1949," Steve said, "I knew all the studio tricks."

A year later, in 1950, the Millers moved to Dallas, and soon afterward, T-Bone Walker became a patient of Dr. Miller's. T-Bone had ulcers and was also something of a hypochondriac. He used to check himself in and out of local hospitals, and usually nothing was wrong with him. But during those stays, he became one of Sonny's close friends, and every now and then, he would show up at the Millers' White Rock home with a trio and perform for a handful of invited guests. A few moments of one such performance also landed on Box Set, and it's a rare, inspiring treat: Walker, legendary for his rendition of "Call it Stormy Monday," plays guitar like ordinary mortals pour water, and his voice is sweet, sharp, full of swing and soul. His playing became a template for Steve's own style--never in the history of rock and roll did a student have such a gracious, giving teacher.

"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.

In 1961, Miller left for the University of Wisconsin, where he started another band, the Ardells, and invited Boz to join him. But Scaggs stayed with Miller only a short time before heading to Sweden, where he recorded an album of, of all things, folk songs. Miller himself headed to the University of Copenhagen, then made his way to Chicago, where he ended up becoming Buddy Guy's rhythm guitarist. In just a few years, it seemed, T-Bone's little student had a job playing beside the man who taught Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan how to set their instruments on fire. "It was the graduate school of the blues," Miller recalled, laughing.

But in the end, Miller came back to Dallas, took a job at a local jingles factory, then headed off to San Francisco to become the Space Cowboy of the blues. "I wanted to get the hell out of nightclubs," Miller explained. "I moved to San Francisco to play real music and not have to do it for a bunch of druggies and boozers in a nightclub." By 1968, the Steve Miller Band (including Boz, for two albums) was signed to Capitol Records for $500,000, the largest advance to that point in history, and had released two astonishing albums of psychedelic blues-pop, Children of the Future and Sailor.

They rest, as they say, is history--which, in Miller's case, is understating the point, given that his discography simply ends with Box Set. And even before then, Miller had released only one album of new material in the 1990s--'93's Wide River on PolyGram, which is long out of print.

In 1994, Miller complained to the Observer about trying to find a record label that would let him make the kind of records he wanted. "All these record companies are sending me back memos where they want to screw with the musical aspect of things," he said back then, which perhaps explains a great deal. But it would be unfortunate if this is where it all ends for Miller, playing the circuit till he wrings from it every last cent. If his later albums (Italian X-Rays, Living in the 20th Century, the hit-and-miss covers album Born 2B Blue) don't possess the wondrous sense of adventure found on his earlier records, surely the purist inside him is dying to come out and play. In the end, Miller's a bluesman, perhaps the only breed of guitarist who can age with dignity. It would be a shame if he were to grow old and inconsequential playing rock and roll--what would T-Bone say? So, please, someone stop him before he plays "Jungle Love" one more time.

The Steve Miller Band performs August 16 at the Starplex Amphitheatre. Big Bad Voodoo Daddy opens.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky