Fake the money and run

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"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