Steve Miller: The Joker Still Takes a Big Ol’ Jet Airliner

The Steve Miller Band started up in 1966 and play at the Verizon Theater in Grand Prairie on June 1. Photo Courtesy: Alan Sculley
The Steve Miller Band started up in 1966 and play at the Verizon Theater in Grand Prairie on June 1. Photo Courtesy: Alan Sculley

By Alan Sculley

Steve Miller is one of the lucky ones – a music artist who has sold multi-millions of albums, has a catalog full of hit singles, and 50 years after he got his start playing blues in bars around Chicago, still has a thriving career.

It’s something he never could have fathomed growing up in Dallas where he formed his first band “The Marksman” while attending St. Mark’s School. That’s where he met and taught legendary bluesman Boz Scaggs. But after he was kicked out of St. Mark’s, he transferred to Woodrow Wilson High School from where he graduated in 1961.

“When I was a kid, I never thought I would ever be able to make records and never really thought seriously about a musical career because a musical career was being Fabian or Frankie Avalon or something,” said Miller, whose band plays June 1 at the Verizon Theater in Grand Prairie. “It didn’t make any sense. There wasn’t any possibility to get into that world.”

If Miller were coming up now, he said he would have a very similar outlook on his prospects in music.

“It’s kind of like that for kids right now,” he said.

“Right now, I don’t think they have much of a chance. I think all of this get it on the Internet is all BS and nonsense. You have to really connect with people. There aren’t very many clubs. There’s no place for people to develop and play. It’s a bad time right now for young artists.”

Reaching million-selling success didn’t come easily – or immediately – for Miller, either.

He started his professional career in the mid-1960s playing the tough Chicago blues club scene before hearing about San Francisco and its vibrant music and concert scene and what were the early days of what was to become a true cultural and lifestyle revolution that spread world-wide as the ‘60s came to a close.

That legendary San Francisco scene is worth noting because Miller is touring with another group with roots in the city’s music scene of that era – Journey.

Of course, by the time these two acts started having major success in the mid-1970s, the glory days of the San Francisco scene had faded.

Miller arrived in San Francisco in 1965, signed with Capitol Records and spent the first five-plus years of his career on pretty much of a non-stop cycle of recording and touring. He was selling roughly 200,000 albums a year – not bad – but he wasn’t getting played on the radio or making enough money to enjoy anything resembling a good living.

By the time he finished recording his 1973 album The Joker, Miller’s expectations were modest at best.

“I thought my career was over. It was my seventh album for Capitol Records and they had pretty much moved on from my world,” Miller said. “I remember leaving to go on a 60-city tour and somebody at the record company said, “Well, I think “The Joker” might be a single” and I said, ‘You know what? Don’t worry about singles. It just would be nice if you actually have records in the cities where I’m actually going to be working. That would be a good idea, and here’s a list of the cities I’m going to be in in the next 75 days.’ We left to go do that tour not really expecting much to happen and when we came back it was the No. 1 single in the country.”

It was merely a sign of things to come.

His next two albums, Fly Like an Eagle and Book of Dreams, were blockbusters that went multi-platinum and produced a string of hit songs. The 1982 album Abracadabra gave Miller one more million-selling album and enough enduring hits to keep him on classic rock radio and allow him to continue playing large venues through the next three decades.

Miller has released only three albums since 1993, but he said he continues to work on new music. In fact, he recently recorded a live version of The Joker album for its 40th anniversary. But Miller is discouraged by how illegal downloading has made it difficult to sell albums, and he isn’t giving The Joker the  high-profile release some might think the project deserves.

“It’s really a live performance and we love it,” Miller said of the new Joker. “We decided not to give it to a record company, and we’re putting it out and we’re going to sell it ourselves at our concerts. It doesn’t make any difference whether Capitol Records and EMI put it out, or Universal or whether we do. They’re not going to sell any of it anyway.”

He’ll continue to play his hits during the concerts this spring and summer, but Miller wishes audiences were more open to him playing lesser known songs and stretching out musically in concert.

“I love performing and connecting with an audience never gets old for me,” Miller said. “But it does get old for me when my audience is just only interested in something they’ve already heard, and it makes doing new stuff very (difficult) – it’s a strange experience right now.”