Steve Miller Celebrates ‘The Joker’ And The ‘Pompatus’ Of An Amazing Career (Cover Story)
Steve Miller Photo by Tim Brown

A pro’s pro, Steve Miller is right on time for the interview. As a professional musician – meaning getting paid to perform – since 1956, the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer still delivers the goods as he approaches significant milestones in his long career: his 80th birthday on Oct. 5, as well as the 50th anniversary of the song and album that jump-started his career, “The Joker,” released in 1973.

The impact of “The Joker” on Miller’s career cannot be overstated. Miller had kicked around the San Francisco music scene for more than six years, releasing six albums on Capitol and facing what could be the end of the line with the label. While Miller found critical acclaim and some commercial success with albums Children of the Future (1968), Sailor (1968) and Brave New World (1969) and a fair amount of play on FM radio, that was the ‘60s. The ‘70s were a new era completely, and Miller had not yet staked his claim as a hitmaker.

That would soon change. Despite the high stakes, Miller entered the studio as producer in an effort to control his own destiny and delivered a confident album and a cocky single in “The Joker.” Filled with sly, self-referential humor and quirky sonic hooks, the single sounded like nothing on the radio at that time, or really, any other. Basically, Miller left town as a small-venue act and returned at the arena level. That’s when he opted to take a break from his brutal touring schedule to plot his next move, much to the chagrin of Milt Levy, his longtime agent, who was in more of a “strike while the iron’s hot” state of mind. 

In retrospect, the move toward focusing on the creative was the correct one, as the next run of albums made Steve Miller one of the dominant artists of the decade and propelled him into the next one. Specifically, with Fly Like an Eagle (1976), and Book Of Dreams (1977), and the rock staples it yielded. 

Suddenly, not just the cool people had SMB records in their collections. Everybody had Fly Like an Eagle and Book Of Dreams. Miller could have had no idea that the songs he wrote in the mid-‘70s – “Take the Money and Run,” “Rock’n Me,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Jet Airliner,” “Jungle Love,” and “Swingtown” most notably, would never leave radio and be staples of his shows for the rest of his long and active career.  

Picker, Grinner, Lover, Sinner: Steve Miller, who is celebrating his 80th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his touchstone 1973 album, “The Joker ” with a special box set, performs at Dallas’ Dos Equis Pavilion (then known as Gexa Energy Pavilion). Photo by David Woo

The Steve Miller Band’s long career as a concert headliner stretches back well beyond the four decades of the Pollstar Era and the group’s first appearance in the publication in June of 1982. But since that summer, 813 concerts have been reported with worldwide grosses totaling $173.7 million and overall number of sold tickets tops 5.5 million (Miller’s team estimates he’s sold approximately 25 million tickets over his career.

Among the Pollstar Boxoffice highlights during the past 41 years, the highest gross for a single concert was May 16, 2014, at L.A.’s Hollywood Bowl. The sold-out concert totaled $1.34 million with attendance at 16,510. The band’s two best-attended concerts, though, were recorded at the same venue in different years. Their highest number of sold tickets was 30,992 at two concerts in August 1999 at Pine Knob Music Theatre in Detroit, which topped a prior two-night ticket total of 28,394 from June 1993.

Today, as the Space Cowboy looked amusedly at his 80th birthday on Oct. 5, Miller is as affable and chatty as ever, as apt to talk about the unpredictable weather as he is to wax philosophically on the icons who influenced his career, like Les Paul and T-Bone Walker, as well as his admiration for contemporaries in a wide range of genres. 

Exceptional as he is, Steve Miller is a regular guy.

But never mistake his kindness for weakness. Miller has often teed off on what he terms a cutthroat and crooked record business, as well as institutions like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which he lambasted for its impersonal inductions and mistreatment of honored artists.  

steve miller
Steve Miller, 1972, amsterdam, concertgebouw, music photo Gijsbert Hanekroot STOCKTHATDOESNTSUCK.COM 80 Spadina Avenue, Suite 506 Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5V 2J4 Tel: 866-443-3555 Direct: 416-603-3555 Fax: 416-603-3558

Even so, Steve Miller is not a grumpy guy. In fact, he’s a pretty damn happy guy as he enters this next stage of his career as an octogenarian, with a full slate of shows, affiliations with revered institutions like Jazz at Lincoln Center, and the iconic rooms he still sells out every time. He’s healthy and excited about young artists, and as a longtime gearhead, optimistic about what technology and the game-changing venue Sphere in Las Vegas will bring to live performance. In the conversation that follows, Steve Miller holds forth on his career, his songs and the importance of an easy day.

Pollstar: You’ve been playing, performing live for money for nearly what, 70 years almost?
Steve Miller: Let’s see, what’s the math? I started in 1956. I’ve been working every Friday and Saturday night since. At this point, all I can do is grin, because that’s all I ever really wanted to do. It’s been a remarkable journey, from playing little gigs in junior high school with Boz (Scaggs) to now, and being what I was, just a middle-class kid who was expected to go to college and get a job. Actually, being a musician was not the plan. I somehow was able to pull it off, I guess, thanks to Les Paul and T-Bone Walker and a few people like that.

At some point you’ve got to be all-in. We did a Chili Peppers cover last year and I interviewed Anthony Kiedis and we talked about this. When he started, he was a good student. He had options. I said “What was your plan B?” He said, “Man, I didn’t have a plan A.”
I jumped over the edge after college. For some reason, I played through college, and had a great band and everything, but it just never dawned on me that I could actually make records or any of that. I never thought of that. I was going to teach comparative literature or something, that’s basically what I was interested in. But I was playing music all the time, nonstop. After the last semester of college, my mom and dad came to see me and said, “Well, what are you going to do, Stevie? What’s your plan?” I looked at my parents, who were near Madison, Wisconsin – there was a family wedding somewhere near Milwaukee – and they came to see me, which was very rare. It was the only time in the four years I was there they were ever at one of my shows. I looked at my mom and I said, “Well, I want to go to Chicago and play blues,” which is what every parent wants to hear after they spent all that money educating their kid in college [laughs].

Oh, man.
My dad was there, and if he’d had a two-by-four, he would’ve hit me in the head with it. But my mom looked at me and said, “You know, that’s a great idea, Stevie.” She opened up her purse, pulled out a $100 bill and said, “Why don’t you go tomorrow? You’re young, you’re not married, you don’t have any kids, you don’t have any responsibility. Go see if you can make it.” I jumped off the edge of the cliff, but I landed in Chicago, working in a Mafia nightclub, playing with Buddy Guy.

From there, I eventually, ended up out in San Francisco and years of struggle from that moment. But that was my moment. Man, there was no plan B. I was going to figure this out, and once I got that record contract, I wasn’t going to let go. It was tough. I had a lot of people telling me what to do and how to do it, and you’re trying to create stuff and people don’t like it. I had people telling me “Fly Like an Eagle” was bullshit. I was kind of going, “Well, we’ll see, man.”

You had to be tough. In our case, it wasn’t like, “Oh yeah, we went and got a record, and boy, it took off so fast. The next thing you knew …” It wasn’t like Creedence, where they made their first record, and suddenly, they had four hits in a row and were one of the biggest bands the world. For us, we released seven albums before we got a single, we were really at the end line when “The Joker” happened. Oh, that’s right. It’s “The Joker’s”50th birthday.

Steve Miller

That’s why we’re here. When you landed in San Francisco in ‘66, you were already an encyclopedia of musical knowledge, you were sophisticated musically. Is that what you found among the musicians there? Were they on the level you were?
Well, yes and no. It was different. Jerry Garcia was into country, folk music. I was into some of that, but they were not as sophisticated in blues and jazz and even pop and rock. Just talking in general, most of the bands in San Francisco when I got there seemed to be coming from a kind of traditional folk, hootenanny, five-string banjo kind of world. Everybody had dropped acid and then they all decided to get Beatle boots and let their hair grow long and get an amplifier and plug their guitar in. That’s where a bunch of it was at.

Whereas, when I showed up, I had just been playing in Chicago and the Chicago blues scene and my competition was Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy and Paul Butterfield. It was a very sophisticated musical scene compared to what was going on in San Francisco. However, it was all run by the Mafia and it was a gangster nightclub kind of business, whereas San Francisco was brand new and open, and a

social phenomenon. I learned a whole lot from that side of the equation that I hadn’t thought about. When I showed up, I could give you a tight, 55-minute set and really entertain everybody in the Fillmore. The Grateful Dead could spend 55 minutes standing around tuning before they started playing.

There’s a place for both, but you could play. That was the key to the kingdom. Still, you always had ambition, beyond being a great guitar player. You were interested in leading a band, being a singer and on the production side of things.
Exactly right, Ray, I loved all of it. I love writing. I love recording. I love vocal work. I love doing all those multiple vocal parts, and I love production. I love designing album covers. I love designing the stage. I love designing the PA system. I like designing the interior of the truck. Everything about it appealed to me. I was able to use all my skills in architecture and designing and drawing and music, and it challenged me to use every bit of me. It was a playground, I just loved it. 

I would run into kids who were really talented, but all they wanted to do was play lead guitar. They didn’t think about the album or the production, they just thought about their guitar. Man, there were some great guitar players like that. Those were the kids that didn’t know anything about business, contracts, publishing, how to negotiate a deal with a promoter or a manager or an agent. [The music business] basically took advantage of them a lot, as we all know.

I was just as interested in my contracts as I was in my songwriting or the production of the album, or how it was mixed and mastered or where it was mastered. I loved every aspect of making records and playing and performing and writing and producing. I loved it all.

And that’s why we’re talking about an album you did 50 years ago and why it matters. Actually, the stakes were pretty high when you went in to make that record. Obviously, you rose to the occasion.
Well, thank you, man. I wasn’t sure [laughs]. But there’s times where you have to trust yourself and how it works with an artist like me. 

You’ve always been interested in tech and how music tech advances. When you look at how far things have advanced on the live side, what are your thoughts on the Sphere in Las Vegas and what that means to live music presentation? At some point, it’s just about playing live music.
If I went in [to the Sphere] and played, I wouldn’t be coming in with $10 million worth of elements and use every trick available with this new LED lighting and the new sound systems. I would just come in and be doing my music, and the picture on the outside and the inside would just be me doing my music.

I don’t know how it’s going to impact [live], if they’ll get to that point or if it’ll always be super-duper production. Because for me, I play. I look at a Taylor Swift, Beyoncé or a U2 show; I’m a one-truck show, they’re a 50-truck show. There’s a difference in what they’re doing and what I’m doing. I’m with you, man, I think it’s all about performance, the real deal. I don’t want to go see somebody sing with a bunch of taped backgrounds and all sorts of stuff floating through the air. I’m really there to see the performance.

1976 Day On The Green Steve Miller Band 1976 Oakland Stadium n
Rockin’ In The U.S.A.: Steve Miller Band performing at Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum’s Day on The Green in 1977 promoted by Bill Graham Presents. 
Photo via Steve Miller Archives

They have in-house guys doing concepts for every show. If they’re into it, and you have a message, I mean, Book of Dreams is big ideas. Those albums are big ideas. The right person who connects with it can come up with the visuals. You always thought of the visual components, right?
We’re working on visual stuff now with the parts and pieces that happened to happen over the 50 years. I never had an organization going, “We’ve got to videotape all of this, man. We’re going to videotape you in the plane and backstage.” It was just whatever news organization did or if somebody happened to have a camera. It’s amazing how much coverage there actually is to put those kinds of things together. I know there’s a laboratory in L.A. where they’ve got a corner of a Sphere and people trying to figure out what to do.

It’s [James] Dolan and U2, that’s a great little group of people. They’re going to give us the first taste of what it really could be and I’m sure it’ll be fantastic and phenomenal and hopefully it’ll show a way forward that doesn’t involve $10 million or $20 million or $50 million worth of production to put these together so it looks really good. Hopefully, it’ll become clear how you can just perform and let the performance be a powerful thing.

That thing cost a lot of money. They’re going to need content rolling through there, a lot of it. I imagine everybody will get a chance.
I think they’re going to do well. I know it ran over [budget] and COVID made it cost twice as much. It’s kind of funny when you read somebody sold their company for $18 billion and they had to spend $2.4 billion, you don’t even really worry about them very much. But it’s a serious chunk of change and it’s a huge project. 

The guy that I really loved is Ed Lunger. He’s the guy who took me through the Sphere. He was vice president of building operations. I was going, “How in the hell do you build a building like this?” He said, “We’ve got guys from all over the world working on this.” He started explaining it to me. This a great guy. I hope it’s really successful. I think the idea is going to lend itself to improving theaters everywhere.

They don’t have to cost $2.4 billion and be 360 feet in diameter. I think these lighting systems and these sound systems are getting better, like the [Dolby] Atmos systems that people are working on. I’ve been talking to [Atmos guru] John Mayer and we just put his latest Atmos system at Jazz At Lincoln Center, at the recording studios there. 

When you hear the sound and when you see the lighting effects, like John Mayer’s show, it’s really, really cool, a beautiful thing. They were using laser lights, where the entire stage was a projection but you couldn’t see how it was projected. It just looked like reality. It had windows and curtains billowing in the winds; it had rivers running through it. There’d be a big window in the back and in that window there’d be like a CinemaScope movie going on. You couldn’t see how it was being projected. It just looked like it was there. It was like magic.

I think that’s where we’re headed. The Sphere is Las Vegas-sized entertainment. The first time I played Las Vegas, it was at the hockey arena, and they had plywood on the ice, and everybody had to sit on the floor. That was like 1967 or ‘68. Every year that I go back to Vegas, I just go, “Oh, look what happened while I was gone.” They built another casino. They did another thing. Now the racing and the Sphere, that’s going to be at that level, but that technology is going to filter into your local amphitheater or your local arena.

That’s what I’m looking for. I hope I can live long enough to see that become a standard. Even now, when we go out and play, we hardly ever run into a bad PA system. It always sounds great. We come in and we set up and we use the local PA system. We’re not carrying it in a truck anymore. We just bring our boards and stuff. All this technology has gotten so much better. Now these LED lighting images have just went off. It’s really exciting.

Well, the people who read this are going to love to hear you say that, because it wasn’t always that way. You never knew what you were going to get when you showed up. For you to say the venues are up to snuff, that’s something, right?
Oh, yeah. I was playing a gig one time somewhere on the East Coast at a college, and we were playing through the lunchroom PA system. It had a turntable on top of it. Speakers were in the ceiling, that kind of stuff. I’ve seen it all, man. I’ve actually seen PAs just blow up [laughs]. I’ve always been interested in that part of it too, the technology of it.


Time Keeps On Slippin, Slippin, Slippin: Steve Miller, with the Baron Wolman cover image of 1972’s Anthology as a backdrop, performs in 2017 at Global Event Center at WinStar World Casino & Resort in Thackerville, Oklahoma. (Photo David Woo)

Marc Brickman is a good friend, and Marc was the guy who did all the Pink Floyd lights. I love Marc. He’s going to come in and he’s going to have the greatest idea for me in the world, but it’s only going to cost $2.3 million. “Oh, okay, here….”

Talking about your live show, a lot of classic artists have certain songs they just have to play, like Jimmy Buffett had the Big Eight. Do you have a list of songs like that?
I have like the Big 14. Let’s see, we have to play “Swingtown,” “The Stake,” “Abracadabra,” “Jet Airliner,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Dance, Dance, Dance,” “Space Cowboy,” “Jungle Love,” “Take the Money and Run,” “The Joker,” “Rock’n Me,” “Livin’ in the USA.” That lets me weasel my way into playing other things that maybe they don’t know.

My goal is to really entertain my audience, so when I say I have to, I’m happy to, I look forward to playing these songs. We work really hard every day to make sure that we play them really well, that they’re good, sound great, and that the audience enjoys them. I want to educate my audience and I want to play them a little blues, a little jazz, maybe a little gospel and sometimes some more country blues, Delta blues, things like that.

They go right along. I get it, when people come to see me play, they really want to hear “The Joker,” and there’s these 14 songs they really want to hear. It’s funny, I don’t really read reviews or what people say online very often, but every now and then I would go look at reviews of a show I did someplace. Everybody would be like, “Great show, really good guitar player, he still sings really well.” “Wow. Just as good as he was when I saw him years ago.” And then there’d be somebody going, “I can’t believe he didn’t play ‘Jungle Love.’ Man, the whole thing sucked.” You really don’t want to do that. Not that they’re all like that, but they really, really, really grew up with these songs. The majority of my audience grew up with Greatest Hits.

When we toured in the ‘90s, it was really crazy because we were selling out the amphitheaters all summer long. They were absolutely jammed. The average age of our audience was like 16 and a half or something. You’d go out in the parking lot and there’d be all these kids playing Greatest Hits, and that’s all they knew. They didn’t know anything before or after Greatest Hits, which is going to be certified 15 million copies next week. They definitely have to be in the playlist. 

Without question, those songs are part of people’s lives. You’ve got a big birthday coming up, how are you feeling?
Remarkable, it’s crazy. I feel very healthy, happy, really having a good time. Don’t have any serious physical issues. I don’t know why, but it just doesn’t even seem possible to me that I’m 80 years old. That just sounds like nonsense. But I am. I work out every day. I do my  vocal warm-ups three times a day now, and it’s just about keeping it all in shape, and practicing my guitar and enjoying it. I’m working on new stuff, working on the shows for Jazz At Lincoln Center, which has stimulated my brain so much, and this will be our seventh year working there for Jazz At Lincoln Center. Working on the Board there, so I’m just surrounded by great talent and brilliant people that challenge me. I’m okay, man. I’m physically in good shape. Hopefully I will stay that way.

I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.