Graham Reid talks to rock-blues veteran Steve Miller, ahead of his Auckland show
Steve Miller has always done things his way, even in interviews. These days, artists generally set aside a paltry 15 minutes to plug their latest album or current tour. Not Steve; he signs up for half an hour and barely mentions either his recent albums (both blues covers) or his impending date here with Santana. He has stories to tell.
If Miller's name is only familiar from those smooth 70s hits like The Joker, Fly Like an Eagle, Abracadabra and so on which are staples of classic hits radio, it may surprise that 69-year old Miller - who always owned his own publishing and negotiated very favourable recording contracts - can tell great stories. And stories of greats.
Growing up in Milwaukee in the late 40s, his parents (mum a jazz singer, dad a jazz fan who owned a studio-standard tape recorder) would have house parties and the likes of Charles Mingus, Tal Farlow, guitar innovator Les Paul, singer Mary Ford and others would come around. Young Steve soaked it up.
"When I was 5 I understood Les Paul was speeding up and slowing down tapes to make his instrument sound different, and that Mary was singing harmony with herself on the tape recorder.
"I also knew if you put a single out you sent postcards to all your friends so they could mail them in from different cities to different radio stations requesting your song," he laughs.
When the family moved to Texas, guitarist T-Bone Walker came by for a party "and played from 6pm to 5am. He and my dad became good friends and he taught me how to play guitar behind my head, and how to play single note leads."
When rock'n'roll started in the mid 50s, Miller - then age 12 - formed his own band: "There were no bands playing rock'n'roll so I mimeographed a letter, sent it out saying we had a band - didn't say how old we were - and had us booked for the whole semester, every Friday and Saturday. We were making $75 a show.
"I never thought I'd make a living as a musician until I went to Chicago to go to university. Paul Butterfield had a record contract and I thought, 'Wow, maybe I can do this."'
Harmonica-player/singer/guitarist Butterfield was one of the young white blues musicians playing in Chicago and Miller - having grown up hearing tough Texas blues which wasn't dissimilar to the Chicago style - formed a group and worked local clubs.
"I started playing in the neighbourhood of Muddy Waters. Howlin' Wolf, James Cotton, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, AC Reed ... great musicians, all grown men. But their careers were at a low point. They'd had their hits, the blues had gone out of fashion and they were working these real Mafia nightclubs. The cops were on the take, the Mafia was on the take, the clubs were tough.
"We worked nine at night until four in the morning, six days a week, for $125."
He tells of his first meeting with the formidable Howlin' Wolf. Miller and a buddy went to Silvio's, a tough club on the west side, to see Wolf. and when they got there, the band ("turquoise blue tuxedos") were playing on a small stage. He asked the bartender where Wolf was and, being told he was in the next room because the band was too loud, he went through the door ... to find himself standing on the stage with Wolf before a tough black crowd.
"We were kinda scared and he said, 'I want you all to treat my little white friends real nice now,' and that's how our friendship started.
"And Otis Rush? I'd go to a club and he'd haul me up, hand me his guitar and he'd just sing.
"They knew me because I had a band - and here's the absurd part. I was 21 and competing for the same gigs as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. There were five clubs where you could make a living so you tried to bump into that rotation."
After years on the circuits - and dropping out of university just short of finishing a degree - the scene in San Francisco beckoned Miller. Bands didn't play small nightclubs but in theatres holding 1500, you could make $1500 a night and Miller's group played the Fillmore and other famous venues alongside blues artists and bands of the emerging psychedelic scene.
He negotiated a record deal too: "I'd been playing with tape recorders all my life and couldn't wait to get into a studio and make records. But Capitol Records hated us, they thought we were communists. The engineering staff walked out on me. I thought I was going to get all these great resources, but all I got was politics.
"So we split and I had the right to produce my own record anywhere I wanted, which was one of the things I'd negotiated."
Rather than look around in the States, Miller investigated studios and producers in London "We talked to [Beatles' producer] George Martin and he agreed to produce our record, but I didn't want to give him [percentage] points!" and for their 1968 debut album Children of the Future - with clever electronics and psychedelic pop but rather less blues - he settled on engineer Glyn Johns at Olympic Studios, who had worked with the Stones and Led Zeppelin.
"And the rest is history. On and on it went."
After half a dozen acclaimed albums in the late 60s which hardly set the world alight, Miller's retooled smooth 70s sound tailored for FM radio made him a stadium-filler. But with his two recent blues albums, Bingo! and Let Your Hair Down, the music that started him off is still in his set.
"There's about 14 songs the audience really want to hear. But that leaves nine or 10 other pieces ... so we can play some blues, and that brings it full circle."
Who: The Steve Miller Band
Where: Vector Arena, March 19, with Santana
Trivia: Steve Miller's early bands included Boz Scaggs, who had a successful solo career as a soulful R&B singer, and Ben Sidran, a much-respected jazz pianist and producer. On the Miller Band's 1969 album Brave New World, the "Paul Ramon" who sang backing vocals and played bass and drums on a couple of tracks was Paul McCartney.