Steve Miller urges fans to roll up the rug, sing along and boogie on his first album in 17 years.
First question for the rocker, who was one of the biggest stars of the 1970s and 1980s, is what took him so long?
Speaking from his Idaho home, the man variously known as the Space Cowboy, Maurice and the Gangster of Love, says that his “Greatest Hits” CDs alone have given him a good income, which lets him decide how to spend his time. He has sold 30 million records in a career that has given us “The Joker,” “Fly Like an Eagle” “Abracadabra” and “Rock’n Me.”
Miller, 66, has been busy enough, playing with his band across 50 U.S. cities every year. He’s making his first European tour in 25 years in October; found direction through the blues and R&B on the new CD “Bingo!” and now has his own label. Miller has no regrets and no love for big music companies.
“The record business has been so unpleasant and so bad for so long,” Miller says in a telephone interview. “I really wasn’t interested in allowing those kinds of people back into my life, with all their demands. For the longest time, I was uninterested in dealing with EMI Records.
“I live in Ketchum, a little town in the Rocky Mountains. I don’t even hear radio anymore.” Local people play country, the Carpenters and the Eagles, he says. When he is touring, Miller hears chart music, “sounds so artificially made -- it’s all so synthed up and drum machines, auto tuned -- that puts me off.” Still, he is optimistic, saying some of the best songwriting is coming from young acts such as Max Marshall and the Danger Babes.
Core of Hits
For each concert set list, he has a core of about 14 hit songs and then adds perhaps nine others. Miller worked with engineer Andy Johns on his new record.
“I didn’t want to do covers of songs, I wanted to make them my own,” Miller says. The choices “were all hit singles in Texas in the 1950s -- three-part harmony, lots of dual guitar parts. It was all recorded analogue... it felt like it did when we first started making records.”
The material fits into the band’s sets and avoids a problem: “Audiences are so conservative, if you want to play something new, 5,000 people go get a beer and they don’t come back until they hear the opening riffs of ‘Fly Like an Eagle,” Miller says.
One of his favorite new recordings is “All Your Love (I Miss Loving).”
“That’s an Otis Rush song,” he says. “When I was in Chicago, Otis was the first blues guy who really liked me. I was 22 years old, and when I walked into a club and Otis was playing, he’d wave me up to the stage and hand me his guitar and then he’d continue singing and I’d play.”
The track was the signoff to Miller’s last album, “Wide River” in 1993. Now, on “Bingo!,” it has more of the Miller hallmark: “I’ve recorded it twice and probably will do it again,” he says.
Miller was taught his first chords by Les Paul and started to play professionally at 12. He dropped out of college to work alongside Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Paul Butterfield and Buddy Guy in Chicago. “Bingo!” is also, in songs such as Jimmy Reed’s “You Got Me Dizzy,” a testament to Miller’s keep-it- simple vibe: “I like hooks and choruses, things people can sing to.”
The CD highlights a new band member, singer Sonny Charles from the Checkmates, who Miller says has fitted right in on tour, tackling “The Joker” and other personal songs.
It also features the last recordings of harmonica player Norton Buffalo, who was Miller’s “partner in harmony” for 33 years.
Last August, Buffalo felt unwell at the end of a tour. “Norton thought he had pneumonia,” Miller says. “He went to the hospital and they told him he had lung cancer and brain cancer, and he died 60 days later. Norton was the last guy you thought would ever die that way: He didn’t smoke or drink and was a vegetarian.”
The record is dedicated to Buffalo. “He went out with his boots on and his spurs janglin’,” says Miller.
Rating: *** 1/2.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
“Bingo!” (Roadrunner/Space Cowboy Records) is priced at $9.99 or $16.99 with four bonus tracks. Download fees vary across services. For information on the band’s tour, click http://www.stevemillerband.com/tour2010.html.
(Mark Beech writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)