“J50: The Evolution of The Joker”

Essay by Steve Miller

From 1967 when the Steve Miller Band started recording and touring, to 1973, when The Joker album was released, the times were perilous and a counterculture was emerging. During those years:

Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated / Race riots and fires broke out all over the country / The war in Vietnam continued unabated / Nixon repeatedly and secretly bombed Cambodia and bombed Hanoi on Christmas Eve / Millions marched demonstrating against the war / University campuses were shut down by student strikes / Altamont followed Woodstock / Four protestors at Kent State University in Ohio were killed by the National Guard / The Pentagon Papers were released revealing the military’s secret negative assessment of the Vietnam War / 12,000 anti-war militants were arrested while attempting to shut down the federal government / Five Republican operatives were caught breaking into the Watergate Complex at the Democratic Party office headquarters.

By 1973 Richard Nixon’s presidency was revealed to be a stifling, repressive administration based on racism and dishonesty.

In the midst of all that political chaos the Steve Miller Band emerged as part of a large cultural shift, growing out of the civil rights movement, the anti-war protest movement and the psychedelic San Francisco music scene that was challenging everything in the arts, music and politics as well as traditional institutions and traditional values in general. The band released 7 albums, 9 singles and performed hundreds of concerts all over the United States, Canada and Europe outside of the established show business touring circuits. When we came to town it felt like we were bringing an entirely new culture with us. The band supported independent FM radio stations all across the nation and was in direct competition with the established AM radio juggernaut which censored, dominated and controlled the National airwaves.

A large population of people of all ages, classes and races came together to challenge the traditional institutions, traditional values in society and the establishment in general.

The mainstream press had labeled us an “Underground Progressive Rock Band.” The “Establishment” was falling apart and its future looked even worse… It was a great time to be making records.

Here are just a few examples of what was released in 1971 and 1972.

Elton John              Honky Château

The Temptations              Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone

Carol King              Tapestry

Stevie Wonder              Superstition

Paul Simon              Mother and Child Reunion

The Spinners              I’ll Be Around

Nilsson              Nilsson Schmilsson

Al Green              Let’s Stay Together

The Rolling Stones              Exile on Main St.

The Staple Singers              I’ll Take you There

Don McLean              American Pie

Sly and The Family Stone              Family Affair

Due to challenges of touring and growing pains, my band was constantly changing personnel. By early 1972 I wanted to go where my inspiration was leading me and to do that I needed to form a new band.

I first saw Gerald Johnson playing bass with the Sweet Inspirations in the Elvis show. He was young, brilliant, had amazing stage presence, and was the greatest bass player I had ever seen. I asked if he would do some recording sessions with me in LA and we connected so well in the studio I asked him if he would be interested in working together in a new group and he said, “Yes.”

Next, auditions were held in San Francisco and two great musicians from Texas showed up, John King on drums and Dickie Thompson on keyboards. Both had great chops, solid blues foundations and were a perfect fit. The synchronicity of the band was immediate.

The final piece of the puzzle was extremely essential, finding a good road manager. At rehearsals musicians quickly get a sense of how things will go with each other but with road managers, you only find out how good they are when you are actually on the road in the middle of a crisis. It requires skills beyond dealing with hotels, airlines, car rental agencies, band riders and gangster promoters. I had just the man in mind.

I met Lester Tyrone Pouncy in Hawaii at a show we did with Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Lester’s job was to help carry Screamin’ Jay… who was concealed inside a closed coffin… to the stage where Screamin’ Jay would pop open the coffin lid, sit up waving a rubber skull on a stick and start the show by screaming, “I Put A Spell On You!” It was a hell of an opening.

After the show I talked to Lester T. and we hit it off immediately. He was an ex-sergeant in the Marines who had been wounded in Vietnam. He had just completed his rehab in Honolulu, been discharged with honors and was looking for a job on the road. I told him, “No Lester you don’t want to leave Hawaii, man. You don’t want to go on the road with a Rock N Roll band with all the drugs, groupies and debauchery. It’s not what you think, it’s back breaking work traveling from city to city playing concerts and dealing with all that mess backstage.”       

Sergeant Lester T. Pouncy became the best road manager we ever had. He had skills we needed on the road. He kept the band on time, he kept me organized, he was our MC, he collected our money, and he kept all the promoters honest. Where there had been disarray, order was restored.

With Lester clearing the way there wasn’t anything we couldn’t do.

It was a good thing too. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were just beginning a non-stop tour of 250 cities that would take us from playing small theatres to headlining arenas and to the top of all the AM radio Top 40 charts. We played a different city every two and a half days without a break for the next 730 days.

I opened the shows with my 12-string acoustic guitar playing songs from our earlier albums (LP 1 Side 1) then the band would come on stage for a two and a half-hour electric set. We played all the early SMB tunes, Blues, Soul, R&B, Rock N Roll, Country Rock, Jazz Fusion, Psychedelic Rock, T-Bone Walker tunes, Jimmy Reed tunes, and anything else that caught our fancy.

My musical ideas were all over the place. With the new band there were so many lyrics, harmony and melodies running through my head I could hardly keep them all straight. I’d sit down to work on one song and end up combining lines and melodies from two or three different pieces. It was like trying to do a jigsaw pizzle and a crossword puzzle at the same time.

 To sort it all out I bought a 4-track tape recorder that was a fifty pound beast requiring reel to reel tapes. I threw it into a padded suitcase and lugged it everywhere and made multi-track recordings of our sound checks, rehearsals and live shows looking for new ideas. After each concert I would haul the recorder back to my hotel room and work on new songs using those bits and pieces of ideas I came up with on the road. I made multi-track vocal overdubs and multi-track guitar parts on my acoustic guitar (LP 1 Side 2, LP 2 & LP 3). Some of the ideas made it into the show and some made it all the way to the album. Some didn’t make it but are included in this box set. (LP 3 Side 2)

The last album on my contract with Capitol was due for release in October 1973. All my ideas for an album were coming into focus, it just wasn’t being called the Joker yet. By late July the time had come. We headed straight to Capitol Records at the corner of Hollywood and Vine where Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Les Paul, and the Beach Boys had made so many great records. My Godfather, Les Paul, had run a string of 21 top ten songs with Mary Ford in the 1950’s at Capitol and they were my inspiration… It was now or never.

On July 24th, 1973, at 8 PM we entered Capitol Records. The place was empty and dark, the business day was over and we were the only people in the building. Jay Ranellucci was our Capitol recording engineer and he took us to Studio B and we set up our gear. The basic plan was simple. We would cut all our rhythm tracks in a few days. The guys could go home for a break and I would stay over an extra ten days to finish the album, mix it, master it, get a cover designed, sort out all the publishing information and deliver the record before our next tour which started later in August. It all seemed straight forward to me and here’s how it happened.

We set up John’s drum set and Gerald’s bass rig next to each other and across from me and Dickie’s keyboards on the left side. We were in a circle and could easily see each other and into the control room while playing. We played a few tunes to give Jay some time to get our sound balanced and our headphone mixes just right. We were excited to get going.

We started with an original, Sugar Babe (LP 1 Side 2), a high energy track that had been easy to do on stage. We ran it a few times for Jay to get our sounds sorted out, he adjusted a few microphones, we discussed the intro, then took a deep breath and cut the first track. When we listened to the playback you could feel the energy in the studio. These were going to be good sessions.

Mary Lou (LP 1 Side 2) was next. It was originally written and recorded by Obediah Donnell Jessie better known as Young Jessie and released by Modern Records in 1955. I had first learned it when I was eleven years old from my cousin Carol’s record collection. Young Jessie was a bad to the bone writer and singer who later went on to sing with The Coasters on Searchin’ in 1957. Mary Lou is a story about a guy who has an affair with a woman who makes a fool of him by stealing his watch, his chain, his Cadillac car and his diamond ring, there’s a detective involved, Mary Lou gets arrested and put in jail, she convinces the judge to forgo her bail and finds herself a rich man who is married and has some kids and takes all his money too… all explained perfectly in two minutes and twenty-five seconds. The efficiency and humor of Young Jessie’s writing is brilliant. We built our version around the sound and energy of Gerald and John pumping the funky rhythm section and I added a sly little Stratocaster guitar part vamping over the top. It was done in one take.

The band was loose and in the moment which is hard to do in the clinical environment of a recording studio. We got exactly what we were striving for and were off to a great start. The room sounded good, we were comfortable, and we had two songs in the can.

The next evening we came in and worked on Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma (LP 2 Side 1). It was a difficult rhythm track to record. It’s very fast and at first it was hard to get everything sounding right in the head sets but Jay figured it out. The guys played beautifully, and we had another great track done, ready for overdubbing later.

We were well warmed up now and ready to record Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ Bur Trash (LP 2 Side 2). Written by Jessie Stone under the alias of Charles Calhoun who also wrote Shake, Rattle And Roll, Trash was recorded by The Clovers and released on Atlantic records in 1954, another song from cousin Carol’s record collection. Like Mary Lou this is a song about a guy who comes on to a beautiful woman he meets beside some railroad tracks. She tells him, “This ain’t no circus and I don’t need a clown.” He tries to buy a Cadillac to impress her with no luck. When the salesman tells him Your Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash he decides to head back to town but gets held up on the way, gets knocked out and wakes up in the arms of a “Big Cop” and ends up in court where the judge sentences him a 20 dollar fine for being drunk… This time all this happens in three minutes and twenty-three seconds.

I love the way these songs tell amazingly complex stories with so much humor in just a couple of minutes. I love Charles Calhoun and Young Jessie’s writing and, along with Lieber and Stoller, these are the artists who inspired me to write about characters in some of my songs and eventually led to writing The Joker. We jammed Cash to get loose with it and put our twist on it and it was done.

Lidi was next (LP 2 Side 2). It’s one of the tunes I had been working on in the hotel rooms which meant we had to change gears and set up an acoustic guitar area along with the Stratocaster. This is one of the songs that we finished but never released. It had such a country feel to it, it didn’t seem to fit the final running order of The Joker album at the time. Day two was done. We had five tunes in the can and we were way ahead of schedule.

I was feeling thankful for being able to make another album of music I liked. I knew a lot of great artists who never even got the opportunity to record their work much less release it. That night after the sessions I went outside with my acoustic guitar to sit on the hood of my funky old GTO and think about my lyrics for the next day. I was still fooling around with the lyrics for The Joker, playing the bass line and going over the first verse when the chorus finally got finished, “I’m a Joker, I’m a smoker, I’m a midnight toker, I get my lovin’ on the run.” It fit the meter perfectly, it seemed to make sense and I knew the lyrics were finally good to go. I had no idea it would be our next single. I didn’t have a clue. I liked it and I moved on to the next song.

On the third day we started with Lovin’ Cup (LP 3 Side 1). It was a rockin’ Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee inspired shuffle that we beefed up with drums and electric bass. We cut a good rhythm track that felt great. I overdubbed a couple of acoustic guitar parts, did the vocals immediately and played a harmonica solo. Bingo, we had another track. I loved the acoustic sound we were getting. The Joker was next.

The Joker (LP 2 Side 2). Les Paul designed and built one of the best sounding echo chambers in the world when the Capitol Tower was built in 1955. It’s a subterranean concrete bunker buried thirty-two feet beneath the ground to isolate it perfectly from any vibrations. Jay got a great sound up in my Martin for cutting the track.

Gerald and I played the bass line in unison with John on drums. Gerald was on his Fender bass, I was on my Martin acoustic 6-string. I added a 12-string acoustic rhythm part with my old Guild 12 and just like that the rhythm track was done. It sounded so good I wanted to sing the lead immediately. I sang the lead vocal, quickly overdubbed the harmony part on the chorus and it was time for a solo. I thought it called for a slide guitar.

For good luck I had brought my brother’s old ‘59 Bassman Fender amp he played in our high school band back in Dallas that we had actually bought in 1959! Dan Healy from the Grateful Dead sound crew had hot-rodded the old ‘59 up for me and it sounded great. I ran my Stratocaster into a Wah Wah pedal, into the Leslie speaker into a Manny’s Overdrive pedal and plugged all that into the ‘59 Bassman and Jay ran it all into Les’s echo chamber. The sound was awesome. Jay hit record and I played along. With Gerald egging me on I spontaneously threw in the wolf whistle. I added a few more and the solo was done. The whole Joker recording took 30 minutes. It was a very simple track and none of us thought it was a single, much less become a hit.

Something To Believe In (LP 3 Side 2). The Les Paul echo chamber made my Guild 12-string sound the best it’s ever sounded. I couldn’t wait to use it on this song. The guys laid down a perfect, mellow groove that was just right and the 12-string in Les’s echo chamber filled the entire horizon. The last rhythm track was done with, the guys headed home for their break and I stayed over to finish the album.

This is one of the most exciting times in the recording process. It’s the first time you get to hear what your album is going to be. Studio B was a beautifully balanced, excellent recording studio. The playback system was precisely tuned, the sound was perfect. Jay had my voice all sauced up with those great Les Paul echo chambers and put me on Mr. Nat King Cole’s mic. The tracks sounded great. Gerald’s bass was laying down a beautiful groove, Dickie was rock solid on the keyboards and John’s drumming was perfect.

OVERDUBBING, I like to start with the vocal harmony parts. Vocal harmony adds energy and attitude to everything and sets a great feel for lead vocals and solos. We put up Sugar Babe and after a few takes I worked out all my parts and started layering the harmonies. Once they were in place it begins to feel like running downhill. That’s when it’s time to sing the lead vocals. Somebody dim the lights!

The goal is always to get it on the first take. We worked our way through all the vocal parts and were done in a couple of days. Jay and I were finally ready to tackle the guitar solos. We moved the ‘59 Bassman into the center of the studio, miked it seven different ways and turned that sucker up.

Perfection is the enemy in guitar solo world. When it comes to recording lead guitar solos it’s easy to get caught up in “Overdub Hell.” At a live show everything moves fast and you go with the flow. In the studio its easy to get sidetracked trying to do the best solo you’ve ever played. There’s a tendency to want to do it over and over… and over… AND IT’S VERY LOUD.

I admit that happened to me on the first two days of guitar soloing. I’d take a copy home with me after the session and listen to my work and hate it. After days of working on it, I figured out the parts I needed to play and the different tones each song required. Then I asked Jay to set up the tracks in running order so I could play one song after another and that broke the log jam. The solos were finally done. Time to mix!

Everything moved into the control room. A track gets put up, all the track listings are confirmed, each track gets examined closely, EFX and EQ are added or subtracted, the rhythm track gets settled in, the vocals are added and slowly spread out to perfect blend, the stereo mix for all parts are determined and you start mixing over and over until it feels perfect. Each song took about three hours to complete. Next the running order gets determined by jockeying the running order of the songs around until the segues are all smooth and the album feels like a musical journey going to a great place. That part took hours and finally around 3 AM at the last session we assembled it into the correct running order and it was time to take my baby to the MASTERING LAB.

The mastering lab is run by a guy named LIP PLYERS who cuts your music from tape to a disc on a lathe, then he looks at the grooves on the disc with a microscope and changes everything you just spent days mixing through a beautiful playback system. He lowers the bass level you so carefully mixed on that great system in Studio B so the needle on your record player won’t jump out of the LP grooves when the bass is sounding its best. It’s a compromise that must be made. You take the newly reduced mastered disc he gives you home and play it on your phonograph and hate it. You take your cassette copy and play it in your car, you play it in as many different places as you have time to try then go back and negotiate the final version. For a loud rock band it’s always a compromise when you record your music. It’s an art that must be learned over many albums. It can’t be avoided, it has to be “playable.” With that the album was almost done… I had to come up with a cover but first was the playback session for the executives who would be deciding my fate.

These executive meetings were always dicey. They were putting out about forty albums a month and had short attention spans and were always in a hurry. In a previous session for an earlier album I had watched them listen to ten seconds of each cut with a “Yes, No, No, Maybe,” and a “Thanks Kid, gotta go.” It was brutal. From my previous experience I had learned that their playback system was about 20 years old and sucked. As soon as we had our mastered disc in hand Jay got the night janitor to let us into the executive playback room and we checked their system. The speakers were out of phase for starters. We rewired everything, reset the EQ and levels and played our master. It was much better. Later that day we went up to the executive level and had a playback session for the brass at Capitol. It went well, better than I expected. It sounded pretty good. As I was leaving someone said, “Hey, I think that Joker song might be a single,” and I replied, “Hey, don’t worry about singles, just try to have albums in these cities when I’m actually there” and I handed him a copy of the five month long, 90 city tour we were to start in a few days. Now I had to get an album cover created.

I was lucky. John Van Hamersveld, a brilliant album cover designer, was head of the art department at Capitol. I went to his office to say, “Hello.” He had done the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour and The Rolling Stones Exile on Main St. and The Bonzo Dog Band’s Beast of The Bonzos. I played him the tracks and he loved the album and suggested we do a photo session with Norman Seeff immediately. Norman is one of the all-time greatest photographers in album photography and was available and just like that we were in Norman’s studio to do the photo shoot.

I’m always uncomfortable “posing” and it clearly showed. Norman was sympathetic and said, “I have an idea, come back tomorrow afternoon and we’ll try again.” When we arrived the next afternoon he had a box full of masks… It was suddenly easy posing with a mask on! He shot me wearing all the masks. The session looked great, the Joker image was created and The Joker was looking like it would be the single and the title for the album and Van Hammersveld designed the amazing fonts and designed the whole package and it was done!

The Joker was released two months later on October 4, 1973 and shot up the charts and went gold immediately. AM airplay was massive and by the time the tour was over in January 1974 The Joker was being played twice an hour, 24 hours a day on every AM station in the USA and we were on the top of the charts with the number one single making its way around the world.

It was a great time to be making records.

Steve Miller