Steve Miller has been an enlivening presence on the American music scene for more than half a century – and, in the course of that era, his releases have sold tens of millions of records and been streamed several billion times. Miller’s Greatest Hits 1974-78 received the RIAA Diamond Award with sales of more than fifteen million copies. It is among the 25 best-selling albums of all time.
At the start of his career, Miller soon became a mainstay of the San Francisco music scene that upended American culture in the late ’60s. With albums like Children of the Future, Sailor and Brave New World, Miller perfected a psychedelic blues sound that drew on the deepest sources of American roots music and simultaneously articulated a compelling vision of what music – and, indeed, society – could be in the years to come.
Then, in the ’70s, Miller crafted a brand of pure pop that was smart, polished, exciting and irresistible – and that dominated radio in a way that few artists have ever managed. Hit followed hit in what seemed like an endless flow: “The Joker,” “Take the Money and Run,” “Rock’n Me,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Jet Airliner,” “Jungle Love,” “Swingtown” and “Abracadabra,” among them. To this day, those songs are instantly recognizable when they crop up online or on the radio – and impossible not to sing along with. Their hooks are the very definition of indelible.
Running through Miller’s distinctive catalog is a combination of virtuosity and song craft. And that’s no accident. His parents were jazz aficionados – not to mention close friends of Les Paul and Mary Ford – so, as a budding guitarist, Miller absorbed valuable lessons from that musical tradition. When the family moved to Texas, Miller deepened his education in the blues, eventually relocating to Chicago, where he played with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and Paul Butterfield. That range of sources informs his music to this day.
In recent years, Miller has fully immersed himself in the blues and its many byways. As he has always done, he continues to find creative outlets for the full panoply of his musical passions. On his successful tours with the Steve Miller Band, he complements the commercial peaks of his extensive catalogue with lesser-known songs that expand his fans’ awareness of the range of his work. As a member of the Board of Directors at Jazz at Lincoln Center, he has curated and headlined a series of shows that explore themes like the bridge from blues to jazz in the music of guitar great T-Bone Walker; the distinctive sounds of the blues triangle of Memphis, Texas and Chicago; the resonances between the singular musical creations of Ma Rainey and Miles Davis; the deep American roots music of Appalachia; and Cannonball Adderley and the Blues. In addition, at the request of Wynton Marsalis, he is defining a blues pedagogy for Jazz at Lincoln Center. He is also a member of the visiting committee of the Department of Musical Instruments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Indeed, five of his guitars were displayed in “Play It Loud: The Instruments of Rock and Roll,” a groundbreaking exhibition at the Met that ran for six months in 2019. Miller was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016 and has been elected for induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2022. He has recently begun to open his vaults for the first time, releasing the acclaimed Welcome to the Vault box set in 2019 and Breaking Ground Live! August 3, 1977 in 2021.
With each listen the beauty and immediacy of Miller’s work, whether at its most playful or most serious, is palpable. As always, whether he was riding the top of the charts or traveling the endless blue highways of American music, you can hear him playing and singing with conviction and precision, passion and eloquence, making music that is at once immediately accessible, thrillingly alive in the present, respectful of the past, and more than able to stand the test of time. – Anthony DeCurtis