Steve Miller Shares the Stories Behind His Greatest Hits

Five decades ago, in the summer of 1973, a nervous Steve Miller entered the studio to record an album he thought might very well bring his career to a close. By that point he had released seven worthy albums that only attracted a cult audience. “I definitely felt this record was my last shot,” Miller said by phone the other day, before a show on his current sold-out tour. “I was at the end of my recording contract, and I wasn’t hearing anything from the label. If this didn’t work, I thought I might be teaching high school English the next year.”

Instead, he wound up giving the world a master class in how to make a smash hit. The first song he recorded, “The Joker,” was the ‘70s equivalent of a viral sensation, taking off at radio stations around the country on impact, eventually soaring to No. 1. That turned out to be just the beginning. Over the next decade, Miller and The Steve Miller Band racked up a string of ingeniously upbeat singles like “Rock’n Me” (another No. 1 score), “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Jet Airliner,” “Take the Money and Run,” “Jungle Love” and “Abracadabra” (a chart-topper in 1983).



To mark the start of his dramatic turnaround 50 years ago, Miller has just released J50: The Evolution of The Joker, a collection that marries the album’s original tracks to 27 previously unreleased recordings from the same sessions. To Miller, the secret to his late-breaking success had to do both with having nothing to lose and with finally gaining control over the recording process. While his earlier work had been produced by others, on “The Joker” he called all the shots. “Just going in with the band and doing it on my own was so much less cumbersome,” he said. “The whole process of making the album was 17 days, start to finish.”

Another key element was his eagerness to learn how to hone hits. “I had always enjoyed the art of making singles, but the more I did it, the more I learned,” he said. “I felt that you need at least five hooks in a single. And the first ten notes have to make people go, ‘What’s that?’ It’s quite a puzzle to put all that together.”

<p>Photo by Tim Brown</p>

Photo by Tim Brown

With a boyish enthusiasm that belies his 79 years, Miller told Parade the stories behind the key songs that have made him one of America’s biggest hit-makers.

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“The Joker” (1973)

In Miller’s first No. 1 score, nearly every sound you hear is a hook, from the lazy bass to the loopy guitar to the quirky vocal. “I wasn’t consciously going for all that,” Miller said. “Everything just came together quickly and naturally. The song had a great chorus. It had this slide guitar. It had a different-sounding, lazy groove. It’s only in hindsight where you go, ‘well, that was brilliant!’”

For another draw, Miller quoted a racy line from an old hit by the vocal group The Clovers—“really love your peaches/wanna shake your tree.” He didn’t realize, however, that this would mean sharing the publishing royalties with its authors. “I thought it was just a tip of the hat,” he said. Despite the sexiness of the line, and a drug reference elsewhere in the lyrics, Miller said “nobody at radio questioned it. I think every kid that heard it got it, but no adult knew what it was about.” One thing that did get everyone’s attention was a line that later became famous in which Miller preached “the pompatus of love.”

“It sorta sounded like pompous,” the singer said of the nonsensical word he made up. “I get letters from lawyers all the time asking me to define it because lawyers always want to know what things mean. To me, it’s just funny.”

“Fly Like an Eagle” (1976)

One of Miller’s biggest hits was also the first to feature a new instrument—the ARP synthesizer—which he used to create a spacey sound that undulates throughout the song. “I was a huge electronic music fan, going back to Stockhausen in the early ‘60s,” Miller said. “The electronics I used back on the [earlier FM-radio hit] ‘Space Cowboy’ sounded like somebody turning over a car carburetor under water. But the new ARP was so much easier. It was a natural to become a pop hook.”

The catchy riff in “Eagle” had actually appeared in another Miller song, “My Dark Hour,” seven years earlier. That track featured none other than Paul McCartney on drums, bass and backing vocal, though few knew it. The improbable Miller-Beatles connection came about because his producer, Glyn Johns, was the audio engineer on “Let It Be.” In 1969, when Miller was in London to record with Johns, the producer introduced him to the Fab Four. “They were meant to record some tracks one day, but John and Ringo didn’t show,” Miller said. “I’d never seen guys not show up to a booked recording session before. That was unbelievably wasteful.”

Related: 20 Facts a True Paul McCartney Fan Would Know

To make use of the session time, Johns suggested Paul and Miller jam, resulting in “My Dark Hour.” “It was like we’d been playing together forever,” Miller said. “Anything Paul played was just right.”

Miller felt disappointed, though, when the Beatle only allowed himself to be pseudonymously credited on the song as “Paul Ramon.” Regardless, Miller thought this was “going to be the biggest single of my life! Instead, it was like it was dropped down the mail chute of the Empire State Building straight into hell.”

To compensate, Miller said the riff he repurposed for “Fly Like an Eagle” was “so much better.” It was so good, in fact, that the song went platinum and inspired a cover by Seal in 1996. “He didn’t do anything different with it,” Miller said. “So, I wasn’t impressed.”

“Take the Money and Run” (1976)

One of the key elements of pop songwriting is the ability to create a hook that an audience instinctively wants to sing back to you. For “Take the Money,” Miller found a doozy by inserting a “hoo-hoo-hoo” chant at the end of the chorus. “I had some friends who thought that was corny,” he said. “I told them, ‘I don’t think so, and I was right because it really worked.’”

Over the years, the song’s appeal has transcended not just generations but also genres, inspiring the first hip-hop sample Miller officially approved. It came in a cover of the track on Run DMC’s 2001 album “Royal Crown.”

“Every day someone would say to me, ‘Hey, they’re sampling your voice from “Fly Like an Eagle” on this song, or “The Joker” guitar solo’” Miller said. “In a way, that made me feel good because it meant that musicians were listening to my work and finding parts they wanted to work with. I just wanted them to acknowledge it in the credits.”

“Rock’n Me” (1976)

The guitar riff in one of Steve Miller’s most rousing hits bears an uncanny resemblance to the one in another stadium rock classic: “All Right Now” by Free. “It’s a kind of parallel discovery,” Miller said. “If you listen to the two riffs together, they’re sort of alike but quite different too.”

The inspiration for Miller’s song came by necessity. The giant Knebworth music festival in England, headlined by Pink Floyd in 1975, wanted Miller to play on the bill. “I had been off the road for months and didn’t have a band together, so I told them I couldn’t do it,” the songwriter said. “Then, my manager came back and said, ‘They really want you.’ So, I said, ‘Just tell them I want a gazillion dollars, so they’ll go away.’ Instead, they said, ‘Okay!’ So, I got a band together fast and we rehearsed. I knew that the festival was going to put me on at dusk and I wouldn’t have any lights, so I wanted to have something really good to play. I had already been working on ‘Rock’n Me,’ so I finished it right then. The very first time we played it was in front of 100,000 people at Knebworth. They put me in a situation where I really had to deliver, and that song definitely did.”

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“Jet Airliner” (1977)

One of Miller’s biggest hits, the pumping “Jet Airliner” was written by a little-known blind musician named Paul Pena. “I had the opportunity to meet Paul when I was making my Book of Dreams album,” Miller said. “He had just recorded this album for Columbia Records which they rejected. When I listened to it, I said, ‘They’re nuts! There are so many great songs on this album.’ I asked Paul if he minded if took ‘Jet Airliner’ and worked on it. At first, it was a pretty bitter song, but I had an idea of what I wanted to do with it and Paul said, ‘Do whatever you want.’ The way we recorded the song sounded great. In my current shows we do a real slow acoustic version of it that surprises the audience, and they love it. Writing songs is like planting a garden. You put it in one way and, later, it can come out another way.”

“Jungle Love” (1977)

Two members of Miller’s band originally wrote “Jungle Love” with the musician Dave Mason in mind. But once Miller heard a rough demo, he immediately called his group in and claimed it for his own. “We were already in the mixing phase of the Book of Dreams album, so this was all at the last minute,” Miller said. “One of the nice things about being your own producer is that you can get things done quickly.”

At the end of the song, the band added one of its most talked-about features—a whistle that sounds like an exotic bird. “That was our keyboard player, Byron Allred,” Miller said. “He was making these whistling sounds, so we put that in. It was a wonderful effect.”

“Abracadabra” (1982)

After the mega-success of the Book of Dreams album, Miller put out an album that didn’t do as well (Circle of Love). And, if it was up to his record company, he might not have found a comeback because when he submitted “Abracadabra” as the single for his next album, Capital “didn’t like it at all,” Miller said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

Snubbed by their lack of support, he cancelled a planned 39-city U.S. tour and went to play Europe instead, where the company that released his records there did release the single. Immediately, it shot to No. 1 in Europe. Only after seeing that did Capitol put it out in the States, where it also topped the charts.

The inspiration for “Abracadabra” came from an unlikely source. One day, Miller was skiing in Sun Valley near his home when he saw someone in a pink satin snowsuit take a spill. “I went over and said, ‘Oh my God, it’s Diana Ross!’” Miller had first seen Ross sing with the Supremes when they both played the music TV show Hullabaloo back in 1965 and was always taken with her spark. Seeing her again on the slopes inspired him to rework some bad lyrics he had for a riff he knew could become big. “Thinking of Diana Ross, I thought about using a magical word in the chorus. Fifteen minutes later, the song was finished,” Miller said. Because the music for the song had been gestating for years, he said, “I always say it took me three years and 15 minutes to write it.”

“Living in the U.S.A.”

The lyrics to one of Miller’s most-played songs on FM radio—before he crossed over to AM— reflects the deeply American character of his songs much the way the Beach Boys’ songs do. “I was influenced by the same people the Beach Boys were,” said Miller. “Those sources create a harmony sound that’s very American.”

In that same spirit, Miller’s hits sound great on car radios, which captures the quintessentially American love of the open road. “When I was 15 years old, I used to take long drives with my grandfather from Texas to Florida,” Miller said. “We would listen to the radio the whole time. Singing and driving came together for me right then. I haven’t driven in 12 years but singing and driving is still, to me, what it’s all about.”


This super-deluxe edition curated by Steve Miller features a 3D lenticular cover, three LPs, a 60- page book with liner notes, a reproduction of a vintage Joker iron-on and a new Joker lithograph. In addition to 27 unreleased demos, it includes live performances and eight never- before-heard songs. Miller narrates the evolution of the songs from The Joker.


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