Recently, I asked people to describe the Steve Miller Band in one word. Replies included: ‘groundbreaking,’ ‘unforgettable,’ ‘magical,’ and ‘legend.’ Turn on any rock radio station and before too long, you’ll hear the opening strains of “Big Old Jet Airliner,” “Jungle Love,” “Take the Money and Run,” or “Fly Like an Eagle;” each song featuring Steve’s unforgettable vocals and guitar.
So, it came as a tremendous shock to learn Steve Miller was not already in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The news launched fans into action, spearheading a massive Facebook drive and online vote that added Steve to the Class of 2016.
This kind of response is a testament to the lasting power of an incredible singer/songwriter/guitarist who blended blues, gospel and rock into a string of hits that are as easily recognizable now as when they first hit the airwaves in the 1970s.
Heart guitarist and co-founder Roger Fisher shared the first time he met the iconic musician.
“I remember heart hanging around with Steve Miller backstage at a little river band concert. We were good friends with Little River Band and Steve was, too. One thing about him back then was that when Steve came around, everything was comfortable and happy and good; he was so full of good vibes.”
Roger explained why he believes Steve’s music is so ageless, using “Big Old Jet Airliner” as an example.
“I thought Big Old Jet Airliner was kind of a simple song. Heart’s music was very deep, profound, and real, but a song like Big Old Jet Airliner was very simple and kind of innocent in a way. It was after it stood the test of time that I realized it deserved to withstand the test of time, for different reasons than Heart’s music. A song doesn’t need to have a message to be a song to be performed and heard. It needs to have a special value that is of value, like just entertainment is good enough. Big Old Jet Airliner is a love song about home, and how precious home becomes when you’re on the road.”
Roger’s bandmate and Heart co-founder Steve Fossen recalls recording “Little Queen,” in the same recording studio where Steve Miller was recording.
“He was in Studio B and we were in Studio A. They would kind of jam the songs a little bit, and he would like a particular verse that they did and and a particular chorus, and he would use that particular music bed for every verse, and he would use a particular music bed for every chorus so he had that consistency going. I thought that was a clever way of doing it. He was like the mad professor. he would sit in this teeny tiny room with an organ and guitar and everything, and he would just craft his music. It was fascinating.”
Legendary radio dee jay Pat O’Day breaks down the heart of Steve Miller’s unique sound.
“The chords he selected – some of that comes from southern music, country music and from gospel. He was great admirer of evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. He saw in Swaggart that understanding of chords and of keys that people appreciate and relate to and are emotionally moved by them. There you’ve got the heart of the foundation of Steve’s writing and Steve’s recording.
“The right chords can emotionally- and this is important. The right chords; be it in gospel, R&B or country music, can emotionally hit people. Just the music itself, just the instrumental track can emotionally trigger feelings that are hard to describe.”
Seattle-area musician Randy Hansen is best known for his incredible shows bringing rock legend Jimi Hendrix to life, but he says Steve’s guitarwork and vocals had an early impact.
“I was already playing guitar and was hungry for influences,” he remembered. “He (Steve) was one of them. I always equated Steve Miller’s voice as the rock version of Mel Torme (The Velvet Fog), because he had this beautiful soft voice with a lot of air in it, and great vocal chops, as well as being a really great guitar player and songwriter.
“The first time I met him was at a place called the Bohemian Grove, where I got hired to play, to entertain. (they wanted someone who could play Hendrix). I guess he liked the way I was playing because he made himself known to me, just by walking up and tapping me on the shoulder. I turned around and at first, I didn’t recognize him, and then I went, Oh my God, this is Steve Miller looking at you’ and I was shocked. He was standing there smiling and shaking my hand.”
That meeting turned into a decades-long friendship which is still going strong. Randy has opened for Steve on tour, in the US and overseas. Pat also retains a strong friendship with Steve, as does Stan Foreman, a former promotion manager for Capitol Records. Foreman is credited with helping establish numerous bands and musical acts, including Heart, Bob Seger and the Steve Miller.
“Steve has a habit of making you laugh. I’m thinking now about something he told me and smiling. You listen to an album like The Joker, and how can you not like this guy?
“He has a unique style and he does things his way. Nobody played like he did. He had his own sound. He was one of the first guys to multi-track (on the voices and overdubs). But the songs are really good songs. He’s a great guitar player and the musicians he works with are also very good. Steve is just one of a kind.”
In addition to his incredible guitarwork and memorable songwriting, Steve Miller is known for his generosity. JT Phillips, guitarist for Seattle rock bands Klover Jane and Years of War, and the Alice in Chains tribute band Jar of Flies, remembers one incredible act of kindness:
“I was in high school (outside Sun Valley, Idaho). I was one of the band geeks. One day, we came in and the band teacher’s got this ear to ear grin. Among other things, there was this fancy set of handmade timpani drums.. They were in his (Steve’s) recording studio and they weren’t getting used so he gave them to us, along with a bunch of PA speakers and other instruments.”
JT added Steve Miller Band to his playlist, originally because he considered Steve a “local” guy, and also for his generous donation. He says he then fell in love with Steve’s early use of effects, particularly his skill playing with delays on guitar – a practice JT frequently employs.
Pat O’Day respects Steve’s passion for performing.
“I admire him greatly. I admire his dedication to his music. Look at his age and he still performs, like he did from the beginning, only even better. And, he appreciates his musicians.”
Steve Miller launches a major tour in June that will take his band across the country, and go well into summer. The band’s Northwest performances include:
First, he has a little date with fellow iconic rockers Cheap Trick, Chicago, Deep Purple, and groundbreaking rappers NWA on April 8th at Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, New York.
The 31st Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will air on HBO on Saturday, April 30th at 8:00pm.
(A special video about Steve Miller was created specifically for this piece, which you can watch below.)