Anyone who has flipped past a classic rock radio station in the last 30 years has likely come across one of Steve Miller’s hits. But even fans who can recite every word to “The Joker” or “Rock’n Me” don’t always realize that Miller began his career playing the blues.
The son of a doctor who was a big music fan, Miller grew up with musicians like T-Bone Walker, Charles Mingus and his godfather Les Paul, as regular houseguests.
As part of his role on the board of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Miller is staging a tribute to Walker, one of his childhood heroes. amNewYork spoke with Miller.
How did you decide to put on this tribute?
Basically what I’m doing [at Jazz at Lincoln Center] is working on getting the history of the blues — all the different tributaries of the river — and trying to put together a course that can be taught to students, with different sets of music from different artists. T-Bone is really the guy who changed the blues. Before T-Bone, they didn’t play electric guitars. ... Everybody after T-Bone started playing like T-Bone. I’m talking about B.B. King, Albert King, Eric Clapton. Right from T-Bone, everything changes. What we think of as typical standard blues, T-Bone is the guy who did that.
What inspired you to make the transition from the blues to writing more pop-oriented material in the ’70s?
I had made six albums and my seventh album was “The Joker.” That one had a bunch of R&B covers on it, plus “The Joker” and some other things I’d written. ... I think “The Joker” was the song that really changed things for me. It became a huge hit single. FM radio was just beginning to take over from AM radio, and I wanted to make albums that were stories that took you someplace, not just collections of songs. I had been playing the blues all my life and I just sort of grew into the next stage.
Were you surprised that your critical comments about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame got so much attention earlier this year?
Yeah. I wasn’t really looking for any attention. The whole thing was kind of a surprise, just the way it all went down. It was like I woke up one morning and was in a reality television show. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is going to be alright. It just needs new leadership and it needs to set a goal. It needs to actually do something that’s meaningful and worthwhile. They have a great museum and they have sincere people working hard at the museum. But the people doing the nominating are old and tired. We need a bigger gene pool, with more women and more diversification.
What else are you working on these days?
We’re [Steve Miller Band] putting a new production together for next year. We’re getting close to our 50th anniversary of touring and recording. It’s hard to believe, but that’s what it is. We’ve made 20 albums or something like that. We’re going back through all the material, looking for different tunes — playing some things from the ’60s that we haven’t played in a long time, working on some acoustic versions. ... The 50th anniversary is a time to take stock of everything, look at everything you’ve done and decide what you want to do with the time you hope you have left.