DALLAS — The blues. Rock ‘n’ roll. Dallas, Texas. That’s Steve Miller’s DNA.
The Dallas-raised Miller, one of the most affable rock dudes, talks by phone about his new CD, an inspired, rocking collection of blues covers called “Bingo!,” which is also the first Steve Miller Band studio album since 1993.
But if we’re going to discuss his musical formation, which would lead us to the genesis of “Bingo!,” we must start with Big D. “Dallas was great,” says Miller. “It was one of the first to have Fender guitar stores. It had the Big D Jamboree. It had the R&B shows at the Sportatorium. It had Lightnin’ Hopkins coming to town. It was full of great jazz. Dallas itself was an amazing center of music and I went and soaked all of that up, plus gospel music.”
The 66-year-old singer, songwriter and guitarist pauses a bit, if only for emphasis, before explaining the reason he is who he is today. This guy couldn’t grow up to be anything but a musician.
“My parents were hipsters,” he laughs. “They loved music and they were out and about. When I was 9 years old, T-Bone Walker was hanging around my house. He taught me how to play guitar. I had a band in the seventh grade. We had a lot of places to play. When I was 14, I was working in bars and nightclubs. We played everywhere and we worked all the time.
“It was 1956 when we started. I started working in Dallas and Texas was the greatest place in the world for music — all the rockabilly cats, Louisiana Jamboree, television shows on Saturday afternoons where guys are playing country music. We were just exposed to everything. It was the richest musical environment I’ve ever seen anywhere at any time because it was so diverse. We had the Tex-Mex music coming. It’s much more diverse than Nashville, New York, California. Texas has the broadest, earthiest music in the world.”
Speaking of that organic blend of blues, rock ‘n’ roll and a hint of pop-music polish, “Bingo!” is a 10-song party. It finds Miller and his musical mates in top form, traveling through vintage and modern blues tunes written by Howlin’ Wolf, Otis Rush, Jimmie Vaughan, Earl King, Jimmy Reed, B.B. King and others. Longtime Steve Miller Band harmonica player Norton Buffalo plays on “Bingo!” It would be his last recording; Buffalo died of cancer in October 2009.
Recorded at filmmaker George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch studios in California, “Bingo!” sizzles from the get-go with plenty of Miller’s stellar, stinging guitar work and oodles of R&B grooves on cuts such as “Hey Yeah,” “Rock Me Baby” and “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” Yet perhaps what’s coolest about the disc is how Miller was able to take these songs that spoke to his creative core and interpret them with the right blend of grit and sheen to satisfy both purists and populists.
“I see this as a pop-rock-blues record,” he says. “We’re trying to make hits here. This isn’t just Steve sings his favorite blues songs. Anytime you make a record you want to reach people. I hope my audience will really like it. Make it part of their lives. I never put out a record and say, ‘This is just a little thing that I needed to do.’ I am seriously trying to entertain my audience. I’d like every one of them to be hits.”
Miller has had more than his share of hits. His catalog endures, brimming with sonic signposts such as “The Joker,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Jet Airliner,” “Space Cowboy,” “Rock’n Me,” “Take the Money and Run” and “Jungle Love.” He’s sold about 26 million albums in the United States. His professional recording career began in 1968 with “Children of the Future.”
And yet there’s one song that’s perhaps Miller’s only polarizing smash, 1982’s “Abracadabra.” It was a No. 1 stateside staple and was also huge around the globe. But because it was part of the synthesized ‘80s, and the song boldly partook of that electronic magic, it turned off the hipsters. Miller, however, embraced the tune then and now. In fact, he quickly launches into the story about its serendipitous creation.
“‘Abracadabra’ started off as a great piece of music with really atrocious lyrics,” he explains. “One day I was out skiing in Sun Valley and, lo and behold, who did I see on the mountain but Diana Ross. I skied down off the mountain to go have lunch. I had played with Diana Ross and the Supremes on Hullabaloo in the ‘60s, and I started thinking about the Supremes and I wrote the lyrics to ‘Abracadabra’ in 15 minutes.”
“Abracadabra,” like all of Steve Miller’s standards, has endured. It is a regular part of his concert performances. It was included in 2003’s 22-track compilation, “Young Hearts: Complete Greatest Hits.” It is forever a part of his repertoire, there for old and new fans to relish.
Now ‘Abracadabra’ is a classic. It’s one of my favorite songs to play musically. ... My fan base now is real different. I started playing again in the ‘90s and created this whole new audience. I played for more people from 1990 to now than I did from 1960 to 1980. In the ‘90s my audience was really young, ages 18-24,” he says. “‘Abracadabra’ is the biggest song I’ve ever had. The way we play it now is a lot heavier and a lot better, I think. I’ve done the song with a 60-man guitar orchestra. I’ve done the song with Kenny Chesney’s band. I’ve done the song with a classical violinist.”
Miller’s music doesn’t die. It reincarnates as the years go by, so that it can be re-appreciated and re-evaluated.