Miller is the son of an amateur jazz impresario who hosted informal, yet star-studded jam and recording sessions in his living room. At age five, Miller received his first 6-string tutelage from none other than the great Les Paul. Not surprisingly, Miller’s career echoed Paul’s in several ways: Both favored taste over flash, eschewed heavy artistic statements in favor of immaculately produced pop, employed top sidemen, and were fascinated by the sonic capabilities of the recording studio.
Two CDs compiled by Miller himself—1991’s The Best of 1968-1973, and 2003’s Young Hearts: Complete Greatest Hits—only overlap two tracks, and together they offer an excellent career retrospective. But to truly grasp the scope of Miller’s pop guitar artistry, his back catalog is also worth checking into.
Brave New World, 1969
Your Saving Grace, 1969
Number 5, 1970
Miller’s third, fourth, and fifth albums—all released within a span of 17 months—document his rapid transformation from psychedelic aspirant to pop-edged rocker. They are chock-full of gritty R&B guitar workouts (“My Dark Hour”), folk-y sing-a-longs (“Going To the Country”), gospel-rock anthems (“Your Saving Grace”) and space-blues jams (“Jackson Kent Blues”).
Fly Like an Eagle, 1976
Book of Dreams, 1977
Recorded at the same time—mostly in his home studio—and released a year apart, these two records transformed Miller from a mid-level success to a radio-ruling, stadium-filling giant. “Jet Airliner,” “Take the Money and Run,” and “Rockin’ Me” are textbook examples of the “Killer-Miller” formula: no-frills blues riffs, sweet Strat tones, and choruses so ubiquitously catchy that Beethoven was probably humming them in his grave. Alert listeners will dig how the massively popular “Fly Like an Eagle” reworks Miller’s “My Dark Hour” riff, and sets it adrift in a sea of analog synth madness. Cheesy, but cool!
Children of the Future, 1968
Miller’s first two releases (with Boz Scaggs in tow as co-lead guitarist) bookend the summer of ’68, and are a surprisingly heady dose of progressive acid rock. “In My First Mind” parallels the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” and King Crimson’s “The Court of the Crimson King,” while the ambient “Song for Our Ancestors” was almost certainly an influence on Pink Floyd’s “Echoes.”
The Joker, 1972
Ignore the fact you’ve heard the title track at least ten gazillion times, because the layered guitar harmonies on “Sugar Babe” and “Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma Ma” are pure ’70s riff-rock heaven, and “Evil” is Miller’s evocative Tin Pan Alley-ish take on a minor blues.
Born 2B Blue, 1988
A veteran rocker tracking an album of standards as a nod to “The Great American Songbook” has become a cliché, but it was still pretty hip when Miller did it back in ’88. Factor in Miller’s smooth-as-silk obbligato guitar lines—and his genuine love of the genre via his early swing education—and you've got an album of disarmingly charming smooth jazz.
Wide River, 1993
This is the closest Miller has come in recent years to capturing the good-time vibe of his mid-’70s apex. Sadly, it was released in an era when teen angst was all the rage. Too bad, as “Cry Cry Cry” boasts some of Miller’s most inspired lead playing ever.
The King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents: The Steve Miller Band Live 1973-76, 2002
Of all the musicians from the ’60s San Francisco scene, Miller ranks among the least concerned with playing improvisational music. No surprise, then, that this live collection shows a consummate professional engaging his audience with a tightly arranged show that lets the songs speak for themselves.
Rock Love, 1971
After the victory march of his first five records, Miller replaced his back-up band with a bunch of hired guns, and released this set of tepid blues rock. His inspiration was clearly sagging, and it’s no surprise some fans jokingly refer to this album as “Rock Bottom.”
Circle of Love, 1981
Innocuous, lightweight pop fare—until you reach “Macho City.” The 16-minute, part-blues, part-rap, part-disco quasi-political statement aspires to be like Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus,” but ends up sounding like the bastard child of Devo’s “Jocko Homo.”