It all began at the Fillmore Auditorium, where The Steve Miller Band played three sold out shows in March 2008, epic, rollicking three-hour parties featuring as many as a half dozen guests each night; from prominent associates such as Bonnie Raitt and Joe Satriani to lesser known talents like violinist Carlos Reyes or guitarist Danny Caron.
Miller has played the historic Fillmore more than any other performer, 120 occasions, starting in February 1967 when he was on the bill when B.B. King made his first appearance in front of a white audience and began the second stage of his fabled career. But these latest nights were a special celebration because Miller and his band were going the next day to enter the recording studio and begin making his first new album in more than fifteen years.
The orchestral sound stage at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch is about the size of a small airplane hangar, one of the last studios of its magnitude in the country, in the middle of the filmmaker’s secluded 4700-acre compound in the woods of northern Marin County. In less than two weeks, Miller and his crew cut 42 songs, culled from 6,000 titles Miller had stored on his computer.
BINGO! is the album Steve Miller has waited his entire life to make. Reaching back to his apprenticeship as a young man on the Chicago blues scene, Miller and co-producer Andy Johns brought classic rhythm and blues numbers into the 21st century that have been at the foundation of his music throughout his career.
It was also the final album by longtime Steve Miller Band member Norton Buffalo, Miller’s “partner in harmony” for 33 years, who died of cancer in October 2009. And it is the first album by new member Sonny Charles, the rhythm and blues journeyman who spent more than 30 years as lead vocalist of the Checkmates, best known for the 1969 Top 20 hit, “Black Pearl.” For those and many other reasons, BINGO!, the first new album in a new century by the Steve Miller Band, will stand as a landmark in the distinguished career of the man some people call Maurice.
Miller ran across old friend Andy Johns when the veteran British engineer behind some of the most famous records by Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones mixed the soundtrack to the 2008 best-selling DVD, “Steve Miller Band Live From Chicago.” His older brother, Glyn Johns, engineer to the Beatles and other British rock elite, recorded the first four albums by the Steve Miller Band and Miller first met his younger brother when Andy was 17 years old. Working with Johns whetted Miller’s appetite to return in earnest to the recording studio.
Drawing from the songbooks of Jimmy Reed, T-Bone Walker, B. B. King, Jimmie Vaughan and others, Miller and Johns transformed the classic rhythm and blues songs into monumental rock performances. They spiced some of the tracks with the Latin percussion battery of conga player Michael Carabello, founding member of Santana, and timbales ace Adrian Areas, son of Carabello’s partner from the original group, Jose “Chepito” Areas. Guitarist Joe Satriani traded solos on a couple of songs with Miller, whose brilliant guitar playing was a major feature of the sessions.
At one point in the recording, as an experiment, Miller linked up every amplifier he owned and plugged in his guitar. The ensuing jet-roar volume was so great, Miller had to leave the room to play. The sessions were conducted with brisk efficiency. The band clocked 140 takes and were gone by the end of the week, leaving Miller and Johns alone to put finishing touches on the basic tracks. With a trunkful of glistening new songs, they repaired to Miller’s own studio to spend endless hours refining, editing, polishing the results.
These songs, in many cases, are numbers Steve Miller has been playing all his life, since he first started his own band at age 12 growing up in Dallas, Texas. He is playing licks T-Bone Walker taught nine-year-old Steve. He remembers most of the original versions from hearing them on the radio when they were first released. By the age of 15, he was backing up Jimmy Reed at local nightclubs. BINGO! is his musical autobiography.
When Miller finished the University of Wisconsin in 1962, he went directly to Chicago, where he immersed himself in city’s rich blues scene just then reaching critical mass. With bands led by giants such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf still working South Side cocktail lounges every week, a new generation of white blues musicians was emerging. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band was making a name at the Near North Side club, Big John’s, that was attracting students from the nearby University of Chicago.
Miller joined forces with keyboard player Barry Goldberg and the Goldberg-Miller Blues Band started working the same clubs. Signed to Epic Records, the group recorded an album in two days and went to New York to play the band’s single on TV’s “Hullabaloo.” The group took over for the ascendant Young Rascals in a residency at a Manhattan nightclub before the single flopped, the band broke up and Miller returned to Chicago, where he found the scene had dried up and blown away. He spent a couple of weeks playing rhythm guitar in Buddy Guy’s band before leaving for the greener pastures of San Francisco in fall 1966. Guy, one of the town’s leading blues guitarists, gave Miller a piece of parting advice; name your band after yourself.
The Steve Miller Blues Band quickly became a headliner at San Francisco acid-rock ballrooms like the Avalon and the Fillmore and appeared at the historic Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. By the time the group released its debut album the following year, “Children of the Future,” the name had been shortened to the Steve Miller Band.
Miller never left the blues. Every album featured blues material. Every song used the music as a touchstone. His monumental ‘70s hits that followed the No. 1 breakthrough of “The Joker” came to practically define the pop-rock sound of American radio in that era and, subsequently, at the dawning of the ‘90s and the blooming of classic rock radio. But his music never strayed far from the bedrock of the blues.
BINGO! is the mature work of a master craftsman, a lifetime in the making. It is the product of a seamless collaboration with his road-tested band, the sonic brilliance of the gifted Johns and Miller’s own timeless feeling for this music he loves. BINGO! is not just another album for Steve Miller. BINGO! is who he is.