Steve Miller has led many musical lives. First he was the guitar-wielding Space Cowboy who blew minds with the blues in the psychedelic San Fransisco of the late ’60s. Then he morphed into the laid-back Joker, crackin’ wise amid the slightly more self-serious singer/songwriters of the early ’70s. He graduated to full scale arena rocker in the middle of the decade with amped-up hits like “Rock ‘N Me” and “Take the Money and Run,” and by the ’80s songs like “Abracadabra” made him a video star on a nascent MTV. Now the icon is looking back on his remarkable musical journey with Ultimate Hits, a new collection due out Sept. 15. Available as both a single CD and a expanded double disc version, Miller supervised curation process himself—mixing classic tracks, studio rarities and live performances.
Ultimate Hits throws open the vaults and takes it right back to the very beginning, kicking off with a recording of a 5-year-old Miller having a conversation with his family friend and godfather—electric guitar pioneer Les Paul. “When I was 4 and ½ he showed me my first chords,” he tells PEOPLE. “I got to see him play in a nightclub because my dad was recording his show every night. I saw him perform a lot and right then and there I saw how much fun you could have playing guitar. He made it look like anyone could do it. I was 4 and ½ and I went, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
As the upcoming treasury nears release, Miller shared his memories with PEOPLE. Read on for his commentary on 10 of his most beloved songs.
“Living in the U.S.A.” (1968)
I had come out of a radical environment at the University of Wisconsin in the early ‘60s. I had been a Freedom Rider in the Civil Rights campaign and then I got involved in the Vietnam War demonstrations and debates. That was all going on, and then I ended up out in California where the psychedelic revolution was taking place. So when you combine those things, it was very powerful [creatively].
“Living in the U.S.A.” was put together with the idea of playing at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 in Chicago. That was the one where the cops beat everybody up—Mayor [Richard] Daley brought out the Chicago police. So it was a political tune. It came out, and it was kind of a hit. Then it went away, and then about five or six years later it sold 100,000 copies in a week in Philadelphia for no reason whatsoever.
“Space Cowboy” (1969)
“Space Cowboy” is a funny song because I was staying at the Chateau Marmont when I was working on it and I was stuck for lyrics. Ben Sidran was in the studio and he and I put the words together in about 15 minutes. I didn’t think very much of it! When I heard the final mix I was going to take it off the album—I didn’t think I wanted to release that version. And here I am 50 years later playing ‘Space Cowboy!’
“The Joker” (1973)
I was writing “The Joker” and I had three pieces of music. I was working on about 21 songs at the same time—the lyrics to “Take the Money and Run,” the lyrics to “Rock ‘n Me” and the lyrics to “The Joker” could all be interchanged with the music for the different tracks. I would try it one way, I would try it another way, and then I would combine the two of them. So I had lots of different versions. There’s a version on Ultimate Hits that’s like a mashup between “Take the Money and Run” and “The Joker.”
We put “The Joker” out and I was very surprised when it became a hit. I left town to go do a 60-city tour and I thought my career was over and that “The Joker” was my last single. Then I got back about 90 days later and it was the Number One song in the country and it was playing on four radio stations at the same time when I got back to San Francisco!
There are so many elements that come into play to create a hit record, especially back then. “The Joker” went “viral” on its own. A few DJs played it and they got a huge response to it and then it just spread around the country like that.
“Take the Money and Run” (1976)
I usually will play my guitar or my piano and I’ll get an idea that I like or I’ll find something that’s interesting. Once I find that I’ll find a melody for it. I’ll hum or sing along to it, and then the last thing I do is write the words.
“Take the Money and Run” came from a recording session where I was really high energy. We had a lot of great tracks were cut that day. We cut three different rhythm tracks, I kept changing the choruses and working on it.
“Rock ‘n Me” (1976)
I was doing a gig with Pink Floyd in England at Knebworth. I knew I had to come up with a really great song because I would be playing in front of Pink Floyd, you know! I thought there was going to be 60,000 people there, and when I got there it as 120,000 people. That was the first time I played “Rock ‘N’ Me” and it rocked everybody out.
We went from playing the Fillmore Auditorium [in San Francisco] to playing football stadiums, so we had to figure out how to design a PA. It was getting the stage to sound good so you could perform well in the environment you were in. And it wasn’t a very good stage, either—just scaffolding and a plywood floor in the end zone of a football stadium. You start from there.
Once the technical part got solved and the PA sounded good and the lights looked good and we had video screens so people could see us and stuff, I felt the bigger the crowd was, the more I liked it and the more fun it was. We’d go out and play 90,000 people in a football stadium singing every song we played. Peter Frampton and I did that, and Fleetwood Mac and I, and the Eagles. We did a lot of football stadiums and I really enjoyed it.
“Fly Like an Eagle” (1976)
That was a long time in the making. There was an idea for a riff that I had when I was in London in 1969. I was recording at the same studio the Beatles were at and got invited to a couple sessions. The next thing I knew, Paul [McCartney] and I were jamming in the studio recording [a song called] “My Dark Hour” that had a lick that I was working on. Then four years later it grew into “Fly Like an Eagle,” which was a tune that developed over a three-year period at all our gigs.
[The “Space Intro”] was basically putting sound effects with music, creating a horizon in a record. It puts you in a place. I was interested in electronic music and I liked [avant-garde composer Karlheinz] Stockhausen. Our very first album, Children of the Future, had a lot of that on it, and Fly Like an Eagle was the point where I got all the studio technique working and we were able to put everything together. It was done just right when synthesizers showed up. It was all right on the cutting edges of everything that was going on.
When we started out in the studio, there was a union that had a law that musicians could not touch the recording console or the microphones or the equipment. So we went to the studio and we couldn’t touch anything. And there was a union guy sitting in a chair—and it was like 2 o’clock in the morning—just to make sure we didn’t touch the console and were following the rules. That’s how that part started! I was arguing with everybody, trying to fight with my ideas. But I learned a lot. I wanted to record a different way; I wanted to get a much brighter, more present sound. Eventually we got to where we could touch the console and then we started working on getting different sounds.
“Jungle Love” (1977)
Our bass player in the band at the time had a friend named Greg Douglass, who’s a great guitar player. They brought that tune to me on the last day of the mixing and mastering session for Book of Dreams. At the last minute, I was about to walk out when Lonnie [Turner] shows up with a three-inch plastic reel. And it’s this great tune! I didn’t know Greg, so I said, ‘Can you call him and invite him over?’ So they came over and 45 minutes later we had cut “Jungle Love.” Then Greg joined the band!
That’s a tune I wrote with a guy called Chris McCarty. The thing I love about that song is the sort of southwestern harmony that it has. That was a song we worked on for a long time to make it sound the way that it did in the studio. We had a thing called the Condor Innovator, which made your guitar sound different. It was one of the first guitar computers. So “Swingtown” was a studio production number.
Songs come lots of different ways. Sometimes they’re very fast and sometimes they’re really slow. “Abracadabra” was [the latter]. I recorded it several times and it originally had a completely different set of lyrics. I had it on an album and at the very last minute I said, “You know, I love this music but I hate these lyrics. I’m taking it off. This music’s too good. I’m not going to throw that song away.” So I pulled it off the record. Then three years later I wrote the lyrics in 15 minutes. I was out skiing and I saw Diana Ross and the Supremes. And after I came in from skiing I thought,
“Man, how would the Supremes do this song?” So I wrote “Abracadabra.”
“I Wanna Make the World Turn Around” (1986)
I went to see Kenny G play in Seattle when we both lived there. I saw him open for the Pointer Sisters and he was amazing. I was in the studio at the time so I called him up and said, “Kenny, can you come over and do a part on my song?” This was before Kenny made it. He came over early; he warmed up, and was so pro. He played that solo, and he was done as soon as he did it. The thing that was great about it was he played it with a lot of heart. You wanted to keep him there all day long and go, “Hey Kenny, listen to this song! What can you do on this one?” About eight or nine months later, this guy with really long curly hair had a whole fancy band. I didn’t recognize him at first, but it was Kenny! We were at a rehearsal space to gear up to go tour. In that eight or nine months he had taken the whole world by storm. He was just a phenomenal instrumentalist.