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The Gibson Interview: Steve Miller (Part 1)

The Joker Discusses Growing up with Les Paul and his Early Path into the Blues

Michael Wright
|
03.05.2010

Some people call him the Space Cowboy. Some call him the Gangster of Love. But what is universally recognized is that Steve Miller is one of the great blues-rock guitarists and songwriters of the Rock Era. He’s also The Joker, the ultimate hilarious conversationalist, with more tales than the Brothers Grimm. Fortunately for us, he’s also a world-class guitar collector. And so, Gibson.com was able to catch up with Steve as he made a pilgrimage to the Gibson Custom Factory to chat with Gibson’s master luthiers, try out loads of guitars and even consult the experts on a mystery axe from his past (a gorgeous Les Paul Special, given to him in the late ’60s by Leslie West and hand-painted by surfboard artist Bob Cantrell).

Miller’s tale is one that begins at a young age with a giant in the guitar world and continues to ping and pong through a myriad of the greatest legends of 20th Century music. But why let me tell you, when you can hear the story directly from the Pompatus of Love…

You spent your early years in Milwaukee, where you very famously learned to play guitar from Les Paul.

Well, by my “early years,” you’re talking about one to five. But I did start really early in Milwaukee. I had an uncle who played in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. He was a hot jazz violinist. And I had another uncle who was a guitar player. He came to the house, and he had a little Gibson archtop. A little oval-holed, really sweet little guitar. And that was his guitar. He brought it on his visit, and that was the first guitar I ever had my hands on. He was at the house for about four or five days and, because I was interested in the guitar, my older brother wanted to take it away from me. And I wouldn’t let him. My uncle left and I was just terrified that he wasn’t going to leave the guitar. He left really early in the morning. He was a doctor, and he took off and I went running downstairs. And there was the guitar case behind the couch. This velvet case and this sweet, little honey-colored guitar — and he had left it for me. So I got my first guitar.

Steve Miller at the Gibson Custom Factory with his late-’60s Les Paul Special.
And then Les Paul came to town about six months later. I was already trying to make up songs and doing a little show. We lived in a row house, ten houses all hooked together in Milwaukee. I was up on the third floor, and I was pretending I was doing a show and making up songs. And my dad snuck in and made a wire recording of me while I was doing my show. Les was then coming over to the house. He and Mary Ford were in Milwaukee putting their act together and became really good friends with my dad, who had a recorder. My father played this recording for Les Paul, and I was so embarrassed and so angry, you know, because he had snuck in and recorded me. I didn’t know he was recording me while I was kind of showing off.

And I learned a lot from Les. He paid me a quarter to listen to it. So I got paid. He gave me a bunch of advice. My dad recorded all of that advice. And that’s on my box set, where I’m like five years old, going, “I hate my the way my voice sounds on tape. I’m so embarrassed!” And he says, “Oh, you shouldn’t be embarrassed. You’re going to go places, Steve.” He gave me this pep talk, and I believed him! (laughs) And it’s all recorded. So that’s how I started.

We moved to Texas when I was in the second grade, and I was six years old. That was really interesting, because I had learned a lot about guitar from Les, and I had seen Tal Farlow play a lot when I was little. Real little. — I’ll tell you a story about Les Paul, it’s really funny:

We were in this club. And I’m five years old. And wherever Les played, it was always just like when he was at the Iridium. It was always sold out. It was the same show you saw in New York two years ago. You felt like you were in his living room. He was the sweetest guy. All the best musicians from 150 miles around always came to his gigs. There was always a jam session. So I thought that’s the way you always did it. I thought you shared your stage. You had a great time with your audience. I saw Les Paul when he was a young man, right in the middle of the most blazing solo you’ve ever heard in your life – just a phenomenal guitarist – and Tal Farlow walked into the club right in the middle of the solo. And everybody knew it was Tal Farlow, who was a great, great guitarist. Les was right in the middle of it and he looked up and he saw Tal and — without missing a beat — pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, put it over his left hand and continued to play so Tal couldn’t steal his licks! (laughs) I saw that, man, and I just went, “I want to be in show business!” So, that was the early years.

And because we had a tape recorder in our house, I immediately — at the age of five —absorbed all this stuff, like “Ooh, Mary Ford sings multiple parts. You can speed a tape recorder up and record it, and then play it back at normal speed and it’ll sound like a bass. And you can slow it down and speed it up and it’ll sound twice as fast.” I learned all that stuff really, I think, even before Les had built his multi-track machine. And I didn’t know that Les was inventing the solid-body electric guitar or any of that stuff. This is, like, 1949 and 1950. Then they went to New York and did their television show. And they’d send packets of postcards, requesting their tunes, already stamped and addressed to the radio stations. And I went, “Hmm, you make records, you’ve got to promote them. You do multi-track. You speed it up, you slow it down. It’s an electric guitar. Yeah. Okay. I got it all!” So I just absorbed that. I didn’t know anything about the fact that Les was inventing all this stuff at the time.

We saw him on television all the time and he was in touch with our family all the time. Then we moved to Texas. And Texas was just more of the same, except there was more music going on in Texas. There was country music. The Big D Jamboree was going on in Dallas. We used to go to the Sportatorium and see it. There were R&B acts coming. Blues acts. Bobby “Blue” Bland, Lightning Hopkins — all these people — Freddie King. That was all when I was in junior high school and high school.

I started my first band when I was 12. And people go, “Yeah, right. That’s real cute.” But no, it was a real band. There weren’t any rock and roll bands then. I had mimeographed letters and sent them out to all the sororities and fraternities and country clubs and churches and schools and synagogues — any place where they had music. I said, “I’ve got a rock and roll band. And I’m booking it. And I’m only going to accept bookings for the next three weeks. After that, I’m not accepting any more bookings this semester.” And I had that band booked for a half a year in three weeks. And I had a really good drummer, who had been taking lessons since he was five years old. And we had a really good band. And we started work. I taught my older brother how to play bass, so he could drive us to the gigs. And that band lasted from 1956-1961.

And then, I went to college and did the same thing when I went up to the University of Wisconsin. They didn’t have any bands. They were still dance bands. So we started a rock and roll band there. Boz Scaggs was in my junior high school band. When he came up to college, I taught him how to play guitar, which he picked up in, like, six minutes. We started playing in college and then, after four years of college, my folks said, “Well, Steve, what are you going to do?” And I said, “Well, I want to go to Chicago and play blues.” My mother said that was a great idea and that I should go see what I could do, because I was really young and I wasn’t married and I didn’t have any responsibilities yet. And of course, my father wanted to hit me with a two-by-four, because he’d just paid for a lot of college education.

But I went to Chicago.

Click here for Part 2 of The Gibson Interview, where Steve talks about the cutthroat world of Chicago blues and his legendary arrival in San Francisco.

Photo Credit: Sandy Campbell

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