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Albums Of The Week: Steve Miller | J50: The Evolution Of The Joker

The space cowboy isn't kidding around — he unmasks his biggest hit & first platinum album with this deep dive into his archive of unreleased demos, live tapes and more.


THE EDITED PRESS RELEASE:Steve Miller is honoring the 50th anniversary of his chart-topping, platinum-selling eighth studio album The Joker with a box set chronicling the artistic journey that led to its creation. J50: The Evolution of The Joker showcases Miller’s process as he expands and reimagines his craft, ultimately finding a strikingly original new sound that brought him to a wider audience than ever before and set the stage for even greater successes to come.

Curated by Miller himself, J50 dives deep into the creative process of writing and assembling The Joker and amplifies its enduring magic by chronologically placing the original album tracks alongside 27 previously unreleased recordings from Miller’s personal archive — including songwriting tapes made by Miller on his TEAC four-track in hotel rooms on the road and at live performances, plus studio outtakes and rehearsals — as well as six audio commentary tracks from Miller and exclusive liner notes from both Miller and legendary journalist Anthony DeCurtis.

The Joker was originally released worldwide in October 1973, and quickly became a hit in the United States, crossing over from FM underground radio to the AM pop radio of the day. Shortly thereafter, the song went to No. 1, first in the States and the rest of the world followed. This mainstream breakthrough success was certainly fueled by dramatic shifts in both the lineup and Miller’s own approach to songcraft. J50: The Evolution of The Joker brings together the original album alongside unreleased recordings, thereby illustrating Miller’s creative process.

Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot.

The collection kicks off with beautiful acoustic live renditions of Children of the Future, Brave New World and Space Cowboy, recorded while on the road in 1972. Miller had long nurtured his still-growing audience with constant touring, routinely visiting hundreds of cities each year. Backed by Dickie Thompson on keyboards, Gerald Johnson on bass, and John King on drums, the lineup marked The Steve Miller Band’s first iteration as a quartet. Fueled in part by Thompson’s Hammond B3 organ and electric Hohner clavinet, the band developed a distinctive new sound, blending Miller’s signature psychedelic blues with a focused songcraft that expertly merged his many inspirations and influences into something original and all his own.

Their lengthy sets were highlighted by covers of R&B gems like Young Jessie’s Mary Lou and The CloversYour Cash Ain’t Nothin’ But Trash, both of which would be featured on The Joker. Energized by his band’s nightly workouts, Miller spent his late-night hours recording in hotel rooms across the nation, working on new songs largely on 12-string guitar. In July 1973, the band hit Capitol Record’s Studio B in Los Angeles and quickly got to work, recording, mixing, and mastering the album in just 17 days with Miller producing.

“The most important rule that every kid out there who wants to make a record should remember is: When you go into the studio, be ready to do the whole performance the first time you do it, because that’s going to be the best time you do it,” Miller says. “The whole thing is to capture the first performance. That’s a lot of what The Joker’s about. It was all first takes, and first takes are always better than perfect takes.

“To make a hit record, I thought it was best to have five hooks,” he continues. “Not one, not two, not three, not four, but five, if you really wanted to deliver a hit. Like if you take The Joker: ‘Some people call me the Space Cowboy.’ What the hell was that? Then it continues and it gets your attention again: The slide guitar, the chorus, the harmony, the wolf whistle. It all adds up. All of these things are just elements of writing. You learn those elements, and you’re always playing with them.”

Miller’s new songs, from the album-opening Sugar Babe and longtime live favorite Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma, to the easygoing blues shuffle, The Lovin’ Cup (extended by a driving, live acoustic version of Robert Johnson’s Come On In My Kitchen, with foot-stomping percussive accompaniment) and the devastating, slow-burn Evil, the latter recorded on stage at Boston’s Aquarius Theater. Something To Believe In closes The Joker on a warm, reassuring romantic pop lullaby. “Like clear water in a mountain stream,” he sings, “l will come to you in your dreams / Like pictures reflected in a mountain lake / I will be with you when you wake.”

Released as a single in October 1973, The Joker proved, in Miller’s words, “a real, no kidding, non-stop hit,” played on virtually every radio station around the world. The Joker rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 while also reaching the top 20 in many countries around the world. In September 1990, more than a decade later, The Joker made history by returning to the U.S., U.K., and European charts after being featured in a popular TV commercial — the longest-ever gap between transatlantic chart-toppers.

With its title track seemingly everywhere (as well as its indelible masked album cover by famed photographer Norman Seeff), The Joker album was quickly certified platinum — Miller’s first up to that time. Not only was The Joker significant in its own artistic right, but it also positioned Miller for the next, vitally important stage of his career, when he would become one of the biggest hitmakers and most definitive artists of the 70s. Today, Miller’s releases combine for more than 75 million in sales as well as five billion streams. He has multiple No. 1s and five Top 10 Billboard Hot 100 songs which have spent 226 weeks collectively on the chart. Miller also has four Top 10 albums on the Billboard 200, which have collectively spent 528 weeks on that chart.”


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