Steve Miller Thought His Career Was Finished Before ‘Joker,’ but 50 Years Later, ‘Everything Fell into Place

Steve Miller was firmly convinced that his career teetered on the brink of extinction.

The year was 1973, and Miller, then 30 years old, had been a professional musician since his early teens. He had already released six albums and achieved moderate success with tracks such as “Living In The U.S.A.” and “Space Cowboy.” However, his record label insisted on nothing less than chart-topping hits.

“It felt like my last shot,” Miller confided to USA TODAY, reflecting on his breakthrough album, “The Joker,” a cherished gem now celebrating its 50th anniversary with an expansive box-set release called “J50: The Evolution of ‘The Joker.'”

“J50” boasts three albums, a 7-inch disc, and a photo-rich booklet, accompanied by essays penned by Miller and acclaimed rock biographer Anthony DeCurtis. (The physical box set is priced at $179.98, available on Amazon and through Steve Miller and Universal Music Group’s online music stores. A digital version is also accessible on iTunes.)

Miller chuckled as he recounted, “I wish I could claim I knew ‘The Joker’ would become a hit single. But I had no inkling.”

In October 1973, “The Joker” graced store shelves, adorned with an enigmatic cover featuring Miller in a kabuki-style mask, a nod to his shyness when it came to photographs. Concurrently, Miller embarked on a tour with his new band, featuring Gerald Johnson on bass, Dick Thompson on organ, and John King on drums.

Initially, Miller modestly slotted “The Joker” into his opening acoustic set, still uncertain of its potential. However, the spirited album version soon captured the hearts of fans, captivating them with its unforgettable opening lyrics: “Some people call me the space cowboy, yeah/Some call me the gangster of love/Some people call me Maurice/’Cause I speak of the pompatus of love.”

“Before long, it seemed like you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing it,” Miller marveled, still amazed at the abrupt change in his fortunes. “They didn’t call things viral back then, but that’s exactly what happened.”

What propelled ‘The Joker’ to such heights? According to Steve Miller, it contained five hooks. What made “The Joker” resonate with audiences? Miller elucidates in his liner notes: “To make a hit record, I thought it was best to have five hooks. Not one, not two, not three, not four, but five, if you really wanted to deliver a hit. … 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.”

Certainly, the album extends beyond “The Joker.” Miller’s pivotal recording includes other tracks like the spirited opener “Sugar Babe,” the rhythmically entrancing “Shu Ba Da Du Ma Ma Ma Ma,” and a live rendition of “Evil.” However, the true treasure trove within “J50” lies in the eight previously unreleased songs and 27 private tracks, providing fans with an intimate glimpse into an artist’s creative process – from the birth of ideas to their refinement and ultimate preservation. As an example, Miller explains (in one of several narrated voice-overs recorded for “J50”) that a song titled “Lidi” underwent numerous revisions on his four-track tape recorder, eventually contributing the chords to the chorus of “The Joker.”

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