Steve Miller is honoring the 50th anniversary of his chart-topping, platinum eighth studio album, The Joker, with a new 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 and set the stage for the successes to come.
Curated by Miller himself, J50 dives deep into the creative process of writing and assembling The Joker and highlights 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 4-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. J50: The Evolution of The Joker will be released — on CD, vinyl and via streaming services — Sept. 15. The vinyl version includes a reproduction of a vintage The Joker iron-on and a limited-edition lithograph.
J50: The Evolution of The Joker is highlighted by “The Joker Suite,” an extended piece showcasing the musical path to the album’s worldwide No. 1 hit title track (which sold 5 million copies in the U.S. alone) with the previously unreleased “Lidi” and “Travelin’.”
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 AM pop radio. Shortly thereafter, the song went to No. 1 in the U.S. — and the rest of the world followed. This mainstream breakthrough was 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. 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 B3 organ and electric Hohner clavinet, the band developed a distinctive new sound, blending Miller’s signature psychedelic blues with a focused songcraft that merged his inspirations and influences into something wholly original.
The band’s lengthy sets were highlighted by covers of R&B gems like Young Jessie’s “Mary Lou” and The Clovers’ “Your 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 on a TEAC 4-track tape machine 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 every kid out there who wants to make a record should remember,” Miller says, “is that 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. The whole thing is to capture that 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,” Miller continues. “Not one, not two, not three, not four, but five if you really wanted to deliver a hit. Like, think about ‘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 include 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.” “Something To Believe In” closes The Joker on a warm, reassuring romantic pop lullaby. “Like clear water in a mountain stream,” Miller 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 Billboard’s “Hot 100” while also reaching the top 20 in many countries. In September 1990, more than a decade later, “The Joker” made history by returning to the U.S., UK and European charts after being featured in a popular TV commercial for Levi’s — 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 by the RIAA — Miller’s first up to that point. 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’d 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. 1’s 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.
Known for more than five decades as an endlessly creative live act, the Steve Miller Band will celebrate The Joker during its 35 city U.S headline tour through December.