Long before Steve Miller's days as one of the 1970s most consistent hit-makers — and even before his mid-1960s stint in Chicago as a blues guitarist virtuoso playing alongside Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf — he was a skinny kid from Texas obsessed with the blues. "Before radio became homogenized, I was always listening to Junior Parker and Bobby 'Blue' Bland," he says. "I had a junior high band and if you couldn't play those songs you couldn't get a gig." Forty-five years later, as he set out to assemble the track listing for his new album of blues covers BINGO! , he found he had a lot of familiar material to draw from. "Every one of these songs was a monster hit in the south in those days of race records and segregated music," he says. "This album is like the greatest hits list that comes out of that period."
Before he started recording BINGO! two years ago, Miller had serious doubts about whether or not he'd ever release a new LP. His last disc, 1993's Wide River, was a flop, and he had little desire to repeat the experience. "I was having a great time touring and playing music," he says. "Why screw it up by having a record company show up?" Two years ago, however, he did a three-night stand at the Fillmore in San Francisco where he jammed with Bonnie Raitt, Joe Satriani and Robben Ford. Instead of sticking to his old hits, Miller and his friends played blues covers. Andy Johns, the legendary record producer who worked on Exile on Main Street and Led Zeppelin IV, showed up and was blown away. "He kept pestering me," Miller says. "He said, 'Oh man, before I die, I want to do a blues record with you.' I said, 'I'm not doing a blues record. That's the kiss of death.' "
Johns convinced him to try it out, and after just 11 days they had cut 42 songs. Many of the tracks date back to Miller's childhood. "I used to play Jessie Hill's 'Ooh Poo Pah Doo,' Jimmy Reed's 'You Got Me Dizzy' and 'Ain't That Lovin' You Baby' in junior high," he says. "I learned the Chicago stuff — like Elmore James' 'Look On Yonder Wall' — in Chicago. I also wanted to do three Jimmy Vaughan songs because I just love his playing so much." Miller says when he took the finished LP to Warner Bros., "The young guys there said, 'This is great. Did Steve write all of this? It's fantastic!' I went, 'Yes, I did. I wrote every one of them.' "
Miller is hitting the road this summer, where he plans to play many songs from BINGO!. "We're completely turning the set around," he says. "They'll be a large acoustic section in the middle and we're going to be doing a bunch of our greatest hits acoustically. There's about 14 songs my audience really wants to hear, like 'Fly Like an Eagle' and 'Take the Money and Run.' That gives us nine songs where we can anything we want."
He's been slowly writing his own material, but he doubts any of it will ever be released. "People aren't very interested in hearing me write original tunes," Miller says. "I'm sure if I worked really hard and came up with 15 songs, maybe… but they still won't be as good as 'Space Cowboy.' What I'm doing right now with BINGO! is exactly what I want to be doing at this point in my life."