October 1973: Steve Miller Band Releases "The Joker"

Bassist Gerald Johnson (left) and American guitarist and singer-songwriter Steve Miller performing with the Steve Miller Band at the Rainbow Theatre, London, 26th February 1972. (Photo by Michael Putland/Getty Images)
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(Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Steve Miller Band's classic 1973 single, "The Joker," was born at a party.

"I got this funny, lazy, sexy little tune, but it didn't come together until a party in Novato, north of San Francisco," he told Mojo in November 2012. "I sat on the hood of a car under the stars with an acoustic guitar making up lyrics and 'I'm a joker, I'm a smoker, 'I'm a midnight toker' came out. My chorus! The 'some people call me the space cowboy' and 'the gangster of love' referred to earlier songs of mine, and so did 'Maurice' and 'the propitious of love.' You don't have to use words. It was just a goof."

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Initially, the song was just another log on the fire when the Steve Miller Band hit the recording studio.

"When I took it to the band, there wasn’t much of a reaction. At the time we were cutting rhythm tracks with John King on drums and Gerald Johnson on bass and this was just one song out of nine we were recording that day," he recalled in a 2014 interview. "It was very simple so no one thought it was a hit song - we got the basic track down in one take so the song you hear is actually the demo.

The "goof" would serve as the title track of the group's eighth studio effort, The Joker. Released on October 19, 1973, the song was issued as a single in the same month.

"At the time we didn't know The Joker was a hit. I really didn't have a clue. The Joker was to be the last of a seven-LP deal and Capitol hadn't bothered to renew my contract so I thought it was going to be my last," he said. "I remember handing in the record and playing it for the promo department. One kid said, ‘Hey, that Joker song sounds like a hit!’ But I told him to forget about singles and see if they could actually get some albums ready for sale in the towns I was performing in. I handed them a list of sixty cities I was starting to play that night thinking I was finished."

Instead, Capitol sent a copy of the tune to every underground FM radio station that could find.

"A couple of months later we had a number one hit on AM radio on our hands," Miller marveled in retrospect. "It ended up being played twice an hour, 24 hours a day for over a year on every major station in America."

Hyperbole or not, "The Joker" laughed all the way to #1 on the Hot 100 for the week of January 12, 1974.

"It was really great for me because The Joker was the first album I’d ever produced by myself. Even better, it was my first number one single, my first number one album and my first platinum album. I felt very encouraged," Miller explained. "After 11 years of non-stop touring and recording I took the rest of the year off to write new songs and start recording my next record, Fly Like an Eagle."

The song's resonance sent it to the pinnacle of the UK Singles Chart in 1990, thanks to the tune being used in a Levi's TV commercial.

"At the time MTV ruled the airwaves, so I decided to do the commercial, thinking it would give us some kind of presence in the marketplace - and it did. We re-released 'The Joker,' and it went to number one again all across Europe. The Steve Miller Band does 60 concerts a year and audiences always react well to the song when we perform it live. It’s a joyous moment of harmony, humor and good feeling. Everybody in the audience is whooping and hollering, smooching and laughing - and that’s what it’s all about. See ya in a minute!"

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