The Joker

Some people call him the space cowboy, some call him the gangster of love – whatever you know Steve Miller as, you’ll surely be familiar with his all-conquering song The Joker. He tells us how he wrote it...

Paul Nichols headshot
  • By Paul Nichols
  • 26 Dec 2014
  • min read
Some people call him the space cowboy, some call him the gangster of love – whatever you know Steve Miller as, you’ll surely be familiar with his all-conquering song The Joker, which was originally released in 1974.

The number one hit earned him worldwide fame and success that year, and set him up for a lifetime of songwriting. In 1990 the track officially entered the canon of cool when Levi’s used it for an iconic jeans advert. Here, the songwriter extraordinaire marks the song’s 40th anniversary and looks back to its creation one hot and dusty night in 1973…

I remember it was late at night and I was at an open air party, sitting on the hood of a Pontiac GTO convertible with my back against the windshield. I had a Martin D-28 guitar in my hands and I was playing around with a bassline. The lyric ‘Some people call me the space cowboy’ just popped into my head and from there it only took me about an hour to finally come up with the chorus.

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. 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 whole thing was recorded at Capitol Records, Hollywood, in Studio B. I played the Martin D-28 six string acoustic guitar with Gerald on a Fender bass and John on drums. Then I sang the lead vocal and added the second part harmony. The final part was done by playing a slide guitar solo on a Fender Strat through a Mannys overdrive pedal and a Leslie speaker set on the chorus effect. The whole song took about 30 minutes to do!

At the time we didn't know The Joker was a hit. I really didn't have a clue. [Parent album] 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. 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.

Capitol sent a copy to all the underground FM radio stations and within three months the song had gone viral. A couple of months later we had a number one hit on AM radio on our hands. It ended up being played twice an hour, 24 hours a day for over a year on every major station in America.

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. 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.

But there was one line in The Joker that caused me grief. Ahmet Ertegun [respected media mogul and founder of Atlantic Records] somehow stopped the payment of all my royalties for the song. I called to ask why and he told me that Eddie Curtis [who had originally written the song Lovey Dovey] was threatening him over the Lovey Dovey reference I’d used within the song.

I explained to Ahmet it was a tribute to The Coasters [who recorded a version of Lovey Dovey in 1964] and not part of the lyrics of the song. Considering all the writing credits he’d had with his own artists, I told him he was being duplicitous. He agreed and said he was sorry. He also said he was going to sue me anyway, so I had to give him and Eddie Curtis a percentage of my song to get the block on my royalties removed.

It’s funny how these things come round again. In 1990 The Joker became part of a Levi's TV advertising campaign that used classic songs and very cool photography. 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, humour 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!

The Joker

Written by: Steve Miller, Eddie Curtis, Ahmet Ertegun

Published in the UK by: Universal Music Publishing