Sunday, July 31, 2016

Steve Miller

Today it's almost impossible to imagine acclaimed musician Steve Miller pouring over the works of Goethe, Dante, or Cervantes, laboring through an essay exam, and recording his answers in a thin, blue essay notebook.

In the early sixties, for several years he had inexplicably pursued studies at UW-Madison in comparative literature, despite musical parents, his first guitar lesson by Les Paul, and forming his first band at 11 years old!

Were it not for a semester abroad at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, we might never have heard the word "pompatus" or the musings of a Space Cowboy.

The lore is that Miller left the university 17 credits short of a comparative literature degree when after returning from his senior year abroad, he had an epiphany.
"When I left to go to college, Boz (Scaggs) came up to the University of Wisconsin at Madison. I taught him how to play rhythm guitar real quick that summer, and we became The Ardells. I was going to get a comparative literature degree, get a masters degree in literature, and teach it. But after one year in Europe, I came back and everything looked different to me. Comparative lit was just no fun at all!" - Steve Miller
Born in Milwaukee in 1943, Miller's father, who was a pathologist and an amateur recording engineer, and his mother, who was a jazz singer, not only hung out with Les Paul, they were attendants at the wedding of his second marriage. In 1950, his family moved to Dallas, Texas, where he formed his first band at the age of 11 years old, the Marksmen, which also included Scaggs.

He arrived in Madison to pursue studies at the university in 1961 and according to Jos Davidson's blog, he formed The Ardells shortly after arriving. The band would include high school friend Scaggs, who followed him from Texas a year later after he graduated from high school, as well as Ben Sidran, both of whom also pursued studies at UW-Madison. "The band played mostly the university party circuit, plus a few gigs in Madison and local clubs and a couple of concerts and the Dane County Fairgrounds," said Jos Davidson.
"Back in the early 60’s it wasn’t unusual to find Boz jamming on the Union patio which overlooked a serene Lake Mendota, or gigging at some fraternity party with several other musicians.... 'It was a great scene back in those pre-Beatle days in Madison', Boz commented. “People were just starting to come out with frizzies and earrings. Steve and I, all of us, could still consider ourselves the “elite” musically, although things were happening a lot faster in San Francisco and New York. We wanted to escape all that mess. Madison was a conducive place for all of us degenerates to thrive and grow in.” - Boz Scaggs' interview with Lynn Kellermann
While in Madison, he first lived in a rooming house on Frances Street in the fall of 1962, but would later pledge the Chi Psi fraternity with Scaggs and live in the Chi Psi Lodge on fraternity row near Langdon Street. The Chi Psi Lodge, referred to as "The Lodge," located on Lake Mendota is one of the oldest fraternity houses on campus.

At his induction speech for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Miller stated that during his time in Madison he was also a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and a freedom rider in the war protest.

At the end of the 1962-63 school year he would leave Madison for Chicago, where he immersed himself in the blues scene and played and jammed with Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters. His Ardell's bandmate Boz Scaggs would leave shortly afterwards, while Leo Sidran would finish a degree at UW-Madison, and drummer Ron Boyer would eventually open a restaurant, The Village Green, in Middleton, WI, which he still owns today.

Eventually, Miller would move to San Francisco, after one more failed attempt to finish college at the University of Texas, and subsequently form The Steve Miller Blues Band, which was later shortened to The Steve Miller Band to facilitate a broader appeal.

After ditching studies in comparative literature and Madison, Miller would go on to record 32 studio albums, achieve worldwide fame, and be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016.

Explore More

How The Marksmen Combo Made Steve Miller
Steve Miller at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Steve Miller Band website
Steve Miller Wikipedia
Steve Miller Band Wikipedia
The Ardells in Madison audio clip
UW-Madison Notable Alumni

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