Steve Miller: Born 2B Blue


(Mark Sampson) #1

Every now and then a record emerges from left field that seems to bear little or no relation to what an artist has done before. I can think at once of Linda Ronstadt's delightful trilogy of standards from the Great American Songbook arranged and orchestrated by Nelson Riddle, or Ray Charles' not-so-delightful country & western album that confounded fans and critics alike.


Hardcore fans of Steve Miller might find Born 2B Blue frilly and lightweight in comparison to his classic output. But I don't. Since I took but a passing interest in his career, this album sneaked up behind me and has consistently refreshed the parts that others have failed to reach.


It's now even more refreshing, following a recent guided visit to a cramped Aladdin's record shop in Limoges. The unprepossessing shop front didn't even hint at the lifetime's collection to die for within, with each wall covered by signed copies of LPs by the likes of Little Richard, James Brown, Dr. John, Etta James, Irma Thomas and Van Morrison (who was described by the proprietor, not unsurprisingly, as a 'son of a pig').


There I found a pristine vinyl copy to replace the cassette tape I bought during a claustrophobic work-related exile on Jersey. I've always championed the humble cassette – partly because I spent so many hours in the 80s and 90s making compilations, which still sound mainly good to my ears – but, now that I've invested in a good turntable with a more pricy cartridge, the record is as effervescent as the tape is flat, tired and muffled.


It's not that I didn't like the West Coast version of Steve Miller, who somehow managed to by-pass the conventional hippy trail taken by the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service, but it was more the individual songs rather than whole albums that made their mark. Classy easy-rocking stuff like 'Living in the USA', 'Quicksilver Girl', 'Space Cowboy', for example, and the spacey 'Children Of The Future'. Moreover, the splendid Boz Scaggs served his apprenticeship in Miller's band.


None of it, though, seemed to suggest the kind of repertoire found on Born 2B Blue. 'Miller's gift,' writes the reviewer in my dog-eared Rolling Stone Album Guide, ' is in making the familiar sound fresh'. As soon as you hear the opening track of the album, you realise just how spot-on this assessment is.


'Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah' was always just a clip in Christmas editions of The Wonderful World of Disney, sung by Uncle Remus in the most politically incorrect of all Disney's oeuvre, Song Of The South. Miller – in the company of co-producer and keyboards player, Ben Sidran, the jazz pianist and perennially literate hipster fashioned from the mould of Mose Allison – transforms the song into the perfect vehicle for his laid back vocals. His dulcet voice throughout, somewhere perhaps between Chet Baker's androgynous melancholia and Mel Tormé's 'velvet fog', is as Sidran describes it 'like a fresh breeze [that] can breathe new life into anything it touches'.


The cover shows Miller in dark suit and tie playing the kind of beautiful chunky jazz guitar that Wes Montgomery might have wielded, and this is primarily – despite songs like Lee Dorsey's 'Ya Ya' and Ray Charles' 'Mary Ann' – a jazz vocal album, with a quartet led by his guitar and augmented by jazz musicians of the calibre of Milt Jackson on vibes, Phil Woods on alto sax and, curiously, Bobby Malach on tenor sax. 'Curiously' because Georgie Fame employs Malach's services on his much later album, A Poet In New York, which in some ways Steve Miller's record most closely resembles.


Both men, for example, choose to include a 'vocalese' version of a Horace Silver number, the piano-playing pioneer of soul-jazz. Steve Miller goes for the spritely 'Filthy McNasty', which is sandwiched between the exquisite title track and a lovely version of Billie Holiday's 'God Bless The Child', which I've often otherwise found a little mawkish.


In fact, just one of the reasons I love this album is the way that he juxtaposes without a single jarring note jauntier numbers – like 'Just A Little Bit' and Lionel Hampton's classic 'Red Top' – with those, like 'Willow Weep For Me' and 'When Sunny Gets Blue', which seem to emerge from a dream sequence in a film.


There's a feeling throughout that this album was a long-cherished project. If so, then for once it exceeds rather than falls short of expectations. A quirky choice of diverse songs, effortless musicianship, nifty no-nonsense production and some of the easiest, most intimate male vocals on record: what is there not to love about Born 2B Blue – other than the clumsy shorthand of the title? But it was 1988, and that kind of thing was all the rage then.


(Brian Milne) #2

Johnny played with Zoot Money, Jon Mayall, Alan Price, as a session man for Fleetwood Mac and Blind Faith. Mark Almond was our 'local' band, couple of ex-Grease Band people - Tommy Eyre and Roger Sutton and John Burchell (aka Jon Mark), later the great Danny Richmond, then it grew and grew, but they never made it as they should have. Johnny died six years back, bad bad cancer so that he couldn't play for his last couple of years. Little bloke like me but he could drink the most monstrous boozers under the table then get up and play when they couldn't find their way to...


(Mark Sampson) #3

No Mark Murphys in Mongolia, indeed Bruce. I'm sad to think that your daughter is still 'resting'. She got so far and clearly had oodles of talent. Couldabinna contender, like John Almond. I'd forgotten all about Mark-Almond. Sorry to hear that he's passed over into the great auditorium in the sky, Brian. I'll certainly take a look at the You Tube video this Christmas. Thank you. And thank you all! Ding dong merrily on high.


(Chris Kite) #4

Bruce, what a shame! I really hope she gives it another go. I like to noodle around on my guitar occasionally, but if I could play an instrument as well as her I’d never put it down.
Brian, enjoyed that a lot…you know I might just become a convert to music with a jazz flavour. The trouble/joy? of YouTube is that it’s a giant back catalogue of things I’ve either missed, lost or would like to try. So much out there but never enough time…


(Bruce Brewer) #5

So as not to seem too far off the France theme; We had a small cottage in Saint Valery Sur Somme 30 years ago, for 10 years. Every Sunday morning, Asha, our daughter, used to busk in the market there, on tenor sax. Her record was 363 francs and a roast chicken! Not bad for a 13yr old, eh?


(Bruce Brewer) #6

Brian, didn't Johnny Almond play with John Mayall earlier?


(Brian Milne) #7

For tenor listen to this: www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbLw3GCMTMw

All four musicians are old acquaintances of mine, but Johnny Almond the tenor sax (he died a few years back), was great but never tried to go to the top of the ladder - think he was too laid back. Go just under 19 minutes in and listen to his blues blowing. It is almost discernible as the guitar takes over and then it blends back into sax. I used to sit up all night at his house listening to him play, usually a bit of flute in between, but tenor is a dream instrument. I played cello, not up to that standard, but did jam a bit with him and wished I had really learned the thing. Underrated instruments that once you hear them you are lost and if you want to play them you are really gone into music. Great, but best by those who can.

Bruce, your daughter is fantastic too.


(Bruce Brewer) #8

"Tuvan throat singing"... it's only because they've got no Mark Murphys in Mongolia, Mark!


(Bruce Brewer) #9

Chris....Our daughter learned piano from 6 - 12years and then said "I'd like a 2nd instrument...a tenor" We said "Don't you think a soprano or alto might be easier for a 12've year old to manage?" No! She'd listened to Tubby Hayes, Coltrane and Dexter Gordon and that was it. Later she played alto and soprano as well. We're hoping she'll pick it up again, after a 15 year rest!


(Chris Kite) #10

Enjoyed your daughters playing Bruce. I’m not much of a jazzer but there’s something really cool about a Tenor Sax. My OH had always wanted to learn to play so a few years ago I was able to rent one from a local Sax shop. She enjoyed learning but tennis elbow eventually put a stop to it.


(Mark Sampson) #11

Yes, I agree Bruce. He's still under-rated for some strange reason. And such a nice, modest guy too. Thanks for the link. And I absolutely agree, Brian. The mainstream is much narrower, but I do believe that world music is more accessible now. It was a bit Cognoscenti City before. Mention Tuvan throat singing now and it's much more likely that someone will know what you're on about. In my 'umble... Happy Christmas, one and all!


(Bruce Brewer) #12

Georgie Fame has got better and better over the years, yet is still under-rated. have a look at his old and then later stuff here... https://play.spotify.com/artist/5rWKAmlxinr3muqedXVIHa pity there isn't Georgie Fame And The Birthday Big Band album on it. It's a double live band with loads of British top jazzers like Peter King and Guy Barker on it. He has been touring later with his sons who are also good musos.

( If anybody wants to listen to our daughter 18 years ago, have a look at this... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIxA149v6xU The Young Jazz Player Competition 1998. Asha Brewer plays at 19.55 minutes in.)


(Brian Milne) #13

Mark, world music was always there. We anthros have been collecting and publishing it. I have had Tuvan throat singing since the year dot, now my friend Carole Pegg (ex Mr Fox) now has the Goshawk Project with Radik Tyulyush and Richard Partridge that has popularised that (for instance: www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPHf37eRw0w . West African music was popular in the 1970s, Latin American music in general since the 1930s. More recently specific soungs like Cuban, Haitian and East African music have picked up fans. Prior to much of that we had the folk genre, so most Celtic nations and certainly things like blues, later reggae, etc, etc, etc fit in there. The influence may be greater now but the so-called mainstream is narrow. Some of it is really excellent but then too much is repetitious facsimile of the good stuff.


(Mark Sampson) #14

The Captain piped into E. Leclerc. My word, Brian, how weird is that? When you say that there was a hell of a lot more choice and variety than there is now, don't forget how 'world music' has taken off over the last 25 years and expanded horizons and offered an extraordinary amount of variety.


(Chris Kite) #15

An interesting oddity on YouTube. Just search for the Goldberg Miller Blues Band.
Introduced by Robert Vaughn…really! Illya Kuryakin was unavailable apparently…


(Brian Milne) #16

I was one of the people who Steve Miller passed by. In his early days when I might have listened we were spoiled for choice in a big way. So he was indeed passed-by by-pass by the likes of Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Today I was shopping in LeClerc in Bergerac. I froze and listened to the piped music. Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band playing Sure 'nuff 'n yes I do. There is ultimately a lot of fine music implanted in many of our minds, the Beefie Safe as Milk album in 1967 was a favourite of mine in those days and sure enough I picked up Miller's Key to the Highway with Boz Scaggs on guitar a year or so later, guess from the first album. But it was a crowded world with a hell of a lot more choice and variety than now.


(Mark Sampson) #17

Bruce, that was a joy from start to finish. I'll look out for the album. Van Morrison is never better than when he has Georgie Fame by his side, in my 'umble. Thank you for the link; very much appreciated.


(Mark Sampson) #18

Thank you, Bruce. Very kind. I shall really enjoy this. They are indeed all genetically or generically linked.


(Bruce Brewer) #19

You might like this, Mark...... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOH8WEqWSHI