Marcus Miller on the stories behind 5 of his iconic recordings

Marcus Miller performs on stage at Teatro Nuevo Apolo on May 28, 2019 in Madrid, Spain
(Image credit: Photo by Javier Bragado/Redferns)

Marcus Miller has so many strings to his bow that his four-string mastery is only one part of his stellar career. Born on 14 June, 1959, he has composed music for movies, worked as an arranger and a record producer, and played with the likes of Luther Vandross and Miles Davis. Miller was also a member of the Saturday Night Live house band in the early Eighties, and of his 500-plus recordings, he has featured in sessions with Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Elton John and Chaka Khan. In addition to his work as a sideman, Miller’s solo career has yielded several esteemed recordings, including 2007’s M2, which won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album.

He showed us at a very young age that his eyes were focused well beyond the bass.

Stanley Clarke

“The main difference between working as a sideman and as an artist is that as a solo artist you are the storyteller," he says, "you are the one trying to put a message across and tell people how you feel. The artist has a very particular point of view, but a sideman doesn’t. What’s really valuable as a sideman is the ability to just make yourself who you need to be.”

We sat down with Marcus to find out the stories behind five of his iconic recordings.

1. Luther Vandross - Never Too Much (1981)

"Luther and I were both in Roberta Flack’s band. He was singing background vocals and I was playing bass, and we got pretty tight. He was one of the most popular background singers in New York at the time, but he wanted to be his own artist and one day he called and asked me to play on his demo. He got the session set up sometime on a Sunday morning – that was the only day he could get any studio time, and Nat Adderley Junior, who is the son of Cannonball Adderley’s brother, was the piano player who was accompanying Luther.

Luther and Nat arranged this song, that had an important bass line, called ‘Never Too Much’. I told them I liked it, but it was kind of weird, and they just told me to shut up and play! So I played a couple of lines of my own and that demo ended up being the actual record; we never recut it. He got a record deal and just kept rolling with that song."

2. Marcus Miller - Moons (1993)

"This company, Modulus, sent me a bass out of the blue. I thought it had a really nice sound and I wrote ‘Moons’ as a vehicle for that. I was also coming into my own on the bass clarinet so I played bass clarinet on the bridge of that song. That song is cool because people discover that song late; they say, 'Oh, Marcus can only play with his thumb,' and then they will listen to ‘Moons’ and readjust their opinions!"

3. Miles Davis - Tutu (1986)

"I was in a hotel listening to some album; it was something corny from the 80s, but it had a high bass line and a low bass line, and I remember thinking to myself, 'That’s cool, man; one day I am going to write something like that.' Tommy LiPuma, who was an executive at Warner Brothers, called me to say that Miles had signed to Warner Brothers, so  I asked if he needed some tunes and he did, so I offered to write something. I hung up the phone and instantly in my mind was the riff 'dum de dum dum dum' (sings the riff to ‘Tutu’), I mean instantly. So I thought, 'Man, I am going to add another bass line to this.'

I had this fretless line that I played with the lower fretted bass holding down the groove, and it was cool because I had all these elements swimming around in my head. When I was in his band a few years before that, I remember Miles showing Al Foster a drumbeat that he had; he said it was called the 'New Orleans 2-Step'. I thought it would be nice to use some elements that I knew Miles liked, so I used the same beat that he had described to Al along with that bass line, and the rest was just finding a logical answer to the things that had jumped into my head.

I knew I wanted it to have chords that would be inspiring to him; I knew I wanted it to be moody and have something that stuck with his character."

4. David Sanborn - Run For Cover (1985)

"I was probably 18 or 19 when I wrote ‘Run For Cover’. I remember I had just got a 4-track, reel-to-reel tape recorder and that was a big deal back then! I was excited to be able to overdub and make music on my own. I had this bass line and I programmed the beat on this little drum machine. My intention was to make an album for myself. Tom Browne had a record deal and had that song ‘Jamaica Funk’, Bernard Wright had a record deal...and Donald Blackman...so I figured I should make a record myself.

I wrote ‘Run For Cover’ as one of the songs I was going to have on my album, but I wrote four others too. I remember asking David Sanborn to check it out. I gave him a tape and he called me back a day later and told me he wanted a track for his album! So I asked him which one. And he said, all of them!

American Jazz composer and bassist Marcus Miller performs live at Alcatraz in Milan, Italy, on 27 March 2018.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

I was talking to a couple of cats that actually were advising me against jumping into the artist game at that point. I remember talking to Dr George Butler at Colombia Records, and saying to him, 'George, you know what, I want to make my own album.' He told me that he had been hearing on the grapevine I was getting ready to become the number one session bass player in New York and thought that I should get that experience first before jumping into the artist game. I actually took his advice, so thinking about that and thinking about David Sanborn’s offer, I decided to give the songs over to Dave and they became very successful for him, and it actually helped launch me into my producing career, so it ended up working out pretty well."

5. Stevie Wonder - Higher Ground (2007)

"All those Stevie Wonder songs are like classics to me. I have recorded five or six Stevie songs now and it’s like recording a George Gershwin tune or a song by Duke Ellington. ‘Higher Ground’ has got such a bad groove. I love it that Stevie wrote all those songs, with so much energy, in Eb, because he could really bang on the black keys of that clavinet." 

Marcus is currently on tour across Europe. Visit marcusmiller.com (opens in new tab) for more info.

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Nick Wells was the Editor of Bass Guitar magazine from 2009 to 2011, before making strides into the world of Artist Relations with Sheldon Dingwall and Dingwall Guitars. He's also the producer of bass-centric documentaries, Walking the Changes and Beneath the Bassline, as well as Production Manager and Artist Liaison for ScottsBassLessons. In his free time, you'll find him jumping around his bedroom to Kool & The Gang while hammering the life out of his P-Bass.