3 Wildly Different Interpretations of Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra”

Steve Miller frequently updated his band’s sound, and his 1982 album Abracadabra was no exception. Keyboards were emphasized more in the mix and guitar played a less prominent role. The album as a whole is sleeker and less bluesy than its predecessors, and no cut took that transition further than the title track.

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Miller’s U.S. label, Capitol Records, didn’t care for “Abracadabra” and, according to the frontman, they didn’t want to release it as a single. Mercury Records released “Abracadabra” as a single internationally, and it went to No. 1 in seven countries and No. 2 in four others, including the UK. In light of this success outside the U.S., Capitol relented and made “Abracadabra” the lead single for the album. It not only became the Steve Miller Band’s third No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, but it outlasted all of the band’s other singles on the chart, staying 25 weeks.

Because “Abracadabra” was so different from the band’s earlier hits, and possibly because its lyrics were silly, it could have been viewed as a novelty song that wouldn’t stand the test of time. Those who would be inclined to look at “Abracadabra” that way could point to it being merely the Steve Miller Band’s fifth-most popular song on Spotify. (We should note that the all-time silly lyric the pompatus of love has not prevented “The Joker” from being the band’s most popular song on the streaming service.) Yet, “Abracadabra” has had enough staying power to get streamed more than 141 million times on the platform. It also has enough appeal that it has been covered dozens of times.

Sugar Ray actually charted with their version of the song, and jazz vocalist Robin McKelle’s 2008 version has cracked her top five most-streamed songs on Spotify. The duo Eagles of Death Metal’s cover has received more than 1 million streams on Spotify. These three very different artists have created—as one would expect—three very different interpretations of “Abracadabra.” Which one makes for the best listen? It probably depends on whether you want to dance, swing, or rock.

Sugar Ray

This rendition from the 1999 album 14:59 is the truest of the three to the Steve Miller Band version. Just as Mark McGrath did on the band’s 2003 cover of Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” he nails the phrasing and tone of the original vocals. Whereas the Steve Miller Band version tentatively takes the group into dance music territory, Sugar Ray makes it a full-out raver with record scratches and funky synth lines. The cover peaked at No. 43 on Radio & Records‘ Pop chart in November 1998, seven weeks before the release of 14:59.

“Abracadabra” was the only track on 14:59 not produced by David Kahne. Noted music supervisor and songwriter Ralph Sall produced the track, and he would go on to co-produce Sugar Ray’s 2001 self-titled album with Kahne and Don Gilmore.

Robin McKelle

McKelle included her cover of “Abracadabra” on her third album Modern Antique (2008). It is a vast understatement to say McKelle’s version strays much further from the original than either of the other covers featured here. There are no guitars or synths, as brass and winds provide the volume behind McKelle’s swinging vocals. You certainly won’t hear Miller or McGrath scat-singing their way into the song’s refrain as McKelle does.

Fans of rock and pop may not be familiar with McKelle, at least not knowingly. In addition to working with numerous jazz greats, including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Don Grusin, McKelle has also performed with David Bowie, Carly Simon, and Michael McDonald.

Eagles of Death Metal

This rendition appears on Eagles of Death Metal’s 2019 covers album EODM Presents Boots Electric Performing the Best Songs We Never Wrote. Lead vocalist Boots Electric (Jesse Hughes’ EODM alter ego) has some fun with the song, letting loose a guttural “hoo” and “hwah” to kick it off. While the introduction suggests we are in for a goofy take on a goofy song, EODM’s version of “Abracadabra” has some serious groove. The stripped-down recording features vocals by Hughes and actor Shawnee Smith, fuzzy guitar, a drum machine, and a bass line that mirrors the riff. Hughes was playing the song in the studio when he overheard Smith singing along with it next door in the bathroom. He asked her to join him in a duet, and the blending of their voices is the extra element we didn’t realize the song needed.

Hughes also had a serious motivation for including “Abracadabra”—and the other covers he selected—for this EODM album. In a YouTube video that introduces the album, he explained that he chose songs that are special to him. He said he made the album because “I want everyone to know who I love. … The original artists are some of the artists that I hold in the highest regard.”

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Photo by Brad Barket/Getty Images for Mount Sinai Health System

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