Born to trouble
Roger Dean Miller was born on January 2, 1936 in Fort Worth, Texas. He was the youngest of 3 boys born to father Jean Miller and mother Laudene Holt Miller. His brothers were named Wendell Miller and Duane Miller.
Young Roger became acquainted with tragedy early in life when he lost his father to spinal meningitis. His Dad was only 26 years old at the time of his death, and Roger was just one year old.
America was still in the grip of the Great Depression. The 20 year old mother simply had no means to support 3 young boys. She farmed her sons out to her brothers, each child going to a different home. Roger became the charge of uncle Elmer Miller and his wife Armelia, going to live with them on their Erick, Oklahoma farm. It was a drab life, in a way special to small town existence. Roger was to later remark "It was so dull, you could watch the colors run."
Roger was unhappy with his changed circumstances, missing his mother and brothers. He grew up working on the farm picking cotton and doing chores. His unhappiness and loneliness forced him to find amusement within himself. On the 3 mile walk to school he found himself composing songs for his own entertainment.
Roger used his developing sense of humor to deal with his circumstances. He joked about the little rural school he attended, claiming to have been such a poor student he even flunked 'school bus'. His humor occasionally would slip and expose the wounded kid inside. He said the family was dirt poor, and to keep warm he'd climb inside himself and make things up. He craved attention but found it very hard to come by in his school days.
Fate lends a hand
Another native of Erick, Oklahoma was entertainer Sheb Wooley. Sheb was to marry Roger's cousin, Melva Laure Miller. Sheb, though 15 years older than Roger, hung out with him and talked about becoming big music stars. Roger became a fan of Bob Wills and Hank Wiliams. Sheb fed his growing interest by teaching him a few guitar chords. Wooley also bought Roger his first fiddle, starting him along the road toward the versatile musician he was to become. Sheb Wooley was an idol to the poor kid from Erick, representing that brass ring he wanted so badly to grasp in his own hands.
By the time Roger was an older teen, he started running away and doing odd jobs to support himself during the day. At night he was in the honky-tonks, listening to the music and learning more about his passion. His desire for a guitar was both his undoing and his salvation. He stole a guitar, knowing he'd never make enough picking cotton bolls to buy one. He stole it in Texas and high tailed it back across the state line into Oklahoma. Saddled by guilt which stole his joy with the instrument, he turned himself in the next day. Rather than put him in jail, he was given the chance to join the Army at the age of 17. The Army sounded a lot better than a Texas jail cell, so Roger jumped on the opportunity. He soon found himself half way around the world in Korea.
Roger was torn again by the circumstances of his life. He was homesick but also excited to be somewhere new. His horizons were being expanded, sometimes in a painful way. The military experience was one he shared with a generation of young men forced to grow up in a dangerous world. Toward the end of his hitch in the Army he found himself at Fort McPherson near Atlanta, Georgia. He was assigned to Special Services where his job was fiddle player for the Circle A Wranglers. The group had been founded by Faron Young, another aspiring PFC who later found a career in Nashville.
Big star bound
Upon mustering out of the military, Roger headed straight for Nashville, Tennessee. He met Chet Atkins and informed the legend that he too was a songwriter. Atkins asked Miller to play something for him, and seeing Miller didn't have a guitar, loaned Roger his own. Awed to be with Chet Atkins and playing for him on Atkin's own instrument, Miller promptly began playing in one key and singing in another. Atkins was gentle, suggesting he might need a little more practice, and to come around again later. Roger recalls the incident, saying "I was so nervous, people thought I was waving."
Far from being discouraged, Roger set about getting established in Music City. He took a job as a bellhop at the Andrew Jackson Hotel, located smack dab in the middle of the Nashville music district. He would sing to people as he did his bellhop duties, bending the ear of anyone who would give him a listen.
Roger finally got a break when he was hired to play fiddle in Minnie Pearl's road band. He was part of the music business at long last. Another break came his way upon meeting George Jones, who introduced him to Don Pierce and Pappy Daily who were with Mercury-Starday Records. Jones asked them to listen to the new kid's songs. Impressed with what they heard, they brought Miller to Houston for a recording session. Traveling with Miller was George Jones and along the way they wrote several songs. Jones recorded Tall, Tall Trees in the spring of 1957, one of the songs they co-authored on the way to Houston. Another song written on the trip was Happy Child, recorded by Jimmy Dean that same year. Roger also cut some of his own songs, recording My Pillow and Poor Little John, songs which became Miller's first record. The record didn't catch fire and Miller became discouraged. Young, married, and with his first child on the way, he left Nashville and moved to Amarillo, Texas. He got a job with the fire department for a steady income flow and again worked the honky-tonks at night. He was burning his candle at both ends, trying to make something happen. What happened was Roger got fired from his job with the fire department.
Roger still had some good luck in his favor. At an Amarillo show he met superstar singer Ray Price. Price soon hired Miller as a replacement singer for Van Howard, taking his spot with the Cherokee Cowboys.
Roger and his wife Barbara packed up and headed back to Nashville. There he introduced his song Invitation to the Blues to cowboy singer Rex Allen. Allen recorded the song in 1958 and saw it climb the charts. Miller suggested to Ray Price that he too cover the song, a move Price luckily agreed to, and subsequently saw it rise to #3 on the charts. The song gave Miller his first attribution as a songwriter.
Before the stroke of luck with Invitation to the Blues, Roger had been working a deal with Tree Publishing as a songwriter, knocking down the princely sum of $50 a week. Buddy Killen ran things for Tree Publishing and he forged a lifetime friendship with Miller. With Killen promoting Miller's songs to various artists, success soon followed. Roger Miller wrote several Top 10 songs for recording artists Ernest Tubb, Faron Young, and Jim Reeves. It was the late 50s and Roger Miller had become a hot property, becoming much sought after for his songwriting abilities. The fame and attention he had sought for so long were finally coming his way.
The fame also highlighted a negative side of Roger Miller. He simply would not force himself to work his craft in a disciplined manner. He would show up with a few lines of a really great song but wouldn't finish it. Killen worked as much to get Miller to finish his projects as he did to promote Miller's songs.
Roger brought Bill Anderson to Tree Publishing. Anderson recalled how Miller was both a genius and an extremely undisciplined man, living a kind of manic life of peaks and valleys.
Another habit of Miller's was his propensity to give away lyrics. He would just rattle them off for others to capitalize upon. It became common for other writers to hang around, harvesting ideas from Miller's comments. He was a one man industry, one from which many others profited.
Not content to be just a songwriter, Miller also hungered for the role of performer. To that end, Killen got Miller a deal with Decca Records in 1958. The project saw him paired with a young performer named Donny Little. Donny Little had an amazing career in his own right later, performing as Johnny Paycheck. The record flopped just like his initial effort for Mercury-Starday. His second time out for Decca was as a single artist. He fared better with Jason Fleming, the B side to a record which hinted at Miller's true potential as an artist.
Still working several gigs and spending his royalty checks faster than they came in, Miller took road work when he could get it. He hadn't lasted long with Ray Price, mainly due to their vastly different styles. Price was the star and Miller was an upstart, and something had to give. Miller lost the gig with the Cherokee Cowboys, just in time to be given a shot as Faron Young's drummer. Roger didn't play drums, but he could learn, and learn he did. He drummed for Faron Young for over a year.
Second time around
While still working as Faron Young's drummer, Roger found himself once again talking with legend Chet Atkins. It had been years since they had last spoken, but Atkins signed Miller to a deal with RCA Records, a company whose Nashville operation was headed by Atkins. RCA had artist Jim Reeves, their biggest act, and Reeve's success with Roger Miller tunes surely played a part in the signing. Friend and loyal supporter Buddy Killen talked Atkins into letting Miller record his own song, and in the summer of 1960 Miller recorded You Don't Want My Love, better known as In the Summertime. Miller's bluesy riffs and scatting were allowed by Atkins, and the song climbed to #14 and was covered by singer Andy Williams as a pop recording.
Within a year, Miller blasted through the Top 10 barrier with When Two Worlds Collide, a song co-authored with Bill Anderson. The song rocketed to #6 on the charts.
One step forward, two steps back
Despite his apparent success, the money was not rolling in. Many of his gigs paid in the range of $150-$225. His marriage to Barbara was spiraling downward, even though the couple had 3 children by this time. His extracurricular activities were becoming well known, earning him the reputation of Nashville's Wild Child. By November 1963 RCA had dropped him and the precarious rug he had been standing on had been yanked from under his feet. He found himself where he had been years before, broke and with few prospects.
He pinned his hopes on television. His first foray into TV had been when friend Jimmy Dean, guest hosting on The Tonight Show in 1962, had invited Roger to perform. He did a take-off of Johnny Cash's hit I Walk the Line. His natural humor and style made him a hit and other appearances followed on other shows. Roger started to think his future might be in Hollywood instead of on the local jukebox. He decided to go to California, but was short on ideas as well as funds to finance the move.
The solution came in the form of Smash Records, an upstart division of Mercury Records. Begun in 1961 and headed by Charles Fach, the label had already scored successes. By 1963 they had signed artists Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, and were about to pick up Roger Miller. Spotting Miller and Buddy Killen at a popular Nashville steakhouse, Fach, along with fellow record company execs Lou Green and Shelby Singleton, were aware that Miller had just been dropped by RCA. They considered trying to sign him for Smash. Shelby approached Buddy Killen and huddled for a few minutes. Returning to the group, he announced the deal as consummated. The deal was to advance Miller $1600, an amount sufficient to make the move to California. In exchange, Miller was to record 16 songs, out of which a single and an album were to be produced.
On January 10, 1964 the marathon recording session began. That night Miller recorded 3 songs, each given the full treatment including rich orchestral accompaniment. The session lasted until the wee hours of the night. The following morning Miller returned to record the remaining songs. These were as spartan as the work of the previous night had been lush. Instead of recording 16 songs, Miller managed 15, pocketed the cash and headed out for California. The session produced Dang Me, Dang Me and Chug-a-Lug.
Dang Me almost missed the boat as Miller's first single due to a technological glitch. The song was on the tail end of the recording session, but the take up reel was too small to accept all the tape, leaving the final track unheard. The song remained hidden until the producer got a proper size reel. He was amazed at the hidden gem he had unearthed and rushed to redress his error. Dang Me became the A side to Miller's first single for Smash.
The record label didn't have a country music promo department, but hoped for some success with their new artist. They were suprised when the song rocketed up the charts as a country and a pop hit simultaneously, a monster crossover hit for Miller and Smash.
Suddenly the media couldn't get enough of Roger Miller. Before Dang Me he had still been doing $75 gigs, but the phone started jumping off the hook. He soon followed up his initial success with Chug-a-Lug, which hit just after Dang Me ran out of juice, then with Do Wacka Do (another Miller excursion into the zany).
The year 1964 had been a whirlwind for Miller. The whirlwind became a hurricane when in November he recorded King of the Road, a song which became his hallmark recording. Upon release, it went to #1 on the country chart and # 4 on the pop chart, then was certified Gold.
Miller received his first five Grammy Awards in 1965, ironically including a Grammy for Best New Country and Western Artist. By the summer of 1965 Roger Miller received a royalty check in the amount of $160,000. Miller cried upon getting that check.
America had suddenly discovered the kid from Erick, Oklahoma. He was credited in part with the boom in country music. He provided a fresh approach to country music, allowing it to be funny, something it certainly could and did benefit from. Miller had found his place in a nation reeling musically from the British Invasion. He staked out his territory, earning multitudes of loyal fans.
The backside of the wave called celebrity
Miller kept cranking out the hits for the next few years. By 1965 he was in danger of becoming over-exposed. He was given a shot at TV with his own program, but with other people steering the ship it ran aground after just 13 weeks. He wasn't accustomed to doing the material of other people, and it showed. At the end of the show, rather than leave any ambiguity, Miller burned his bridges. He claimed it set his career back 2 years, but expressed no regrets.
Miller had peaked by 1967, when he charted with Walkin' In the Sunshine, the last crossover hit that he penned. He recorded songs from other writers, including a version of Me and Bobby McGee, written by Kris Kristofferson. In 1970 Miller returned to his honky-tonk roots, recording an album named A Trip in the Country which featured several Miller standards.
Smash Records folded shop in late 1970, a move which spooked the label's artists. Miller's hit singles stopped coming and appearances became less frequent. Miller's last recording for Mercury was a tribute to cowboy hero Hopalong Cassidy entitled Hoppy's Gone.
Breaking new ground
Bailing out on Mercury, Miller signed with Columbia Records. In 1974 he branched out by writing and singing songs for the Walt Disney animated feature Robin Hood. Miller still maintained a schedule of live performances as well. He met his third wife, a vocalist who had previously worked with Kenny Rogers and the First Addition. She started with Miller doing back-up vocals in the early 70s.
In 1981 Roger got a call from Willie Nelson, asking if Miller wanted to do a duet with him. Miller pulled Willie's chain by saying "Well, Will, you've done a duet with about everyone." Nelson agreed, adding "I know, we're down to the M's." Miller agreed to the idea, and they recorded a song written by Miller entitled Old Friends, in which they were joined by Roger's old friend Ray Price. The song did respectably and seemed to be Miller's swan song.
Out of the blue
Unknown to Miller, one of his biggest fans was Rocco Landesman, a former Yale drama professor. He had the idea that Miller would be great as a Broadway songwriter, and Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be the perfect project. Landesman approached Mary Miller with the concept, who encouraged him to write to Roger with his ideas. Miller says of the interchange "He made me an offer I couldn't understand."
Landesman persisted, and finally Miller committed himself to the project. Big River took Miller over a year and a half and opened at Harvard's American Repertory Theatre, then moved to La Jolla, California. The production featured a struggling young actor named John Goodman in the role of Pap, Huck's father. The production made the jump to the Big Apple, opening in the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on April 25, 1985. It arrived in one of the darkest doldrums ever suffered by Broadway. The show proved to be a smash hit, reaping 7 Tony Awards, including Miller's own Tony for Best Score.
Big River was the culmination of Roger Miller's career. He became the only country artist to ever win a Tony Award. Returning to his Santa Fe, New Mexico home with wife Mary, Miller seemed to have found something that had eluded him his entire life. He seemed to have found a contentment, enjoying his life, his wife, and his 2 young children.
In September of 1990 Miller embarked on another project. Friend and manager Stan Moress inveighed upon Miller to do a tour, featuring just Roger Miller and his guitar. Roger was scared to death at the prospect, but audiences loved him.
His last act
Roger Miller discovered he had a form of lung cancer in the fall of 1991. He underwent a year of treatments with one remission. He lost the battle with the disease on October 25, 1992, passing away at Century City Hospital. Roger Miller was just 56 years old.
A week later a memorial service was held at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. The facility was packed by friends and relatives who came to share their memories and stories in tribute to Miller.
Roger Miller was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1995, a posthumous honor. When once asked how he'd like to be remembered, Miller's reply was "I just don't want to be forgotten.".
The Roger Miller Museum opened in 2004 in his hometown of Erick, Oklahoma. Located at the corner of Sheb Wooley Blvd. and Roger Miller Blvd, the museum is a fitting tribute to one of the town's favorite sons. The museum is located off I-40, exit 7, just east of the Oklahoma/Texas border. It features exhibits, photos, and memorabilia concerning Roger Miller and should be a welcome highlight for Miller fans traveling through the area.
I remember hearing Roger Miller and his songs from my youth. I vividly recall him singing on the static afflicted AM radio of my brother's '56 Chevy pickup truck. King of the Road
and other Roger Miller tunes delighted me, and I still remember the lyrics to many of his songs. He was fresh, he was silly, and he was cool. Though he looked like he could be the model for the joker in a deck of cards, he was much more than a country joker.
I later saw him on an interview show, and he was quite candid about his wild period. He recalled how "I was so high, I could have gone duck huntin' with a rake." That was classic Roger Miller, damn the consequences, Katie bar the door, wide open Roger Miller. He had a way of making bad times sound not quite so bad, and good times positively wonderful. He found a way to be happy, and that's a really good thing. He had a striking way of saying things that drove home his point. One of the finest was when he said "If I could live my life over, I wouldn't have time."
1964--Grammy\Best Country Song\Dang Me
1964--Grammy\Best New Country and Western Artist
1964--Grammy\Best Country and Western Recording, Single\Dang Me
1964--Grammy\Best Country and Western Performance, Male\Dang Me
1964--Grammy\Best Country and Western Album\Dang Me/Chug-a-Lug
1965--Jukebox Artist of the Year
1965--Grammy\Best Country Song\King of the Road
1965--Grammy\Best Country Vocal Performance, Male\King of the Road
1965--Grammy\Best Country and Western Recording, Single\King of the Road
1965--Grammy\Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Male\King of the Road
1965--Grammy\Best Contemporary (Rock 'N Roll), Single\King of the Road
1965--Grammy\Best Country and Western Album\The Return of Roger Miller
1965--Academy of Country and Western Music\Best Songwriter\first awards ceremony
1965--Academy of Country and Western Music\Man of the Year\first awards ceremony
1985--Tony\Best Score\Big River\show won seven awards in all, including Best Musical
1988--Academy of Country Music\Pioneer Award
1995--Country Music Hall of Fame induction
King of the Road
Engine Engine Number Nine
In the Summer Time
You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd
Don't We All Have the Right
Atta Boy, Girl
When Two Worlds Collide,
Co-writer: Bill Anderson
My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died
Walkin' Talkin' Cryin' Barely Beatin' Broken Heart
Co-writer: Justin Tubb
It Only Hurts When I Cry
Co-writer: Dwight Yoakam
Husbands and Wives