Saturday, January 2, 2016

Roger Miller—King of the Road and Other Glories

Roger Miller when his star was shining brightest circa 1965.

Let’s take a moment to celebrate one of the quirkiest of the singers and songwriters to emerge from the Nashville country music scene of the 1960’s.  He was always a square peg in the round hole of the Music City.  Yet he was personally beloved by his peers and produced hits with infections melodies and off beat lyrics.
Roger Miller was born in Fort Worth, Texas on January 2, 1936.  A hard time to be born.  Worse when his father died of spinal meningitis when he was only a year old.  Unable to support them, his young mother sent each of her three children to live with various relatives of her husband.
Roger ended up on a farm near Erick, Oklahoma with Elmer and Armelia Miller.  It was a hard-times kind of spread without indoor plumbing or electricity.  His aunt and uncle didn’t get a telephone until 1951.  The boy was expected to help out on the farm and did his share of chopping and picking cotton from an early age.  He attended a one room school house where he was an utterly indifferent student and as he got older a frequent truant.

Miller's cousin by marriage Sheb Woolley taught him how to play guitar and was the first of many mentors.  Woolley went on to moderate fame as a country singer, and as the scout on the TV western Rawhide.  He also scored a huge hit with his Flying Purple People Eater song.

But he was fascinated and fixated on music from an early age.  He was encouraged by the young husband of a cousin, Sheb Wooley who would go on to be a country and western singer and actor.  Roger would spend evenings at Wooley’s electrified house listening to far off radio stations.  The older man taught him to play guitar and gave him a fiddle.  Wooley was just the first in a series of unexpected mentors who would help the aspiring musician along.
Inspired by his radio heroes, Hank Williams and Western Swing icon Bob Wills, Miller was soon playing around with song writing himself.  One of his early efforts was a sentimental piece began “There’s a picture on the wall/It’s the dearest of them all, Mother.”  Luckily, he got better.
By age 16 he was frequently running away to play with road house cowboy dance bands around Oklahoma and in Texas.  He would be found, hauled by to Erick, given a licking, and put back to work on the farm. 
He was handicapped by not being able to afford his own guitar.  So at age 17, he stole one.  Wracked by guilt, he returned it the next day, but was criminally charged anyway.  He opted to take the common deal offered to rambunctious youth at that time and place—join the Army instead of going to jail or a chain gang.
Miller’s enlistment came when Uncle Sam needed cannon fodder in Korea.  He later characterized his education as “Korea, Clash of ’52  Back home he was stationed near Atlanta, Georgia, where he played fiddle in a soldier band put together for Faron Young.  After that while awaiting discharge in South Carolina, a sergeant who was the brother of Kenneth Burns, the Jethro of Homer and Jethro convinced him to try Nashville and a music career.
With a good word from Young and Burns, Miller was able to get an audition with producer and guitar legend Chet Atkins who had to loan him a guitar to cut two sides for a demo.  Atkins was impressed, but felt young Miller needed more time to knock some rough edges off his songs.
To make ends meet, Miller went to work at the Andrew Jackson Hotel and was soon getting noticed as the “Singing bell Hop.”  The hotel was home away from home for many musicians and Miller made valuable contacts.  Grand Ol’ Opry star Minnie Pearl gave him night work as a fiddler in her band.  George Jones got him a recording session in Houston, Texas.  They collaborated in writing two songs and Jones even played guitar on the records.  But neither Tall, Tall Trees nor Happy Child was a success.

Ray Price, left hired Roger Miller as a member of his Cherokee Cowboy Band twice.  Another rising songwriter, Willie Nelson was also with the band for a while and the two became close friends.

When Miller married and had a child, he felt that he needed a responsible, steady job.  The little family left Nashville for Amarillo, Texas where he became a firefighter.  He continued to gig with local bands and after the Fire Department urged him to find employment elsewhere was able to hook up with Ray Price who put him in his Cherokee Cowboy Band.
Returning to Nashville, Miller’s songwriting skills and wide contacts finally began to pay off.  Price scored a #3 hit with Invitation to the Blues which led to a steady $50 a week contract song writer for Tree Publishing.  Ernest Tubb soon had a hit with Half a Mind and old buddy Faron Young had another one with The Way I Feel.  Jim Reeves recorded Home and Billy Bayou, the first song written by Miller to top the country charts.
By the late ‘50’s he was the hottest song writer in Nashville.  But he was both happy-go-lucky and undisciplined.  He freely gave away song ideas and lines to his many musician and songwriting buddies, much to the fury of his employer who later complained that competitors followed him around like puppies because, “everything he said was a potential song.”
In 1958 Decca Records finally gave him a chance to record as a performer.  The label teamed him in a duo with rising singer Donny Little, who would latter achieve stardom as Johnny Paycheck.  Unfortunately the label used songs by Little on a honky-tonk style album and soon dropped Miller after using him once as a single.  Nearly broke again, Faron Young gave him the only job he had available in his band, as a drummer, even though Miller had never before lifted a stick.
In 1960 Chet Atkins figured it was time to give Miller another chance and signed him for RCA which under his leadership was becoming the flagship of Nashville labels.  He had his first hit with You Don’t Want My Love (In the Summer Time) which established his goofy but highly musical style.  The next year he broke into the top ten with a song co-written by another pal, Bill Anderson, When World Collide.
Used to privation and struggle, Miller did not cope well with sudden fame and success.  First his first marriage crumbled as he drank and caroused then a second pairing would suffer the same fate.  He battled depression and self-doubt and self-medicated with a variety of the drugs freely available to any entertainer.  His behavior on stage and on tour became unpredictable and he sometimes fought with audience members or walked off stage if he felt unappreciated.
Still his buddies rallied around him.  He was hardly the only one in the business with those kinds of problems.  And he stood by them.  When very close friend Patsy Cline’s plane went down, it was a desperate Miller acting on his own who searched and found the wreckage.
Despite his hits and success, however, his song writing dried up and Atkins had enough of his troublesome antics and dropped him from the label.  Miller announced that he was “seeking other opportunities.”
In fact he had few, until he started to catch on as guest on late night TV shows and as a comedy specialty on variety shows.
In 1964 he left Nashville and headed for a new life in Hollywood hoping to catch on as an actor like his first home town booster, Sheb Wooley.  He got some work, but also got an offer from a rising new West Coast label, Smash Records.  He took $1,600 cash to record 16 sides.  Thus began his brief but spectacular rise to the top ranks of recording artists.  Between 1964 and 1967 his comedy and novelty songs scored hit after hit crossing over from country to the pop charts with regularity.  His hits included Dang Me, Chug-a-Lug, Do-Wacka-Do, King of the Road, Engine No. 9, Kansas City Star, his personal favorite You Can’t Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd, England Swings, Husbands and Wives, and Walkin’ in the Sunshine.

King of the Road was Millers biggest hit and signature song.
In ’66 NBC TV gave him his own variety show.  It lasted only 16 weeks, however and marked the high point of Miller’s career as a performer.  He was sinking once more into depression and carousing.  Disappointed that having established a comic identity, he could not interest his label or others on more serious songs, he stopped writing music entirely.
Miller continued to record songs by others and scored a few more hits including covers of God Didn’t Make Little Green Apples and the first recording of Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobbie McGee.  Smash record folded and he migrated to Columbia where he recorded moderately successful albums but no hits.
About this time his second marriage failed and he wed former First Edition singer Mary Arnold, pairing that finally lasted as she helped him cope with his dramatic ups and downs.
In 1973 Walt Disney hired him to write songs for the animated film Robin Hood, one of the least successful cartoon feature releases in that company’s history.  In 1978 he voiced a character in one of the Rankin/Bass holiday special Nestor, The Long-Eared Christmas Donkey, likewise the least successful of those TV productions.
Miller’s career languished until he had one last brush with recording success in an album collaboration with Willie Nelson in 1981, Old Friends.  The title song was resurrected from his days in Oklahoma and written for his family there.  Released as a single with a guest vocal by Ray Price, it was his last song to chart.

Roger Miller not only wrote the music and lyrics for the Broadway hit Big River, he also played the small part of Huckleberry Finn's Pap in the Tony winning musical.

Miller was languishing in obscurity when he got an unexpected offer to write the music and lyrics for a mounting of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, a book he had never read.  He spent a year and a half on the songs and took the show through the long process of workshops and out of town trials before Big River finally premiered on Broadway in 1985.  It was a critical and popular success sweeping the Tony Awards including awards for Best Score, Best Music, and Best Lyrics.
After the success, Miller and his family moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico where he hoped to be able to resume writing in peace.  He co-wrote a hit for Dwight Yokum and searched for another possible theater project.
In 1990 he went out on a small venue tour with just his guitar.  The tour was canceled when he was diagnosed with lung and throat cancer.  He taped a TNN special salute to his first Nashville employer, Minnie Pearl.  It aired on  October 26 1992, one day after Miller  died.      
In his quirky career Miller garnered 12 Grammies, Jukebox Artist of the Year in 1965, three Academy of Country Music Awards, and the Tony Awards.  He was elected to the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame and posthumously to the Country Music Hall of Fame.  He was also selected #23  on CMT’s 40 Greatest Men of Country Music.
But Roger Miller mostly lives on in the infectious ear worms he left to us all.

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