Roger Miller

(January 2, 1936 – October 25, 1992)

Roger Miller was more than just a honky-tonk man and singer. He was also a songwriter, a guitarist and fiddler, a drummer, a T.V. star, a Broadway composer, and perhaps, above all else, one of the wittiest personalities in Country music.

Roger Dean Miller was born on January 2, 1936, in Fort Worth, Texas, and was the youngest of three boys. When he was only a year old, Roger’s father, Jean Miller, died of spinal meningitis when only 26. Laudene Holt Miller, Roger’s mother, was already struggling to care for three children by herself during the Great Depression. Unable to provide for her children, Jean’s three brothers came, and each took one of the boys to live with them.

Armelia and Elmer Miller took Roger with them to a farm on the outskirts of Erick, Oklahoma. He would later joke about how the town was “so dull you could watch the colors run” and was “so small that the town drunk had to take turns.”

Jokes aside, Roger had a difficult childhood. Most days were spent picking cotton. He was lonely and unhappy, never accepting or understanding the separation from his mother. While walking three miles to his one-room school, he started to compose songs.

“There’s a picture on the wall,
It’s the dearest of them all, Mother.” 

Roger painted a somewhat more humorous picture of his school days. “The school I went to had 37 students,” he would say, “me and 36 Indians. During recess, we would play cowboy and Indians, and things got pretty wild from my standpoint.”

Every now and then, Roger would let down his guard to comment on how lonely he was a child. “I was one of those kids that never had much to say, and when I did, it was wrong. I always wanted attention, always was reaching and grabbing for it.”

Roger was a dreamer, and his heart was never in picking cotton or working on a farm. “It’s a good thing that he made it in the music business, ’cause he would have starved to death as a farmer,” Sheb Wooley would say.

Sheb Wooley was an Erick native who married Roger’s Cousin, Melva Laure Miller. Sheb would take Roger out to fix the fencing, chase steers, and talk about stardom. They would listen to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights and the Light Crust Doughboys on Fort Worth radio by day. Wooley bought Roger his first fiddle and taught him chords on a guitar. While Roger idolized Bob Wills and Hank Williams, Wooley represented the world of show business that Roger wanted.

Eager to follow in Sheb’s footsteps, Roger started running away while still in high school. Going from town to town through Texas and Oklahoma, he would take whatever work he could find by day and haunt the honky-tonks by night. His drifting came to an abrupt halt when he stole a guitar in Texas and crossed back into Oklahoma. Roger had wanted a guitar so desperately to write songs, and that seemed the only way.

Roger turned himself in the next day. Rather than putting him in jail, they offered to let him join the Army. Although he was only 17, he chose to go into the service. Before long, he was shipped to Korea, where he coined one of his favorite one-liners: “My education was Korea, Clash of ’52.”

Though homesick, Roger’s world was starting to grow. Towards the end of his tour with the Army, he was stationed at Fort McPherson in Atlanta. Assigned to Special Services, he joined the Circle A Wranglers and played the fiddle.

After he was discharged from the Army, Roger headed to Nashville to see Chet Atkins. Once there, he told Chet that he was a songwriter. Chet asked him to play something. Seeing that Roger didn’t have a guitar, Chet loaned him his. Roger was so nervous about playing in front of him that he proceeded to play in one key and sing in another. Thankfully, Chet was kind about it and suggested that Roger work on his songs a little more.

Needing to work while he was pursuing his dream, Roger took a job as a bellhop at the Andrew Jackson Hotel. Situated in the thick of Nashville’s music district, the Andrew Jackson gave him proximity to the vibrant Country scene. Roger soon became known as the ‘Singing Bellhop’. He would sing to anyone who would listen on the way up or down the elevator.

Roger’s first break came when he was hired to play fiddle in Minnie Pearl’s road band. His second break came when he met George Jones at the WSM radio station one night and played him some of his songs. Jones introduced Roger to Don Pierce and Pappy Daily of Mercury-Starday Records and asked them to listen to Roger’s material. Auditioned at the Andrew Jackson Hotel, Roger impressed the Mercury-Starday group enough to be granted a session in Houston.

George Jones and Roger rode to Texas together and wrote songs along the way. They co-authored “Tall, Tall Trees”, recorded by Jones in 1957, and “Happy Child”, which Jimmy Dean recorded in 1957. Roger also recorded some of his own songs, including the honkey-tonk weeper “My Pillow” and “Poor Little John”. In October of 1957, he and Jimmy Dean were paired together on the first single of Roger’s career.

The Mercery-Starday record went nowhere, but Roger continued to work for them.  The Mercury-Starday record went nowhere, but Roger continued to struggle away, writing for Starday and recording mail order sound-a-like records of other artists’ hits.

Roger was married to Barbara at this time. He was expecting his first child, Alan, and considered getting out of the music business entirely. He decided to move back to Amarillo and joined the fire department. Roger worked all day and sometimes into the night before going to the clubs and singing after work. There was little time for sleep in his life. During his time with the fire department, there were only two fires. One was a chicken coop, and the second one he slept through. The department suggested that he seek other employment after that.

Thankfully, Roger met Ray Price at a show in Amarillo, Tx. Several months later, Ray hired him to replace the singer, Van Howard, in the Cherokee Cowboys. Roger moved his family back to Nashville, along with the newly written song “Invitation to the Blues”. Somehow, Roger managed to get the piece to Arizona Cowboy, Rex Allen, who recorded it for Decca in 1958. When the song became popular, Roger suggested that Ray Price release a cover of it. Bill Anderson’s “City Lights” was paired with “Invitation to the Blues”, the album became a #3 hit.

Before the Price record gave him writer’s credentials, Roger had already signed a songwriting deal with Tree Publishing for $50 a week. Buddy Killen helped handle Tree’s daily affairs; soon, the two began a life long friendship.

With Buddy Killen plugging his songs, Roger started to write hits for other artists. Ernest Tubb took “Half a Mind” to #8 while Faron Young was in the Top Ten with “That’s the Way I Feel”. Jim Reeves had #1 hit with “Billy Bayou” and a #2 hit with “Home”.

Roger became a hit songwriter in the late 1950s, but he was also as undisciplined as he was talented. Ernest Tubb wrote the last verse of “Half a Mind” because Roger couldn’t sit down long enough to do it.

Roger also had a habit of giving away lines to other writers. Bill Anderson said, “He’s the one that came up with the line in my song ‘Po’ Folks’- If the wolf had ever come to our door, he’d have had to brought a picnic lunch.’ He never let me put his name in the song”. Buddy Killen remembers how songwriters in Nashville would follow Roger around for sayings. “Everything he said was a potential song. He spoke in songs,” Killen said.

Buddy Killen managed to land Roger a record with Decca Records in 1958. In September of that year, Roger cut a duet with Donny Little (later known as Johnny Paycheck). Three months later, Little sang uncredited harmony on Roger’s “A Man Like Me” and “The Wrong Kind of Girl”. However, just like his Mercury-Starday single, the Decca record flopped. Roger’s second Decca single was another matter. While side A was typical Nashville country/pop, side B showed what Miller’s style would eventually be.

Roger spent his royalty earnings before he had earned them and needed to take road work where he could. Though he remained great friends with Ray Price, he left the Cherokee Cowboys early. Ray was relieved since Roger’s unique style drove him crazy. Roger soon found work with Faron Young as a drummer, playing with him for around a year. During that time, Faron Young recorded Roger’s song “A World So Full of Love”.

While still drumming for Faron, Roger Signed a deal with RCA’s Nashville office, run by guitar legend Chet Atkins. As a producer, Chet Atkins played a significant role in defining the soft-edged country style that was to be known as the ‘Nashville sound’. When Buddy Killen brought Chet Atkins Roger’s new song “You Don’t Want My Love”, Buddy suggested that Roger cut the piece himself. Chet agreed, and on August 10, 1960, Roger recorded the song. “You Don’t Want My Love” (later to be known as “In The Summer Time”) took off, reaching #24 on the country charts, and later covered by Any Williams. The record gave Roger the fame he needed to hit the road as a solo act.

Less than a year later, Roger broke into the Top Ten with “When Two Worlds Collide”, written together with Bill Anderson while en route to Texas. Peaking at #6, “When Two Worlds Collide” proved to be the high point of Roger’s RCA career. “Lock, Stock, and Teardrops” was another ballad written by Roger, later to be sung by K. D. Lang.

Like his previous songwriting accomplishment of the late 1950s, Roger’s success on RCA proved to be a deceptive measure of his career advancement. His royalties were used to payback Tree Publishings advances, and gigs paid only in the $150 to $225 range. His first marriage, which had given him three children, was falling apart. His extracurricular habits had earned him the reputation as Nashville’s ‘Wild Child’. In November of 1963, RCA dropped Roger.

Roger was beginning to doubt that he could ever make a decent living with Country music; his only ray of hope lay in the glow of the television spotlight. In 1962, Jimmy Dean was guest-hosting on The Tonight Show when he invited Roger to be on the program. He was a hit. Roger sang “I Hold My Pants Up with A Piece of Twine”, a parody of “I Walk The Line”. Appearances on other shows soon followed near the end of 1963. Roger began to think that he might have a better shot at stardom on T.V. instead of on the radio. Thinking he would have better luck starting his acting career in California, Roger began to figure out how to finance the move. Around the same time, Smash Records, a subsidiary of Mercury Records, began taking pop radio by storm.

Smash Records went into business in February 1961, headed by Charles Fash. Having produced hits such as Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby” and the Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back”, they were eager to expand with other artists. In 1963, the label signed on Jerry Lee Lewis, James Brown, and Roger Miller.

Roger lucked into being signed by Smash Records when Charles Fash and Lou Green, an executive at Mercury Records, attended an annual disc jockey convention in Nashville. While having dinner with Shelby Singleton, head of the Mercury office in Nashville, Roger walked into the restaurant with Buddy Killen. Shelby Singleton was the one who suggested that they sign Roger on, and in less than a minute, Roger was part of Smash Records.

Needing funds to move to California, Roger went to Fash and asked if they would give him $1,600. Charles agreed, but with the understanding that Roger would record sixteen songs at a rate of $100 per piece. Roger began recording with Smash Records on January 10, 1964, cutting “Ain’t That Fine” by Dorsey Burnette, “Why”, and his song “Less and Less”. After only a few hours of sleep, Roger and the production crew gathered at the studio the next morning to record the rest of the songs that would pay for Roger’s move to California.

Roger brought twelve of his songs with him, with his first song being “Chug-a-Lug”. “Chug-a-Lug” set the tone of what would turn out to be an important day in Country music history. Roger managed to cut fifteen of the sixteen songs in just two days. Of all the songs recorded that day, “Dang Me” stood out the most. Roger wrote the song in four minutes while in a Phoenix hotel room, picturing himself sitting in a booth at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge.

Roger pocketed $1,500 and headed to California, where he moved into an apartment above Lee Hazelwood’s garage. “Dang Me” was such an original song that it became a hit pop song right away; by June, it was topping Pop and Country charts.

With his career taking off, Roger moved out of his apartment and hit the road. In the summer of 1964, Roger worked a San Francisco T.V. show. In June, he embarked on a ten-day ‘TV-DJ tour of the midwest.’ In August, Roger stopped in Nashville long enough to record “Reincarnation” and “Hard Headed Me”. Later in the year, he performed three live recordings for Smash Records.

By September of 1964, “Chug-a-Lug” replaced “Dang Me” in the charts. Concerned about offending the Country audience, Smash Records initially balked at releasing “Chug-a-Lug” as a single. At one point, an alternative version of “Chug-a-Lug” was recorded, with the word ‘wine’ edited out. Thankfully, both the college crowd and the country fans loved the song.

Roger recorded “Do Wacka Do” in October, followed by “King of the Road” on November 3, 1964. During the summer, Roger was on the road outside of Chicago when he saw a sign that read ‘Trailers for Sale or Rent’. He began writing the first draft to “King of the Road”, though he got no further than the first verse. In Boise, Idaho, Roger noticed a hobo statue in an airport gift shop and bought it in hopes of finding inspiration for the rest of the lyrics. It was all he needed to finish writing the song. “King of the Road” took almost six weeks to write, much longer than the four minutes he spent on “Dang Me”.

“King of the Road” was released in early 1965 and took off as fast as “Dang Me” had. In March, the single hit #1 on Country charts and stayed there for five weeks, and it also hit #4 on the Pop charts. “King of the Road” was certified Gold, having reached a million copies sold.

The song “Dang Me” hadn’t been forgotten, though. On April 13, Roger won his first five GRAMMYs, including the award for ‘Best New Country and Western Artist’.

By the summer of 1965, Roger was officially a music star. The first royalty check he received from Tree Publishing was for $160,000. Buddy Killen remembered Roger crying when he found out. His personality was also well known, with his quick one-liners and unique songs filling air time on the radio. Life Magazine called him a ‘cracker-barrel philosopher’, while Time Magazine said he was the ‘unhokey Okey’. In February of 1966, Roger made the Saturday Evening Post cover, featuring a piece on the big boom in country music. Journalists loved him for his endlessly quotable sayings. After all, who could resist a chart-topping Oklahoma boy who called his music’ depressive jazz’.

Roger wasn’t comfortable with his newfound popularity as the ‘down-home jester of pop’. He didn’t want to appear to people as a hick and fought against the unwanted label by continuing to write and record more serious music. Whenever he recorded sad songs, such as “Husbands and Wives” or “The Last Word in Lonesome is Me”, the results were astounding. Roger also recorded songs with the sole purpose of communicating his boundless joy, such as “England Swings” and “Walkin’ in the Sunshine”.

By the end of 1966, Roger was in danger of becoming over-exposed. In September of 1966, Roger was given his own NBC program; the show was cut after just thirteen weeks. In the final episode, Roger blew up the train set that was part of his show; he didn’t want anyone else to use it.

For three years, Roger recorded songs that had been written by others. In 1970, Roger finally recorded the album he had wanted to for years. Called “A Trip to the Country”, it consisted of his older songs that he had written but not recorded.

Mercury closed the Smash Record subsidiary in 1970. His last chart reaching piece for Mercury was “Hoppy’s Gone”, a song about how Hopalong Cassidy’s death signified the end of all that was just and true in America.

Roger signed on with Columbia Records after leaving Mercury and Smash Records. His first album with them was titled “Dear Folks: Sorry I Haven’t Written Lately”. In 1974, Roger wrote and sang the songs for Disney’s animated movie, “Robin Hood”.

Roger signed on with Columbia Records after leaving Mercury and Smash Records. His first album with them was titled “Dear Folks: Sorry I Haven’t Written Lately”. In 1974, Roger wrote and sang the songs for Disney’s animated movie, “Robin Hood”.

“He was truly original, and he would just add on something that we had no idea what he was doing,” laughs Mary Miller, Roger’s third wife. Formerly a member of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, Mary worked with her husband as a back-up vocalist from the 1970’s onward. “I always joked that the first year I knew him, I didn’t understand anything he said. He had a brilliant mind and a wonderful slant on things. There was such a richness to his life.”

In 1981, Roger got a call from Willie Nelson, who had been recording a series of duet albums with his friends. When Willie asked Roger, he said, “Well, Will, you’ve done a duet with about everyone.” Willie replied, “I know, but we’re down to the M’s.” Roger agreed and offered a new song, “Old Friends,” which he had written for his mom and dad back in Oklahoma.

Ray price joined them for the recording session, and the sweetly melancholy tune was well-loved by music critics. “Old Friends” was the last people heard of Roger until Big River showed up on Broadway.

Big River was the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” brought to life, a story that resonated very strongly with Roger. It took him over a year and a half to finish writing for the musical’s first phase. “I was writing from every corner of my heart,” Roger said. On April 25, 1985, Big River opened at New York’s Eugene O’Neal’s Theather. The musical was a hit. Roger became the first Country artist to win a Tony Award.

In September of 1990, at the urging of his manager and long time friend, Stan Moress, Roger embarked on a tour unlike any he had ever done before. Just him and a guitar. The first show was ninety minutes of Roger being himself and left the audience laughing the entire time.

Roger found out that he had lung cancer in the fall of 1991 and performed one last time during CMA week in Nashville, TN. After a year of treatment and one short-lived remission, Roger passed away in Los Angeles on October 25, 1992, at 56 years old.

A week later, a memorial service was held for him at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN. Hundreds of relatives and friends, many of whom had known him while he was the ‘Singing Bellhop’, squeezed into the Ryman. They told their favorite Roger Miller stories and listened to his music, a fitting tribute to a man who was equal parts laughter and soul.

In 1995, Roger was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. “This would have been his dream come true,” Mary said. “The ultimate recognition of his songwriting and musical artistry”.

When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Roger replied, “I just don’t want to be forgotten”.