Mercury folded the Smash subsidiary in 1970, a move that spooked the superstitious artists on the label, including Roger. His recording dates grew sporadic, and the hit singles all but disappeared. His last chart record for Mercury was “Hoppy’s Gone” a song in which the death of a matinee idol, Hopalong Cassidy, virtually signifies the end of all that was just and true in America.
After leaving Mercury, Roger signed with Columbia Records. His first album for the new label was called, significantly, “Dear Folks: Sorry I Haven’t Written Lately,” though he then had begun to do so again. In fact, the best cut on the album, was “What Would My Mama
Say.” In 1974, he wrote and sang songs for the Disney cartoon, “Robin Hood.” He also continued to work the road, never allowing his show to get stale.
“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 on. “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 old friends like Ray Price. 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 mama and dad back in Oklahoma, and of which he was especially proud.
Ray Price joined them for the session, and the sweetly melancholy tune made a respectable showing on the charts. As it turned out, “Old Friends” was the last most people heard of Roger Miller until Huck Finn floated down Broadway.
The story of Big River is as fantastic as any of Roger’s life. The key man was Rocco Landesman, a former Yale professor at the Yale School of Drama who happened to be the world’s #1 Roger Miller fan.
“I thought he was an absolute genius,” Landesman says. On the way to a New York appearance by Roger at the Lone Star Cafe, Landesman conceived the notion that Miller ought to write a Broadway score – and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would be the perfect vehicle. He approached Roger’s wife, Mary, after the show. She encouraged him to write a letter to Roger with the idea. Roger jokes, “He made me an offer I couldn’t understand.”
Nevertheless, Landesman wrote a number of letters to Miller and about a year later had him convinced he was the right man for the project. Roger was off on another new journey. Landesman commissioned William Hauptman to adapt Twain’s book and the project was underway.
Roger, initially intimidated, spent a year and a half on the first phase of the musical. He was “writing from every corner of my heart,” as he put it. The play opened at Harvard’s American Repertory Theatre, then moved to La Jolla, California, where a struggling young actor named John Goodman took the role of Huck’s father, Pap. In the play, Pap’s feature song is “Guv’ment,” which Roger wrote while thinking about the uncle who raised him.
Elmer Miller didn’t drink like Pap, but he did “used to cuss out the government,” Roger said.