Roger Miller - Biography

Roger Miller was one of country music’s most unique talents, best known for a string of humorous singles he cut between 1964 and 1971. “Dang Me,” “One Dyin’ and a Buryin’,” “England Swings,” and “Little Green Apples,” all of which crossed over to become pop hits. His signature tune, “King of the Road,” recorded in 1965, won five Grammys including Best Rock Single and Best Country Single. The music industry usually treats funny songs as novelties, but Miller’s sharp, distinctly American humor gave his songs a depth most comic songs never aim for, much less achieve. He only had one gold record, for the single “King of the Road,” but he had a long run of best selling albums and wrote dozens of hits for other artists including Eddy Arnold’s “The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me,” Ray Price’s “Invitation to the Blues” and “Billy Bayou’ and “When Two Worlds Collide” for Jim Reeves. Later in his career, Miller wrote songs for Disney’s Robin Hood and won seven Tony Awards for the songs he composed for Big River, a Broadway show based on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. In 1991, he was diagnosed with throat cancer; a year later he died. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1995.


Miller was born in Fort Worth, TX in 1932. His father died when Miller was a baby. His mother couldn’t cope and she gave hee children to various relatives. Miller was sent to Okalahoma where his mother’s brother, his uncle Elmer, raised him. Miller was a dreamer and didn’t fancy a life picking cotton on a farm. His Okalahoma cousin, Sheb Wooley, who later wrote “Purple People Eater,” was already a singer and songwriter. He bought Miller his first fiddle and taught him how to play guitar. He started running away from home and hanging out in honky tonks as a teenager, eventually stealing a guitar so he could write songs. He felt guilty about the theft and turned himself in. He was given a choice of the Army or jail, and chose the Army.


When he was discharged, Miller moved to Nashville and auditioned for Chet Atkins, who wasn't interested. Miller worked various odd jobs until he was hired to play fiddle in Minnie Pearl’s road band. Miller met George Jones through Pearl and Jones helped him get a contract with Starday Records, but the singles he cut for them went nowhere. Meanwhile, Ray Price hired him as a back up singer. He convinced Price to record one of his tunes, “Invitation to the Blues,” and it became a #3 hit. Miller was off and running and soon charted with Ernest Tubb (“Half a Mind”), Faron Young (“That's the Way I Feel” and Jim Reeves who went to #1 with “Billy Bayou” and #2 with “Home.”


Miller burned through his royalty money as fast as he made it and kept working day jobs and music gigs including a year on the road playing drums with Faron Young’s band. Buddy Killen, who handled Miller’s songwriting career, took Chet Atkins a new Miller tune; “You Don't Want My Love (In the Summertime)” and Atkins let Miller record it. It went to #14 (Andy Williams had a pop hit with it), and Miller put together a band and started touring. He made two albums for Atkins, Roger Miller (1962 RCA) and One and Only (1963 RCA). His eponymous album included “When Two Worlds Collide,” a co-write with Bill Anderson, and it went top ten. Despite his success, Miller was always broke and his marriage was falling apart. And soon RCA dropped him for being unreliable.


Miller appeared on the Tonight Show when his pal Jimmy Dean was guest hosting and made a big impression on the NBC people. He decided to move to Hollywood as soon as he could afford to move. Buddy Killen stepped in again and helped Miller get signed to Smash, a new pop music division of Mercury’s Nashville operation. Miller agreed to cut the album for 100 dollars a song, if the label would loan him the money to move to California. Roger and Out (1964 Smash) Included “Dang Me,” which became a pop hit, and “Chug-a-Lug,” another Top 10.


Miller moved into a Hollywood apartment above the garage of Lee Hazelwood, but the hits brought him back to Nashville. The Return of Roger Miller (1965 Smash) included “King of the Road” which hit #1 country, #4 pop and went gold. “King” won four Grammys - Best Rock Single, Best Country Single, Best Rock Vocal for a Male and Best Country Vocal for a Male. The Return took the Best Country Album Grammy.


Miller got his own TV program in 1966, but it didn’t suit him and he went back to touring and recording. Third Time Around (1965 Smash) included “The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me” and “Engine #9,” another pop crossover hit, Words and Music (1966 Smash) with the country hit “Husbands and Wives,” which did not cross over, and Golden Hits (1966 Smash) which collected some non-album hits.


Walkin’ in the Sunshine (1967 Smash) spawned the title hit ,and A Tender Look at Love (1968 Smash) included “Little Green Apples,” a Bobby Russell tune that Miller took to the Country Top 10, his last big it. Roger Miller (1968 Smash) included three songs by a then new songwriter named Kris Kristofferson, “Me and Bobby McGee,’ “Darby’s Castle” and “Best of All Possible Worlds.” Before Miller’s next album, A Trip in the Country (1970 Mercury) was released, Mercury folded Smash. Miller saw it as a bad sign, and it brought on a case of writer’s block. He joked about his difficulty with his next studio set, Dear Folks: Sorry I Haven't Written Lately (1973 Columbia). After Dear Folks, he kept touring but seemed a bit studio shy. He wrote three tunes for the animated Disney feature Robin Hood and joined Willie Nelson for a duet album, Old Friends (1982 Columbia), his second to last studio recording. His best sides are featured in two career-spanning collections King of the Road (1990 Bear Family) and the three CD set The Genius of Roger Miller (1995 Mercury.)


In 198,1 Rocco Landesman, former professor at the Yale School of Drama, asked Miller to write tunes for a Broadway production of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to be called Big River. Miller procrastinated, but finally delivered and Big River  won seven Tonys, including Best Score. Miller’s last album, again titled Roger Miller (1985 MCA) included several songs from Big River. In 1990, he toured “unplugged,” just Miller and his guitar, and earned rave reviews for his comic presentation between songs. In 1991, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and died one year later.

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