Roger Dean Miller, Sr.
(January 2, 1936 – October 25, 1992) was an American singer, songwriter, musician and actor, best known for his honky-tonk-influenced novelty songs. His most recognized tunes included the chart-topping country/pop hits "King of the Road", "Dang Me" and "England Swings", all from the mid-1960s Nashville sound era.After growing up in Oklahoma and serving in the United States Army, Miller began his musical career as a songwriter in the late 1950s, penning such hits as "Billy Bayou" and "Home" for Jim Reeves and "Invitation to the Blues" for Ray Price. He later began a recording career and reached the peak of his fame in the late 1960s, continuing to record and tour into the 1990s, charting his final top 20 country hit "Old Friends" with Willie Nelson in 1982. Later in his life, he wrote the music and lyrics for the 1985 Tony-award winning Broadway musical Big River
, in which he acted.Miller died from lung cancer in 1992, and was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame three years later. His songs continued to be recorded by younger artists, with covers of "Tall, Tall Trees" by Alan Jackson and "Husbands and Wives" by Brooks & Dunn, each reaching the number one spot on country charts in the 1990s. The Roger Miller Museum in his home town is a tribute to Miller.Nashville songwriterAfter his military discharge, Miller traveled to Nashville to begin his musical career. There, he met with Chet Atkins, who asked to hear Miller, and even loaned him a guitar after learning that he did not own one. Out of nervousness, Miller played the guitar and sang a song in two different keys. Atkins advised him to come back at a later date, after a little more work. Miller remained in Nashville and worked as a bellhop at the Andrew Jackson Hotel, to make ends meet; he was soon known as the "singing bellhop," Meanwhile, he was hired by Minnie Pearl to play fiddle in her band, and later met with George Jones, who introduced him to music executives from the Starday Records label, for an audition. The label executives were impressed with Miller and set up a session in Houston, accompanied by Jones. Jones and Miller collaborated, writing "Tall, Tall Trees" and "Happy Child."After marrying and having a child, Miller put his Nashville career on hold and left for Amarillo, Texas to become a fireman. He did not altogether abandon his musical career; though he worked as a fireman by day, he spent his nights performing gigs. Miller later recounted that in his career as a fireman, he saw only two fires, a "chicken coop" and another that he "slept through." After the latter, the department "suggested that...[he\] seek other employment." Miller met Ray Price, and was hired as a member of his Cherokee Cowboys. He moved back to Nashville, and penned the song "Invitation to the Blues," which was covered by Rex Allen and later by Price, for whom it was a number three hit on country charts. Miller signed with Tree Publishing on a salary of $50 a week. He wrote: "Half a Mind" for Ernest Tubb, "That's the Way I Feel" for Faron Young; and his first number one, "Billy Bayou," which along with "Home" were recorded by Jim Reeves. Miller became one of the biggest songwriters of the 1950s. However, Bill Anderson would later remark that "Roger was the most talented, and least disciplined person that you could imagine" citing the attempts of Miller's Tree Publishing boss, Buddy Killen to force him to finish a piece. He was known to give away lines, inciting many Nashville songwriters to follow him around since "everything he said was a potential song." (Killen)
Miller signed a recording deal with Decca Records in 1958. He was paired with singer Donny Little, who later gained fame under the name Johnny Paycheck, to perform the Little-penned "A Man Like Me", and later "The Wrong Kind of Girl." Both songs were honky-tonk and did not chart. His second single with the label, featuring the B-side "Jason Fleming," foreshadowed Miller's future style. To make money, Miller went on tour with Faron Young's band as a drummer, although he had never drummed. During this period, he signed a record deal with Chet Atkins at RCA Records, for whom Miller recorded "You Don't Want My Love" (also known as "In the Summertime") in 1960, which marked his first appearance on country charts, peaking at No. 14. The next year, he would make an even bigger impact, breaking through the top 10 with his single "When Two Worlds Collide", co-written with Bill Anderson. But Miller soon tired of writing songs, divorced his wife and began a party lifestyle that earned him the moniker "wild child." He was dropped from his record label and began to pursue other interests.After numerous appearances on late night comedy shows, Miller decided that he might have a chance in Hollywood as an actor. However, short of money, he signed with the up-and-coming label Smash Records, asked the label for $1,600 in cash, in exchange for recording 16 sides. Smash agreed to the proposal, and Miller performed his first session for the company early in 1964, when he recorded the hits "Dang Me" and "Chug-a-Lug". Both were released as singles, peaking at No. 1 and No. 3 respectively on country charts; both fared well on the Billboard Hot 100 reaching No. 7 and No. 9. The songs transformed Miller's career, although the former was penned by Miller in just four minutes. Later that year, he recorded the No. 15 hit "Do-Wacka-Do," and soon after the biggest hit of his career "King of the Road", which topped Country and Adult Contemporary charts while peaking at No. 4 on the Billboard 100. The song was inspired by a sign in Chicago that read "Trailers for Sale or Rent" and a hobo happened upon by Miller at an airport in Boise, but took months for Miller to write. The song was certified gold in May 1965 after selling a million copies. It won numerous awards, and earned a royalty check of $160,000 that summer. Later in the year Miller scored hits with "Engine Engine No. 9", "Kansas City Star" (a Top Ten country hit in 1965 about a local television children's show personality who would rather stay in the safety and security of his success in Kansas City rather than become a bigger star - or risk failure - in Omaha) and "England Swings" (an adult contemporary No. 1). He began 1966 with the hit "Husbands and Wives."Miller was given his own TV show on NBC in September 1966 but it was canceled after 13 weeks in January 1967. During this period Miller recorded songs written by other songwriters. The final hit of his own composition was "Walkin in the Sunshine," which reached No. 7 and No. 6 on the country and adult contemporary charts in 1967. Later in the year he scored his final top 10 hit with a lowkey cover of Bobby Russell's "Little Green Apples". The next year, he was first to cover Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," taking the song to No. 12 on country charts. In 1970, Miller recorded the album A Trip in the Country
, honky-tonk standards penned by Miller, including "Tall, Tall Trees." Later that year, after Smash Records folded, Miller was signed by Columbia Records, for whom he released Dear Folks: Sorry I Haven't Written Lately
in 1973. Later that year, Miller wrote and performed three songs in the Walt Disney animated feature Robin Hood
as the rooster/minstrel Alan-a-Dale, including "Whistle-Stop" which was sampled for use in the popular Hampster Dance web site. The other songs are Oo-De-Lally
and Not In Nottingham
. He provided the voice of Speiltoe, the equine narrator of the Rankin/Bass holiday special Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey
in 1978. Miller collaborated with Willie Nelson on an album titled Old Friends.
The title track was based on a song he had previously penned for his family in Oklahoma. The song, with guest vocals from Ray Price, was the last hit of Miller's career, peaking at No. 19 on country charts in 1982.
He continued to record for different record labels and charted a few songs, but stopped writing in 1978, feeling that his more "artistic" works were not appreciated. He was absent from the entertainment business following the release of Old Friends
in 1981, but returned after receiving an offer to write a Broadway score for a musical based upon Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Although he had not read the novel, Miller accepted the offer after discovering how the story brought him back to his childhood in rural Oklahoma. It took a year and a half to write the opening, but he eventually finished. The work, entitled Big River
premiered at Eugene O'Neill Theatre in New York on April 25, 1985. The musical received glowing reviews, earning seven Tony Awards including "Best Score" for Miller. He acted the part of Huck Finn's father Pap for three months after the exit of actor John Goodman, who left for Hollywood.Miller left for Santa Fe to live with his family following the success of Big River
. He co-wrote Dwight Yoakam's hit "It Only Hurts When I Cry" from his 1990 album If There Was a Way
, and supplied background vocals. The song was released as a single in 1991, peaking at No. 7 on country charts. He began a solo guitar tour in 1990, ending the following year after being diagnosed with lung cancer. His last performance on television occurred on a special tribute to Minnie Pearl which aired on TNN on October 26, 1992, the day after Miller's death.
Although usually grouped with country music singers, Miller's unique style defies easy classification. Many of his recordings were humorous novelty songs with whimsical lyrics, coupled with scat singing or vocalese riffs filled with nonsense syllables. Others were sincere ballads, which caught the public's fancy, none more so than his signature song, "King of the Road." The biographical book Ain't Got No Cigarettes
described Miller as an "uncategorizable talent", and stated that many regarded him as a genius.On his own style, Miller remarked that he "tried to do" things like other artists but that it "always came out different" so he got "frustrated" until realizing "I'm the only one that knows what I'm thinking." He commented that the favorite song that he wrote was "You Can't Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd." Johnny Cash discussed Miller's bass vocal range in his 1997 autobiography. He commented that it was the closest to his own that he had heard.
Personal life and death
Miller was married three times, and fathered seven children. Miller's first wife Barbara bore his first child, Michael, who later died. The couple had three more children subsequent to Michael's death — Alan, Rhonda and Shari. By the time Shari was born, Miller's career was blossoming into national popularity. The family remained in Inglewood for a short time after Miller found fame. The increasing interest in Miller caused struggles for the performer: He suffered from depression and insomnia, and had a drug addiction which contributed to the end of his first and second marriages. Miller was known to walk off shows and to fight. After the divorce from his first wife, he married Leah Kendrick. She gave birth to two children, Shannon and Dean Miller, who like his father, went on to become a singer-songwriter. The Christmas song "Old Toy Trains" was written by Miller about his son, who was two years old when it was released in 1967. After divorcing Leah, Miller married Mary Arnold, whom he met through Kenny Rogers. Arnold was a member of The First Edition, a band that included Rogers. They adopted two children: Taylor and Adam. After The First Edition, she performed with Miller on tours, including a White House performance for President Gerald Ford. In 2009 she was inducted into the Iowa Rock'n Roll Hall of Fame, Arnold currently manages Roger Miller's estate. She sued Sony for copyright infringement in the 2007 case Roger Miller Music, Inc. v. Sony/ATV Publishing, LLC, which went to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. Arnold was ultimately awarded nearly $1 million in royalties and rights to the songs Miller wrote in 1964.Miller was a lifelong cigarette smoker. During a television interview Miller explained that he composed his songs from "bits and pieces" of ideas he wrote on scraps of paper. When asked what he did with the unused bits and pieces, he half-joked, "I smoke 'em!" Miller died of lung and throat cancer in 1992, at age 56 shortly after the discovery of a malignant tumor under his vocal cords. His remains were cremated.