Obituary: Roger Miller
Tuesday 27 October 1992
ROGER MILLER was one of the most successful country singer- songwriters of the Sixties. He may be best remembered as the laid- back singer with a wry style of humour, exemplified by 'England Swings', his gentle poke at the media hype of London's 'Swinging Sixties'. He had the ability to compose popular catchy tunes with witty and inventive lyrics (the humour of which was often misinterpreted). Perhaps his most famous song was the celebration of hobo life 'King of the Road', which was top of the UK charts for a week in May 1965, and which prompted him to open a hotel in Nashville which he also named 'King of the Road'.
Roger Miller was born in 1936, in Fort Worth, Texas. He was brought up by an aunt and uncle in the small town of Erick, in Oklahoma. Influenced by the style of the country singer Hank Williams, Miller learned the guitar, banjo and fiddle when a boy, and started songwriting while in his teens. He enlisted with the US Army and served in Korea for three years with the Special Services Corps, at the same time as playing in a country band.
In 1956 he moved to Nashville and auditioned for Chet Atkins, reportedly playing guitar in one key and singing in another. It was Miller's intention to make it primarily as a songwriter, and he pursued this while taking a variety of day jobs, including working as a bellboy in the Andrew Jackson Hotel. His first break came in 1958 when he joined Ray Price's touring show as a comedian. For Price he wrote the song 'Invitation To The Blues' which became a top- 20 country hit, and also entered the main US hits chart. The song was also covered by Patti Page.
Because of the success of the Price record, Miller was given a contract with Starday, with whom he remained for two years. His songs were covered by many middle-of-the-road country singers such as Jim Reeves, George Jones and Ernest Tubb. In 1960 he obtained his first significant break when he was signed by RCA. Andy Williams recorded Miller's song 'You Don't Want My Love', which reached No 64 in the US charts. In the following year he had a country hit (No 6 in the charts) with 'When Two Worlds Collide', co-written with Bill Anderson. Joining Faron Young's band as a drummer and backing vocalist, he obtained his first major hit with 'Swiss Maid', which was recorded by Del Shannon and made No 2 in the US charts. For a while Miller played with a number of bands, on several instruments: fiddle for Minnie Pearl and bass for Ray Price.
Miller seemed to be exhibiting signs of restlessness at this time. He took acting lessons with the intention of moving to Los Angeles to pursue a career in films. Instead, in May 1964, he joined the Smash label, a subsidiary of Mercury, and recorded his own 'novelty' song 'Dang Me'. To his surprise, the song received considerable airplay, and hit No 7 in the US charts in July. The song was a million-seller and won three Grammy awards, as well as the Best Country Performance of 1964. An album, Roger and Out, followed. This remained in the US charts for 46 weeks, earning a gold disc for half a million sales. This sudden success was secured by a string of hits: 'Chug-a-Lug', 'Do Wacka Do' and, in the following year, 'King of the Road'.
'King of the Road', a jazzy song with clever lyrics, sold over 550,000 copies in the first 18 days of its release. The song won five Grammies, including, interestingly, Best Rock and Roll song as well as Best Country Song. The song has since been covered several hundred times, and inspired a 'reply' record from Jody Miller, 'Queen of the House', released on Capitol in 1965. A string of records followed, including 'Engine Engine No 9', 'One Dyin' and a Buryin', 'Kansas City Star', 'Husbands And Wives', 'Talkin' in the Sunshine' and 'England Swings', all of which were top-10 hits. Miller was awarded 11 Grammies between 1964 and 1965, a record which has never been broken. These songs were variable, ranging from the 'folksy' and the novelty, as with the diverting humour of 'You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd', to a plainer, almost bland style with 'Walkin' in the Sunshine' and 'Little Green Apples' (a hit penned by a songwriter whom Miller discovered, Bobby Russell).
In September 1966, following several television appearances, including the Johnny Carson Show and the Andy Williams Show, Miller was given his own weekly variety programme on NBC - The Roger Miller Show. Unfortunately the show ran for only a short period, enjoying moderate success. From this point Miller was never able to recreate his earlier popularity, although he continued to record and perform. Instead, he concentrated on songwriting. He worked on soundtracks of the film Waterhole 3 in 1967 and on Walt Disney's cartoon Robin Hood in 1973 (in which he also sang).
A double compilation album, Spotlight On Roger, was released in 1967, and in 1982 he recorded the album Old Friends with Willie Nelson. (This was an attempt by Nelson to revive interest in Miller on the back of his own success.) Although he had faded from popularity, Roger Miller returned to the limelight briefly in 1985 with Big River, a musical version of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. The show opened in New York and won a Tony Theatre Award as Best Musical of the Year.
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