Miller, Roger Dean

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Miller, Roger Dean

(b. 2 January 1936 in Fort Worth, Texas; d. 26 October 1992 in Los Angeles, California), country singer and songwriter best known for the classic truck-driving anthem “King of the Road” and for his humorous, mid-1960s hits, including “Dang Me” and “Chug-a-Lug.”

Miller was the only child of Jean Miller, a farmer, and Laudene Holt, a homemaker. After his father died of spinal meningitis when Miller was an infant, he was raised by his uncle, Elmer D. Miller, in Erick, Oklahoma. Elmer was a small-time farmer who sharecropped cotton. Miller joined the family picking cotton and raised enough money to buy his first guitar when he was twelve years old. Miller’s cousin, Melva Laure Miller, was married to Sheb Wooley, who became famous in the 1960s for the novelty hit “Purple People Eater.” Wooley also lived in Erick and taught Miller his first chords on the guitar.

Miller left school after completing the eighth grade and worked in various jobs, including as a ranch hand and as a performer in local rodeos. In 1952 he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the Korean War. By this time Miller was an adept guitarist, and he played the fiddle, banjo, piano, and drums. Shortly before his discharge, he was sent back to the United States to serve in a Special Services unit as a musician. After the war, while stationed in Atlanta, Miller played fiddle in the Circle A Wranglers, a band that previously featured another army enlistee, Faron Young. Miller served with a sergeant who was a brother of Jethro Burns of the famous country comedy duo Homer and Jethro. The sergeant encouraged Miller to go to Nashville, Tennessee, after his discharge and arranged for Miller to

audition with RCA Records. Although his audition did not result in a recording contract, Miller soon found work as a backup musician. He played the fiddle for the country comedienne Minnie Pearl and toured as a drummer with Young and Ray Price.

Miller, a short, wiry man with a puckish face, first achieved success as a songwriter in the late 1950s. He placed “Invitation to the Blues” with Price, who scored a number-three hit on the country chart with it. The song was later a pop hit for Patti Page. Miller also wrote “Half a Mind” for Ernest Tubb and “Billy Bayou” for Jim Reeves. In 1960 Miller finally signed with RCA as a solo artist. A year later, a country ballad he wrote with Bill Anderson called “When Two Worlds Collide” reached number six on the country chart.

Despite his success, Miller was frustrated by the limitations he faced both as a performer and as a songwriter in Nashville. In late 1963 he signed with Smash Records, a small label affiliated with the Mercury label. Using his advance money, Miller relocated to Los Angeles. A year later Miller broke through with the hits that launched his career as a smooth-voiced, humorous pop vocalist; “Dang Me” went to number one on the country chart and number seven on the pop chart, and “Chug-a-Lug” was number three on the country chart and number nine on the pop chart. Miller won an unprecedented five Grammy Awards in 1964 and went on to win a total of eleven throughout his career. That career Grammy record remained until it was finally broken by Michael Jackson in 1983. In February

1965 Miller released his big-rig anthem “King of the Road,” which topped the country and adult contemporary charts and reached number four on the pop charts. That year four more singles made the country top ten, including “Engine Engine #9,” which rose to number two on the country chart and number seven on the pop chart. In addition, “England Swings,” a humorous commentary on the success of the Beatles and other “British invasion” groups, reached number one on the adult contemporary chart, number three on the country chart, and number eight on the pop chart.

Miller’s successes on the country and pop charts continued throughout the late 1960s, as he alternated smooth ballads with more tongue-in-cheek material. He also continued to write songs for other singers, most notably the 1966 Andy Williams hit “In the Summertime,” which gained Miller a spot on Williams’s television variety show. Between 1966 and 1967 Miller hosted a short-lived show of his own on NBC, the Roger Miller Show. Miller’s major hits from that period include “Husbands and Wives,” which reached number five on the country chart and number twenty-six on the pop chart in 1966, and the classic “Little Green Apples,” which made the country and pop charts in 1968.

By the end of the 1960s, Miller had become addicted to amphetamines, which affected the quality of his work. Miller’s pop career faded in the early 1970s, although he continued to place songs regularly in the country top thirty. He last appeared on the country chart in December 1973 with “I Believe in Sunshine,” which barely made the top twenty-five. A year later he wrote and performed songs for the Disney animated version of Robin Hood (1974). Miller then dropped out of the music scene for nearly a decade. In 1982 the singer Willie Nelson, an old friend from Miller’s early days in Nashville, invited Miller to join him on the aptly titled Old Friends album. The title song, written by Miller, was a number-nineteen country hit. Soon after, Rocco Landesman, a producer of stage musicals, suggested that Miller write the music and lyrics for Big River, a stage adaptation of Mark Twain’s book The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The show opened on the road but in 1985 reached Broadway, where it won for Miller a Tony Award for best musical score. The play ran for two and a half years on Broadway, and later Miller briefly acted in the role of Finn’s father in the road company version of the show. “River in the Rain,” a ballad from the show, was a minor country hit as well.

Big River revitalized Miller’s performing career. In the late 1980s he developed a nightclub act that he successfully took on the road, performing at supper clubs and also with many small symphony orchestras. Miller settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his third wife, Mary Margaret Arnold, whom he had married on 14 February 1978, and seemed to enjoy his newfound fame. However, he was diagnosed with throat cancer in late 1991 and succumbed to the illness in October 1992. He is buried in Los Angeles. Miller was posthumously elected into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1995.

Miller was a talented comic vocalist whose gentle twang betrayed his country roots but whose vocal style was subdued enough to win him a mainstream audience. Although Nashville executives found his voice “unusual,” it was the perfect vehicle for expressing his often ironic, slightly skewed version of the world. His success as a crossover artist on the pop chart was mainly thanks to his easygoing vocals and amusing songs.

Articles in the popular press and biographies in standard reference works discuss Miller’s life and career. Obituaries are in the Los Angeles Times (26 Oct. 1992), New York rim ’ (27 Oct. 1992), and Billboard (7 Nov. 1992).

Richard Carlin

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Miller, Roger Dean

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