King Of The Road
Like Picasso and Satchel Paige, there was no one like him. All you can do is point and say “there he goes.” And later, when the lyrics and rhythms have settled down in you and you realize he not only sings these songs like nobody on this here earth but that the son of a gun wrote them from the bottom up, you shake your head and wonder why the whole country doesn’t quit whatever it’s doing and sit back and listen. (1)
William Price Fox, Jr.
Roger Dean Miller was born on January 2, 1936 in Fort Worth, Texas, the youngest of three boys, to Jean and Laudene Holt Miller. Roger was named after two St. Louis Cardinals ballplayers, Rogers Hornsby and Dizzy Dean by his father Jean, who was a minor league catcher on the Fort Worth Cats, an affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Jean had an off-season job with Swift Meats so the family was doing OK. That changed when Jean died of spinal meningitis on March 2, 1937 at 26 years old.
By 1938, Jean’s brothers came to Fort Worth to pick up the three boys as Laudene looked for ways to support her family. Laudene, 23, had been sheltered her whole life and with Jean’s passing, knew nothing of the law and her rights. The boys were split among Jean’s family with Roger landing in Erick, Oklahoma, a small town on Route 66 about 150 miles west of Oklahoma City and seven miles east of the Texas state line with his uncle Elmer and aunt Armelia and his two cousins, Glenn and Melva. Years later, Roger had this to say about Erick. “We had a parade one time and there was nobody left to watch. The high school band was a trio.”
Elmer and Armelia were farmers who grew cotton and raised cattle and struggled to survive the Great Depression and the dust storms. It became apparent that Roger was not cut out for farm life. He loved music and dreamed of life far away from the farm. That clashed with the ideals of his aunt and uncle. Still, Roger was true to who he was. “I just didn’t want to milk cows and be in a cotton field all my life. Not that I didn’t think there was a future in it—I just didn’t want any part of it... I didn’t want to work that nine to five and make nothing. I wanted to get out and be world famous.” (3)
By the time he reached 11, Roger pooled money earned from odd jobs and bought an $8 guitar from the Sears Roebuck catalogue and spent every available minute playing that guitar. His dream was to “have my own band and play over the radio,” (4) according to a student public information sheet he filled out during his junior year in high school in 1951.
Walking to the beat of his own drum caused some family problems while Miller grew up. Some people who grew up with him speculate that Roger may have suffered from ADHD. The symptoms were not only present in his childhood but also evident during his 20s and 30s. “He was fidgety, energetic and hyperactive, always doing something, mischievous, unable to sit still and incapable of shutting off his mind, which was always playing with words, twisting them around,” stated Don Cusic, author of Miller’s biography. (5)
That inability to sit still led to his expulsion from school in the spring of 1952. He put a firecracker near the radiator by the study hall teacher and sat in his seat when the firecracker exploded. The teacher quietly walked to his desk, grabbed him and took him to the principal’s office where he was expelled. Roger took a look at the humorous side regarding his years at Erick High School. "The school I went to had 37 students," he once said, "me and 36 Indians. One time we had a school dance and it rained for 36 days straight. During recess we used to play cowboy and Indians and things got pretty wild from my standpoint.” (6)
Roger played fiddle in his first band, The Lonesome Valley Boys, near the end of junior year. He learned from a ¾ size instrument sent to him by Sheb Wooley, husband of Miller’s cousin, Melva. Sheb, fifteen years older than Roger, was Roger’s closest friend. In those days, Wooley and a younger Roger would ride out "fixin’ fence, chasing steers and talking about stardom," Wooley recalls. The two would listen to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights and the Light Crust Doughboys on Fort Worth radio by day.
Sheb was Miller’s lifeline to his dream. Wooley embarked on his entertainment calling first in Nashville as a disc jockey. After an uneventful try as a singer, Wooley spent a few years in Fort Worth before he moved to Hollywood, where he landed roles in a few movies. He made his mark in TV in a bit part on Rawhide. He hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1958 with his hit, The Purple People Eater. (7)
Miller’s senior class graduated in 1953 as Roger worked odd jobs and played in bars and dances. His drifting stopped abruptly after he stole a guitar in Texas and returned to Oklahoma in January of 1954. Roger told the manager of the Lonesome Valley Boys that his cousin, Glenn, put the down payment on the instrument and an amplifier with the agreement Roger would pay him back on installments. It turned out Roger broke into an Amarillo nightclub, stole the guitar, amp and some clothes. The Federal Marshall arrested him and returned him to Amarillo.
The judge who heard the case made an offer to Roger. Go to jail or enlist in the Army. Miller was inducted into the US Army on March 27, 1954. Sent to Korea after the signing of the armistice, Miller drove a jeep ushering officers from base to base. Lobbying to return stateside as a member of the Special Forces, Miller was reassigned to Fort McPherson in Atlanta where he joined the Army’s Circle A Wranglers.
Miller also met Horace J. “Aychie” Burns, brother of Jethro Burns of Homer and Jethro. Jethro was the brother-in-law of Chet Atkins, as they had married twin sisters. Aychie wrote a letter to Atkins on Miller’s behalf and upon discharge from the Army in March of 1957, Miller headed for Nashville.
Wasting no time, Miller showed up at Atkins office. “I just walked in and said to Chet Atkins, ‘I want to audition. I’m a songwriter,’ and he said ‘Well, where’s your guitar?’ I said, ‘I don’t have one’ and he said, ‘You can use mine.’ So there’s Chet Atkins and I’m using his guitar and I sang in one key and played in another. It was a disaster.” (8)
Miller landed a job as a bellhop at the Andrew Jackson Hotel. The hotel was close to the studios of WSM Radio, the local Nashville station that broadcast the Grand Ole Opry. It was at the studios where Roger met George Jones, who by this time, had scored four top ten hits on the country charts recording on the Starday label.
Jones was impressed by the songs Miller auditioned for him and urged the owners of Starday, Dan Pierce and Pappy Daily, to give Miller a listen. “He reminded me a lot of Hank Locklin,” remembered Pierce. “He had a high voice like Locklin. I wasn’t blown away, but he was different and likeable.” (9)
Jones was the first artist to record some of Roger’s songs. Jones recorded four tunes penned by Miller on April 23, 1957 at Owen Bradley’s Quonset Hut. Two days later, Jimmy Dean recorded two of Miller’s songs, including Happy Child, the first title released as a single written by Miller.
Roger recorded his first four songs (self-penned) for Starday later that year in Houston. None charted. Roger continued to bellhop by day and hung out at WSM at night. He was offered a job as a fiddler for a Minnie Pearl tour by singer Mel Tillis. “How much does it pay?” asked Roger. “$18 a show,” said Tillis. “For how long?” asked Roger. “For three months,” said Tillis. “All out through the Midwest. Fair dates.” “Well, let me run over and give the Andrew Jackson my two-minute notice,” said Roger. (10)
After the Minnie Pearl tour, there wasn’t any work for Roger in Nashville. So Miller and his new bride, Barbara, who was pregnant at the time, moved to Amarillo, Texas. Roger worked briefly for the fire department when Ray Price and his touring group, the Cherokee Cowboys came to town.
In need of a background singer and opening act, Price heard about Roger. “We got hold of Roger and he came out to audition and I liked him right away.” Price recalled. “But he made a mistake—he wanted to play fiddle right off the bat and when he got through he said ‘How’d I sound to you’ and I was trying to keep from laughing—he wasn’t a great fiddle player—so I said, ‘Can you sing and play guitar?’” (11) Once Price heard Miller play and sing, the job was his.
Miller served as a front man for the Cowboys into 1959. On May 6, 1958, Price recorded Miller’s Invitation To The Blues in Nashville with Roger providing harmony. Roger was listed as a guitar player on the flip side, City Lights, which was recorded on May 29, 1958. The record was a double-sided hit as Invitation topped at #3 and Lights reached #1 in August of 1958. Roger wrote his first top ten hit. (12)
Photo courtesy of Sun Records.
Other country hits soon followed. Half A Mind by Ernest Tubb, That’s The Way I Feel by Faron Young and Billy Bayou by Jim Reeves all landed in top ten in 1958. The hits continued in 1959 as Miller penned Home for Jim Reeves, Last Night At A Party by Faron Young and Big Harlan Taylor for George Jones—all were top twenty on the country charts.
Even with his songwriting success bringing in cash, Miller spent money faster than he earned it. Roger asked Faron Young for a job in late 1959. Roger had played fiddle on a show with Faron in Indiana but Faron told him he didn’t have an opening for a fiddle player but “I need a drummer. Do you play drums?” Miller asked, “When do you need a drummer?” Faron replied, “Monday.” “By Monday I’ll be a drummer,” said Roger, according to Diane Diekman in her biography of Faron Young.
While on the road with Young, Roger with that nervous energy now fueled by use of amphetamines, would stay up nights and write songs. On this tour with Faron Young, Roger wrote In The Summertime (You Don’t Want My Love). Miller banged on Young’s door to play it for him. Young, quite possibly inebriated, didn’t want to be bothered and threatened to kick Miller off the bus. Finally, he woke up, listened to the song and called it “the most horrible song he ever heard.” (14)
Miller took the song to his publisher, Tree Publishing and played the song for owner, Buddy Killen. Miller told Killen Skeeter Davis liked it but the song lacked another verse. Miller wrote the verse and Killen pitched the song to Chet Atkins at RCA. Atkins liked it but asked who could do it. Killen suggested Roger, who was under contract with Decca Records at the time. Killen called Owen Bradley at Decca and asked if he would release Miller from his contract.
Bradley agreed and on August 10, 1960, Roger did his first RCA session. Backing him on the afternoon session were Roy Huskey, Jr. on bass, Floyd Cramer on piano, Buddy Harman on drums, Hank Garland and Ben Schaefele on guitars and the Anita Kerr Singers on background vocals. (15) You Don’t Want My Love entered the Billboard Country chart on October 31, 1960, topped at #14 and stayed for 16 weeks. (16) Andy Williams covered the song and it entered the Pop chart on December 12, reached #64 and stayed for seven weeks. (16) The song was featured a number of times on Williams’ show on NBC. A song written by Roger made it’s first appearance on the Pop chart. (17)
Life on the road caused problems at home. His first wife, Barbara, with two kids and another on the way, filed for divorce. Accusations for lack of financial support, physical abuse and neglect were part of the papers. Also mentioned was his use of uppers which “he took on a regular basis even when he had no need to stay awake.” Barbara believed Miller’s use of pills “caused his tantrums.” (18)
In March of 1962, Jimmy Dean was chosen as a guest host for the Tonight Show. Dean was a hot commodity because his song, Big Bad John was all over the radio. When Dean came to Nashville for a recording session, songwriters would stop by his hotel and pitch him songs. Among those songwriters was Roger. Roger made such an impression on Dean with his humor, that Dean invited him to be a guest on the Tonight Show that June. That was Miller’s first appearance on a national TV show.
In a medium starving for what’s current and different, Miller fit the bill. Instead of promoting his songs as country, he presented them as novelty tunes. The appearance with Jimmy Dean led to a stint on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Carson and Miller hit it off as Miller appeared on the Tonight Show 35 times between 1962-1985 during the Carson years. With his recording career sagging and his live performances increasing, Roger believed his future was in TV and/or the movies. He was ready to depart Nashville for Los Angeles.
Photo courtesy of Grammy.com.
With Roger, there was always that constant need for cash. He had just signed a deal with Smash Records, a subsidiary of Mercury Records. So, he asked Jerry Kennedy, a studio guitarist as well as an A&R man for Smash, for an advance of $1600. Kennedy told Roger that Smash would advance him $100 for every completed song in an upcoming recording session. If he needed $1600, they needed 16 songs.
The session was set for Friday and Saturday, January 9-10, 1964 at Columbia Studios in Nashville. On Friday, three songs were recorded including Less And Less (“more I think of you less and less”), the song chosen to be his first single. In back to back sessions on Saturday, Roger and the studio musicians recorded twelve songs.
“We worked our butts off that day,” remembered bassist Bob Moore. None of the musicians had heard any of the songs before they gathered in the studio. The musicians listened to each song as Roger sang it live and then started “running it down” or practicing it. They did not write anything down. Instead, they kept it all in their head.
At the end of two run-throughs, the musicians were usually ready to record a master on tape. Usually, there were three or four songs on a session so there was a little time to relax between songs, but cutting 12 songs in one day meant that it was a constant grind to listen, learn and record each song, then get on to the next one. (19)
The first song recorded was Chug-A-Lug, a tune based on real characters from Erick, Oklahoma. The manager of the Lonesome Valley Boys reportedly could “chug” a beer in three seconds, schoolmates once brought some wine in a Mason jar to school one day and an uncle once snuck Roger into a bar when his around 14.
The ninth song recorded was Dang Me, written in four minutes in Phoenix while sitting at a bar. It was an accurate self-appraisal of Roger at that point in his life—a man who expressed guilt for the freewheeling lifestyle he lived while his family struggled at home.
Harold Bradley, who played guitar on the session and sat next to Roger during the recording, remembered Roger running Dang Me down and playing that string-bending riff off the E chord that opens the song. “Roger had an Epiphone gut string that kind of looks like Willie Nelson’s guitar,” remembered Harold. “I was playing a real nice, nylon string guitar and Roger said, ‘Harold, I want you to play this.’ He played this ‘bap-ba-ba-ba-da-da-da-da” and I looked at him knowing there’s no way I can play it like he’s playing it. I asked Roger if he could play it again and he did and I sat there puzzled. So, I called Jerry Kennedy over and said, ‘Jerry, Roger wants me to play this—what do you think?’ Roger played that intro again as Jerry listened and immediately told Roger, ‘You’ve got to play that because it was funky sounding.’ So I said, ‘Okay!’ and thank God he played it because I could never have played it like he did.” (20)
Kennedy didn’t play all the songs recorded when he first listened to the sessions because his 7-inch tape had just a 5-inch take up reel. However, when he replayed all 16 recordings on his home recorder, his three sons immediately “went wild” when they heard the song Dang Me. Kennedy knew he had something special so he substituted Dang Me for Less And Less as the first Roger Miller single release.
On the night Dang Me was released, Roger was playing in a bar in San Francisco for $75. The check bounced. The first time Roger heard the song on the radio was when he was driving on the 405 freeway in Los Angeles. Miller’s fortunes were ready to change.
A call from a radio programmer in Dallas alerted Smash that there was action on Dang Me. After being placed on jukeboxes, people started buying the record. The programmer knew there would be hell to play if he ran out of copies. Shortly after the Dallas call, the record was added to WLS in Chicago, KAAY in Little Rock and another 50,000-watt station in Oklahoma.
Dang Me hit the Billboard Country Chart on June 6, 1964—the Pop Chart a week later. The song soared to #1 Country where it sat for six weeks. It peaked at #7 on the Pop side. (16) (17) Roger’s singing career had found pay dirt. Dang Me scored well in the 1964 Grammy Awards — Best Country Song, Best Country and Western Recording, Single, Best Country and Western Performance and Best Country and Western Album: Dang Me/Chug-A-Lug. (21)
The follow-up to Dang Me was Chug-A-Lug. Released on September 19, 1964, there was cause for concern about the song, as many Smash executives believed the lyric containing the word “wine” might offend the conservative country audience. Jerry Kennedy even edited the lyric from the song. Charlie Fach, one of the label’s owners saw it differently. He was convinced the song would be a hit with college students. Score one for Charlie! The lyric was returned and Chug-A-Lug became an anthem for not only college kids but for all fans. Country music fans showed they had a sense of humor.
Chug-A-Lug topped at #3 on the Country Chart and #9 on the Pop side. The next single was Do-Wacka-Do, a song that celebrates Miller’s newfound fame (I see you're goin' down the street in your big Cadillac, you got girls in the front, you got girls in the back, Yeah, way in back, you got money in a sack, both hands on the wheel and your shoulders rared back.) The story line and additional nonsensical lyrics drove the song to #15 Country and #31 Pop. (16) (17)
Miller and Smash followed with the biggest hit of Miller’s career. The story of King Of The Road has been told so many times that no one seems to have any idea which one is definitive. According to Otto Kittsinger, who wrote the liner notes for the 1995 3-CD box set King Of The Road: The Genius Of Roger Miller, Roger told him that he had played a date in Davenport, Iowa and was driving to Chicago to catch a plane when he saw a sign, a few miles west of Chicago, that said, “Trailers for sale or rent.” Roger said that he “just thought it would sound good in a song and two or three weeks later I was in Boise and it all came together.” (22)
The Cusic biography states Roger wrote the first verse in the Boise Hotel—Room 622—and then was stuck. It was unusual for Roger to stay with a song for a long period of time but he “knew it was good” and kept working on the song for three weeks. He went to a store and bought a hobo—that statue is still around—”and stared at it until the rest of the tune came to me.” He finished the song in Kitchner, Ontario. (23)
The Roger Miller website tells a slightly different story. Roger had written the song that summer (1964), probably during a Midwest TV tour in June. As he often told the story, he was on the road somewhere outside Chicago when he saw a sign that read, "Trailers for Sale or Rent." He wrote the first verse, but got no further. In Boise, Idaho, to "induce labor," as he put it, he saw a hobo in an airport gift shop. It was the inspiration for the rest of the song. The scribbling of "King of the Road" now hangs in a shadow box at the Roger Miller Museum in Erick, Oklahoma. All told, "King of the Road" took him six weeks to write, an eternity as opposed to the four minutes he spent on “Dang Me.” (6)
King was one of four songs recorded on November 3, 1964 in Nashville at the Quonset Hut. As was the custom those days, the artist previewed the song for the studio players prior to the recording session. Bassist Bob Moore played a jazzy run on his upright bass, which sold Jerry Kennedy and Roger. That bass run set the tone for the recording.
King entered the Country Chart on February 13, 1965. Spending a total of twenty weeks, King reached the #1 spot where it ruled for five weeks. (16) Though entering the Pop Chart two weeks earlier, the song topped at #4 on March 20. (24)
Roger became the hottest country act in America. He appeared on the cover of Saturday Evening Post on February 12. On March 1, he starred on the Andy Williams Show. His price for a concert/show rose from $150 a night to $25,000 a week in Las Vegas, Reno and Lake Tahoe. He worked 18 weeks in 1965 at those three venues.
Photo courtesy of the Saturday Evening Post.
Striking while the iron was hot, Roger never took time off. Roger’s agent, Doug Gilmore stopped by his LA house to pick up the mail. “There was about $250,000 in royalty checks in his mailbox. Soon after that, he was on the Tonight Show and Johnny Carson asked him, ‘When did you really realize that you’d made it?’ and Roger said, ‘The day I got $250,000 worth of checks in my mailbox.’” (25)
Later in 1965, Roger won five Grammys for King Of The Road—for Best Contemporary Rock and Roll Single, Best Contemporary Vocal Performance, Best Country & Western Recording, Best Country Vocal Performance, and Best Country Song. (26)
The year 1965 produced four more top ten hits, Engine Engine #9, One Dyin’ And A Buryin’, Kansas City Star and England Swings. In 1966, Roger placed five songs on the Country Chart and four on the Pop Chart.
Roger had his own network TV show on NBC beginning in September of 1966. The show was cancelled after thirteen weeks in January of 1967. He landed in the #6 spot on the Country side with a cover of a Bobby Russell song, Little Green Apples in 1968 while hitting #12 with Kris Kristofferson’s Me And Bobby McGee in 1969. (16)
Roger recorded for a number of labels after the Smash years in a career that spanned from 1960-1986. In 1981, he accepted an offer to write a Broadway score for a musical based upon Mark Twain’s Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn. In typical Roger Miller fashion, the play took a few years to complete but eventually the work, Big River premiered at the Eugene O’Neill Theater in New York on April 25, 1985. It was well worth the wait. The musical earned seven Tony Awards including “Best Score” for Miller.
After the success of Big River, Roger and family (he was married three times) moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He co-wrote Dwight Yoakam’s hit It Only Hurts When I Cry in 1990. Roger still had his sense of humor during that session. Roger told Dwight and the crew that he was from Erick, Oklahoma and when Dwight asked, “What’s that near?” Roger replied, “It’s close to extinction. The population is 1500 and that includes rakes and tractors.” Also during that session Roger was asked for his driver’s license for the Musicians Union time card. Roger replied, “How fast was I singing?" (27)
He started a solo tour in 1990 but ended a year later when he was diagnosed with lung and throat cancer. His last TV appearance was a musical tribute to Minnie Pearl, which aired on TNN on October 26, 1992, the day after Miller’s death. (21)
Roger sings parts of his first four Smash hits on The Jimmy Dean Show from January 7, 1965.
This video of Roger singing King Of The Road was way ahead of its time. It first appeared on a show called Music Scene on ABC in 1969.
Jody Miller (no relation) performed an "answer" song to King Of The Road. The song was released in May of 1965. It's a racy video for 1965.
1) Fox, William Price, Jr. Dang Him! Roger Miller can’t roller skate in a buffalo herd, but he swings like a pendulum do,” TV Guide, November 12, 1966. (Kindle Locations 3898-3899).
2) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Location 2263). Kindle Edition.
3) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Locations 212-213). Kindle Edition.
4) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Locations 232-233). Kindle Edition.
5) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Locations 243-244). Kindle Edition.
6) Roger Miller Website, Link.
7) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 777.
8) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Locations 495-498). Kindle Edition.
9) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Locations 538-539). Kindle Edition.
10) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Locations 558-560). Kindle Edition.
11) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Locations 605-607). Kindle Edition.
12) Whitburn, Joel, Top Country Singles 1944-2001, Page 276.
13) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Locations 720-723). Kindle Edition.
14) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Location 737). Kindle Edition.
15) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Locations 760-762). Kindle Edition.
16) Whitburn, Joel, Top Country Singles 1944-2001, Page 230.
17) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 765.
18) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Location 845). Kindle Edition.
19) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Locations 1116-1121). Kindle Edition.
20) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Locations 1137-1144). Kindle Edition.
21) Wikipedia, Roger Miller, Link.
22) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Locations 1290-1292). Kindle Edition.
23) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Locations 1292-1295). Kindle Edition.
24) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Hot 100 Charts The Sixties.
25) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Locations 1380-1382). Kindle Edition.
26) Songfacts, King Of The Road by Roger Miller, Link.
27) Cusic, Don. Roger Miller: Dang Him! (Kindle Locations 68-70). Kindle Edition.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images/Silver Screen Collection.
© 2018 Jerry Reuss