Full name Roger Dean Miller; born January 2, 1936, in Fort Worth, Tex.; married three times; married third wife, Mary Arnold (a singer), February 14, 1978; children: Dean, Shannon, Alan, Rhonda, Shari. Education: Attended drama classes, early 1960s.
Country singer-songwriter Roger Miller is perhaps best known for his 1965 smash, "King of the Road," which has sold over two and one-half million copies, been recorded over three hundred times by other artists, and been translated into approximately thirty different languages. He is responsible for other classics in the genre as well, including "Chug-a-lug" and "Dang Me," but gained critical acclaim later for his work on the 1985 Broadway musical Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Miller, born January 2, 1936, in Fort Worth, Texas, had a severely disadvantaged childhood. His father died less than a year after he was born, and his mother was unable to support her three sons. Thus each was given to one of their uncles to raise, and Roger found himself with his Uncle E.D. and his Aunt Armella Miller on a cotton farm near Erick, Oklahoma, with no electricity. The boy hated farm work, and from early childhood developed the ambition of becoming a singer in order to escape the farm; as Miller told Alan Wallach in Newsday: "I hated it all.... A lot of people who grew up on a farm will know why I said, 'Lord, give me a guitar and let me get out of here and make something of the world.'" He was also influenced by the fact that one of his cousins was married to Sheb Wooley, a country and novelty song performer. When Miller was twelve, he took the earnings from picking four hundred pounds of cotton and bought a secondhand guitar; he had also learned to play the fiddle and the drums. Not able to wait until someone discovered his musical talent and made him a star, Miller quit school a short time afterwards and began to wander through both Oklahoma and Texas, working odd jobs that included cattle herding and driving tractors. He also tried his hand at riding in rodeos.
Throughout this period of his life, however, Miller continued to pursue his interest in music. He sang and played for any audience he could scrape up, and was occasionally invited to sit in with local bands. Eventually when he was seventeen, he joined the U.S. Army and was sent to Korea during the latter part of the Korean War. Though Miller saw some active duty, his talent was quickly recognized and he was transferred to Special Forces as an entertainer. He became part of a group that performed country music for the troops, and his efforts--often his own compositions--were well received by his fellow servicemen. Also, one of Miller's sergeants was the brother of Jethro, of the country duo Homer and Jethro; this acquaintance helped persuade him to try his luck in Nashville, Tennessee after his release from the army.
The first time Miller did so, he received an audition with RCA Records before famed country guitarist Chet Atkins. Apparently the young performer was so nervous that he sang in one key and played in another; Atkins was not impressed. So Miller went back to odd jobs, including a short stint as a firefighter in Amarillo, Texas. He was fired because he slept through the alarm for the second fire that took place after he was hired. Eventually he decided to try his luck in Nashville again. He made a slow start, having to work as a bellhop in one of the city's luxury hotels. But Miller also began to find work as a musician for other country artists; during the late 1950s he served as a fiddler for Minnie Pearl, a bandleader for Ray Price, a drummer for Faron Young, and a guitarist for George Jones. He managed to sell some of his songs, too; Price recorded his "Invitation to the Blues," Ernest Tubb his "Half a Mind," Jim Reeves did "Billy Bayou," and Jones did "Tall, Tall Trees."
By the early 1960s, Miller was recording for RCA. He was only moderately successful; one of his bigger hits was a song he wrote with country singer Bill Anderson, "When Two Worlds Collide." But in 1964 Miller was no longer with RCA and was so frustrated with his singing career that he decided to go to Los Angeles, California, and take acting classes. To earn extra money for this project, he first did a recording session for Smash Records because they were willing to give him an advance of nearly two thousand dollars. While he was in California, the songs he had recorded for Smash started attracting attention. Disc jockeys liked the tracks, and gave them lots of airplay. "Dang Me" and "Chug-a-lug" became quick hits, and much bigger ones than any of his previous recordings for RCA. The tunes also won praise from the musical establishment; 1964 saw Miller garner five Grammy Awards, including the writer's award for best country and western song for "Dang Me," and Best New Country and Western Artist.
The following year was an even better one for Miller. He released four huge hits: "Engine, Engine Number Nine," "Kansas City Star," "One Dyin' and a-Buryin'," and the classic "King of the Road." And he scored six Grammy Awards in 1965; because of the broad appeal of "King," these included both Best Contemporary Male Vocal Performance and Best Country and Western Male Vocal Performance. Such phenomenal success led the National Broadcasting Corporation to offer Miller his own television variety program. The result, "The Roger Miller Show," ran during the fall of 1966.
Despite Miller's fame, the show failed. In addition to being aired against the extremely popular "I Love Lucy," it apparently didn't take Miller's style into consideration. He told William Whitworth in the New Yorker that "they were trying to make a country Andy Williams out of me. Writing things for me, putting things in my mouth that didn't fit..." Unfortunately, the cancellation of "The Roger Miller Show" marked the beginning of a downturn in the singer's career. This was further complicated by Miller's problem with amphetamine addiction, which he conquered in 1969.
Though Miller scored minor hits throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, such as "I Believe in Sunshine" and "Everyone Gets Crazy Now and Then," he didn't grab the spotlight again until his involvement with the Broadway show Big River. He was approached by the show's producer, Rocco Landesman, in 1982; Landesman asked Miller to write lyrics and music for the project. He worked on the show for the next three years, but the results were apparently worth it. Mel Gussow in the New York Times affirmed that "the songs are tuneful," and Clive Barnes concluded in the New York Post that "the defiantly countrified Roger Miller score ... comes up as fresh and original." Not only did Miller receive an Antoinette Perry Award for his work on the score, but in 1986 Big River provided the venue for his acting debut when he played the drunken father of Huckleberry Finn. Miller also continued writing songs for other country artists during the late 1980s; one of his later successes was composing "Walkin', Talkin', Cryin', Barely Beatin' Broken Heart," a 1990 hit for the group Highway 101.
by Elizabeth Thomas
Roger Miller's Career
Held odd jobs, including cattle herder, dishwasher, bellhop, and firefighter; served in the U.S. Army during Korean War; worked as a musician and backup singer in Nashville during the the late 1950s, and as a songwriter, during the late 1950s and early 1960s; recording artist and concert performer, early 1960s--. Wrote lyrics and music for Broadway musical Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; also acted in same. Appeared on television variety shows, including his own, "The Roger Miller Show," 1966-67 on NBC.
Roger Miller's Awards
Eleven Grammy Awards in 1964 and 1965; Tony Award in 1985 for Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Drama Desk Award for Big River, 1985.
- "When Two Worlds Collide," RCA, 1961.
- "Chug-a-Lug," Smash, 1964.
- "Dang Me," Smash, 1964.
- "King of the Road," Smash, 1965.
- "Engine, Engine Number Nine," Smash, 1965.
- "Kansas City Star," Smash, 1965.
- "One Dyin' and a-Buryin'," Smash, 1965.
- "Rings for Sale," Mercury, 1972.
- "I Believe in Sunshine," Columbia, 1973.
- "Our Love," Columbia, 1975.
- "Everyone Gets Crazy Now and Then," Elektra, 1981.
- Roger Miller RCA, 1964.
- The Return of Roger Miller Smash, 1965.
- Words and Music Smash, 1967.
- Walkin' in the Sunshine Smash, 1967.
- Waterhole Number Three Smash, 1967.
- Roger Miller 1970 Smash, 1970.
- Also released albums Roger Miller Supersongs Columbia; Country Side Starday; Best of Roger Miller Mercury; and Trip in the Country Mercury.
January 13, 2004: Miller's album, Platinum & Gold Collection, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_5/index.jsp, January 21, 2004.
- Chicago Tribune, March 2, 1986.
- Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 1985.
- Newsday, June 9, 1965; November 2, 1970.
- New Yorker, March 1, 1969.
- New York Post, April 26, 1985.
- New York Times, May 5, 1985.