Roger Miller: King of the River

By Barry Honold

Roger Miller was once asked how he wanted to be remembered; he fired back with “I don’t want to be forgotten.” The idea of that happening is unlikely. His quirky, fast-paced, and witty nature is reflected in the eclectic quality of his work.  At the very least, he is notable for being the only country music artist (thus far) to win a Tony Award for Big River: the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, based on Mark Twain’s classic novel.

Miller was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression. His father died from spinal meningitis when Miller was an infant. His mother had no way to care for him or his two siblings, so they were scattered to the winds, sent to live with different relatives. He went to live with an aunt and uncle in Erick, Oklahoma. As a child, his musical talent manifested itself early; he wrote a song for his mother at the age of six. However, he was bad at schoolwork and withdrawn. He once joked that he flunked “school bus” but had the “highest marks” at getting rapped on the knuckles with a ruler.

He was excited when a cousin began dating local entertainer Sheb Wooley (who appeared in High Noon, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and sang “Purple People Eater”). Wooley taught him how to play guitar and fiddle, and the two would use everyday occasions to talk about making it in the entertainment industry. According to Miller’s website, Wooley once remarked that it was “really a good thing that [Miler] made it in the music business ’cause he would have starved to death as a farmer.” Miller made little money picking cotton, and had his heart set on a new guitar. He was drifting back and forth between Texas and Oklahoma, and stole a guitar from a shop in Texas. Wracked with guilt, he returned it the next day. He was given the choice between jail or the army, and soon was in Korea.

After serving, he came to Nashville. One of his favorite stories was about an informal audition with Chet Atkins, who famously told the young Miller to get in some more practice in. The Country Music Hall of Fame page notes that he soon landed a slot in Minnie Pearl’s band playing fiddle. Through her, he met George Jones, who recorded Miller’s “Tall, Tall Trees.” Miller’s early success was largely writing for other artists. Soon, marital and financial pressures forced him to move to Texas and become a fireman. There, he met Ray Price and became a backup singer for his band.

Miller continued to write songs for other performers, and started performing his own. A Free Republic article notes that he was signed to the Smash record label in 1964, and released the songs that would launch his career: “Dang Me” and “Chug-A-Lug.” They were instant sensations. He received five Grammy Awards, including “Best New Country and Western Music Artist.” His songwriting and performing continued doing well. In 1965, he had a formidable opponent at the Grammys: the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” His secret weapon: “King of the Road,” which was doing very well on the pop and country music charts. He beat the Beatles “in two separate categories. That year, Miller went home with awards in six of his nine nominations….Miller’s Grammy domination had been so complete, the rules were changed so it wouldn’t happen again.”

In 1982, Miller was approached by Broadway producer (and future NEA chairman) Rocco Landesman. Landesman, a fan of Miller, had been toying with the idea of how to turn the iconic story of Huckleberry Finn into a musical. He thought Miller would be perfect. Miller didn’t know how to write for a musical, and the songs were delayed. Finally, Landesman locked Miller in a hotel room, and told him to start writing. Miller angrily stormed out with a hastily-written song and told Landesman that “if you want Rembrandt – that takes time.” Big River: the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a smash hit, winning seven Tony awards. The role of Pap was originally played by a very young John Goodman. Miller later took over the role. Pap reminded him of his uncle, who didn’t drink as much, but enjoyed “cussin’ the government.”

Many of his performances are available on YouTube, and show his quick wit. In 1965, he performed and was interviewed for Gene Davis’ show. Davis mentioned the song “The Moon is High, and So am I,” asking “how does it go?” Miller chuckles his response: “pretty well, so far.” Later, he appeared on “The Dean Martin Show.” He and Martin sang a duet on “King of the Road,” with Martin singing from a lavish trailer festooned with women and a bear rug. Miller’s set trailer was barely big enough to stand in, sparsely furnished, and had a litter of kittens on an old bed. Miller was good-natured during all this and actually had fun at his own expense. Other interesting videos include Miller’s appearances on “The Muppet Show.” He also did voice-over work and a few songs for the Disney animated film Robin Hood.

He spent a few years out of the spotlight, and then went on a nationwide tour featuring just him and his guitar. In 1991, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He passed away in 1992. In 1995, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

“Forgotten?” Impossible.