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The Life of Roger Miller (1936-1992)

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Laudene and Jean Miller
Roger's family photos

(L to R) Wendell, Duane, Roger
photos from Roger's youth

Elmer, Armelia, & Roger Miller
Erick, Oklahoma


Songwriter, singer, guitarist, fiddler, drummer, TV star, humorist, honky-tonk man, Broadway composer, and perhaps above all else, an awesome wit- Roger Miller was all of these and more.
Roger Dean Miller was born January 2, 1936, in Fort Worth, Texas, the youngest of three boys. His father, Jean Miller, died at the age of 26 from spinal meningitis. Roger was only a year old.
It was during the depression and Roger's mother, Laudene Holt Miller, was in her early 20's. She was just not able to provide for the boys. So each of Jean's three brothers came and took one of the boys to live with them. Roger moved in with Armelia and Elmer Miller on a farm outside Erick, Oklahoma. Roger later joked, "It was so dull you could watch the colors run," and, "the town was so small the town drunk had to take turns."
Roger had a difficult childhood. Most days were spent in the cotton fields picking cotton or working the land. He never really accepted the separation of his family. He was lonely and unhappy, but his mind took him to places he could only dream about. Walking three miles to his one-room school each day, he started composing songs, the first of which allegedly went a little something like this:
"There's a picture on the wall,
It's the dearest of them all, Mother"
Roger, of course, painted a somewhat more humorous and inventive picture of his school days. "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.
Nevertheless, Roger, who also liked to tell people that he "even flunked school bus," did let his humorous guard down now and then to comment on the insecure loner he truly seems to have been as a child. "We were dirt poor," he once explained. "What I'd do is sit around and get warm by crawling inside myself and make up stuff... I was one of those kids that never had much to say and when I did it was wrong. I always wanted attention, always was reaching and grabbing for attention."


Roger in grade school - bottom row, 3rd from left
school photos school papers

Roger was a dreamer and his heart was never in pickin' cotton. He said, "We used to raise cotton ankle high." Most days his daddy would catch him daydreaming. "It's really a good thing that he made it in the music business 'cause he would have starved to death as a farmer," says entertainer Sheb Wooley (1921-2003), an Erick native who married Roger's cousin, Melva Laure Miller.


Sheb Wooley & Melva Laure Miller
Sheb Wooley photos
letter to Sheb early gig poster

Fifteen years older than Roger, Wooley's career would lead him to Hollywood and the movies. One of Wooley's biggest hits was "The Purple People Eater." In those days, Wooley and little 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. Miller came to idolize Bob Wills and Hank Williams, but it was Wooley who taught Roger his first chords on guitar, bought him his first fiddle, and who represented the very real world of show business that Roger wanted so much for himself.
Eager to follow in Wooley's long tall footsteps while he was still in high school, Roger started running away, knocking around from town to town through Texas and Oklahoma. He took whatever work he could find by day and haunted the honky-tonks by night. His drifting came to an abrupt halt when he stole a guitar in Texas and crossed the state line back into Oklahoma. He had so desperately wanted a guitar to write songs on and this seemed the only way to get one, since pulling bowles would never earn him the kind of money he needed for a guitar.


Roger in the Army - c. 1952
Circle A Wranglers

Roger in the Army - c. 1954
Roger's letter home

Roger turned himself in the next day and rather than put him in jail they offered to let him join the Army. Although he was only 17, he chose to go into the service. He was eager to be going someplace else and before long he was shipped to Korea, where he drove a jeep and earned one of his favorite one-liners, "My education was Korea, Clash of 52."
Roger was terribly homesick, but his world was growing larger. Towards the end of his tour with the Army, he was sent to Fort McPherson in Atlanta. Assigned to Special Services, he played fiddle in the Circle A Wranglers, a well known service outfit previously started by PFC Faron Young.
After Roger's discharge from the Army, he headed directly for Nashville to see Chet Atkins. He told Chet he was a songwriter and Chet asked him to play something. Seeing that Roger didn't have a guitar, Chet offered his to him. Roger just couldn't believe he was sitting in front of Chet Atkins and playing his guitar. He said, "I was so nervous, people thought I was wavin'." Roger proceeded to sing in one key and play in another. Chet was kind about it but suggested he work on his songs a little more and come back.
Roger used to say, "I was everywhere at once." He had an energy that was new to Nashville. Needing to work while he pursued his dream, Roger took a job as a bellhop at the Andrew Jackson Hotel. "It had more dignity than washing dishes," he later said. Situated right in the thick of Nashville's downtown music district, the Andrew Jackson gave him proximity to the small but vibrant Country scene. Roger soon became known as the "Singing Bellhop." He would sing a song to anyone who would listen on the way up or down the elevator.

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