onstage with Minnie Pearl, Lester Flatt and others
first break finally came when he was hired to play fiddle in Minnie
Pearl's road band. His second break came when he met George Jones
at the WSM radio station one night and played him some of his songs.
Jones then introduced Roger to Don Pierce and Pappy Daily of Mercury-Starday
Records and asked them to listen to some of the new kid's material.
at WSM show
first wife Barbara
at the Andrew Jackson, Roger impressed the Starday brass enough
to be granted a session in Houston. George and Roger rode to Texas
together and wrote some songs along the way. They co-authored "Tall,
Tall Trees", which Jones recorded in the spring of 1957
and "Happy Child" which Jimmy Dean recorded that
same spring. Meanwhile, Roger cut some of his own songs, including
the honky-tonk weeper, "My Pillow", and "Poor
Little John". That October, they were paired on the first
single of Roger Miller's career.
The Mercury-Starday record went absolutely nowhere, but Roger continued
to struggle away, writing for Starday and recording mail order sound-a-like
records of other artists' hits.
and with his first child, Alan, on the way, Roger considered getting
out of the business entirely. He decided to move to Armarillo and
join the fire department. He would work all day and into the night
then go to the clubs and sing after work. There was little time
for sleep. One of Roger's band members was asked one time, "Does
Roger ever sleep?" He replied, "I don't know, I've only
been with him three years." Roger said there were only two
fires while he was at the fire department. "The first was a
chicken coop. I slept through the second one and they suggested
that I seek other employment."
Nevertheless, at a show in Armarillo, Roger met Ray Price and several
months later, the superstar singer hired him to replace tour singer
Van Howard in the Cherokee Cowboys.
With his wife, Barbara, Roger moved back to Nashville, bringing
with him a new song called "Invitation to the Blues".
He somehow got the song to movie cowboy Rex Allen, who recorded
it for Decca in early 1958. But when Allen's version started to
get hot, Roger suggested to his new boss that he cover it. Paired
with "City Lights", written by Bill Anderson,
Price's "Invitation to the Blues" became a #3
before the Price record gave him full-fledged hit writer's credentials,
Roger had already signed a songwriting deal with Tree Publishing
for an unprecedented $50 a week. Tree's daily affairs were handled
by Buddy Killen, an Opry bassist who met Roger at a downtown watering
hole. They quickly began a life-long friendship.
With Killen plugging his songs, Roger started to score hits for
other artists. Ernest Tubb took "Half a Mind"
to #8 and Faron Young cracked the Top Ten with "That's
the Way I Feel". Jim Reeves went all the way to #1 with
Miller's "Billy Bayou" and followed it a few
months later with "Home" which rose to #2. Suddenly
Miller was as hot as a hillbilly songwriter could be in the late
1950's, but he was also proving himself to be the type of carefree
spirit who gave industry players fits.
"Buddy had to jump-start Roger a lot to get him to write in
those days," says Bill Anderson, whom Roger brought to Tree
in the wake of "City Lights". "Roger would
come in with seven lines or six lines of a song. It'd be something
fabulous, and Buddy would just have to almost take him and chain
him to the table to make him finish. Ernest Tubb wrote the last
verse of 'Half a Mind' cause Buddy couldn't get Roger to
sit down and do it. Roger was the most talented, and least disciplined
person that you could imagine. It was his personality. Roger was
the closest thing to a genius I think I've ever known.
other side of that undisciplined genius was revealed through Roger's
propensity for giving away lines other writers would have killed
to make up. Says Andersen, "He's the one that came up with
the line in my song, 'Po' Folks' - 'If the wolf had ever
come to our door, he'd have had to brought a picnic lunch.' He wouldn't
let me put his name on the song."
"The Songwriters in Nashville would follow him around and pick
up his droppings," adds Killen, "because everything he
said was a potential song. He spoke in songs."
and Donny Little
(aka: Johnny Paycheck)
as songwriting and writers meant to him, Roger still wanted a career
as an artist. To that end, Killen landed him a deal on Decca Records
in 1958. In September that year, he cut a Decca duet with Donny
Little, later known as Johnny Paycheck, that was more Paycheck than
Miller. But three months later, they flip-flopped leads, with writer
Paycheck singing uncredited harmony on Miller's "A Man
Like Me", backed by "The Wrong Kind of Girl".
Like his Mercury-Starday single, Miller's first Decca sides were
pure unadulturated honky-tonk. Yet like the Starday single, the
Decca record flopped.
Roger's second Decca single (not counting the initial Paycheck duet)
was another matter. The A-side was Nashville country pop, but the
far superior B-side, "Jason Fleming", rocked.
Recorded in June 1959, Miller's ode to Paul Bunyan was the first
of his songs to really hint at the manic music of which he was capable.
& Ray Price on Grand Ole Opry
his records sitting around and his writer's royalties spent before
he had earned them, Roger took road work where he could. Though
he remained great friends with Ray Price, he hadn't stayed long
with the Cherokee Cowboys, in part because his harmony phrasing,
which was as idiosyncratic as his wordplay, drove Price nuts.
night while Roger was sitting out back of Tootsie's, feeling really
down and out, Faron Young came by and said, "What's the matter
with you boy?" Roger told him he didn't have a job. As Roger
later reveals, Young recognized his plight and asked him, "Are
you a drummer?" Roger said, "No, but when do you need
one?" Young said, "Monday," and Roger said, "Monday,
I'm a drummer." Young sent him down to Shobud to get a set
of drums and he was Faron's drummer for a year or so. During that
time, Young recorded "A World So Full of Love".
Also, dating from this year with Young is a rare Armed Forces Radio
version of "When a House is Not a Home", which
Roger had given to Little Jimmy Dickens.
and Little Jimmy Dickens
still drumming for Faron, Roger signed a deal with RCA's Nashville
office, which was run by guitar legend Chet Atkins. It had been
many years since Roger's first meeting with Chet. As a producer
Atkins had played a major role in defining the soft-edged country
style that was coming to be known as the Nashville Sound. At the
time, RCA's biggest Country act was Jim Reeves, and his success
with Roger's songs probably had a lot to do with making the deal.
When Killen brought Atkins a new tune of Roger's called "You
Don't Want My Love", he suggested that Atkins let Roger
cut it himself. Atkins agreed. On August 10, 1960 Roger recorded
"You Don't Want My Love" (later and better known
as "In the Summertime") at his first RCA session.
Atkins showed admirable faith in Miller's scatted vocals and ad-libbed
blues tags. The record took off, however, and was quickly accepted
as Roger noted at the time "by the multitude." It reached
#14 on the Country charts and was covered in the Pop field by Andy
Williams. All told, the record gave Roger sufficient star clout
to hit the road as a solo act.
than a year later, Roger broke into the Top Ten for the first time
with "When Two Worlds Collide," which he and
Anderson had written by the light of the moon in the back seat of
Roger's Rambler station wagon en route to Texas. A fan of the sci-fi
classic film "When Worlds Collide" (1951), Roger
had been wanting to write a song by that title for years. Peaking
at #6 "When Two World's Collide" proved to be
the high point of Roger's RCA career.
Another release was "Lock, Stock and Teardrops,"
a marvelous Miller ballad later revived by K.D. Lang. Like his songwriting
success of the late 1950's Roger's artistic success on RCA proved
a deceptive measure of his career advancement. His royalties were
eaten up by advances from Tree, and gigs paid in the $150-$225 range.
His first marriage, which had given him three children, was falling
apart as well, and his extracurricular habits had already earned
him a reputation as Nashville's "Wild Child." By November
1963, Miller had been dropped by RCA and was about as broke down
and disgusted as a singer-songwriter could ever be.
For Roger, who by then had every reason to doubt that Country music
could make him a decent living, the one ray of hope was in the glow
of the television spotlight. A natural comedian, he had made a considerable
splash when his old friend Jimmy Dean, guest hosting on the Tonight
Show, invited him on the program one night in 1962. Roger's walk-on
was a hit. His show-stopper was a rendition of "I Walk
the Line" that Roger sang as, "I hold my pants up
with a piece of twine."
Appearances on other shows followed and by the end of 1963, Roger
had begun to think he might have a better shot at stardom on the
TV screen than on the roadhouse jukebox. He wanted to head to California
and take up acting. His only problem was figuring out how to finance
Enter Smash Records.
Long about the time Roger was having success on TV, Smash Records,
an upstart subsidiary of Mercury Records, was taking pop radio by
storm. Headed by Charles Fach, Smash went into business in February
1961 and in less than three years time had already scored such monster
hits as Bruce Channel's "Hey Baby" and the Angels'
"My Boyfriend's Back". Confident and eager to
expand, in 1963 the label signed Jerry Lee Lewis and James Brown
and, in Nashville, Roger Miller.
& Loretta Lynn @ DJ convention c. 1961
Fach recalls, he and Mercury executive Lou Green came to Nashville
that November to attend the annual disc jockey convention. The two
of them and Shelby Singleton, head of Mercury in Nashville, were
having dinner at the steakhouse in Printer's Alley, a popular downtown
night club strip, when Roger walked in with Buddy Killen. According
to Fach, who confirms that it was Roger's Tonight Show appearance
that first caught his attention, Singleton said to him, "There's
Roger Miller. He's just been dropped by RCA. Why don't we pick him
up for Smash?"
"Shelby went over and talked to Buddy for thirty or forty seconds,
and came back and said, "We got a deal."
Roger was still planning on moving to California and the Smash deal
was his way out. "Roger came in and asked if there was anyway
we could give him sixteen hundred dollars. He would really appreciate
it." Fach, after thinking it over, agreed to pay, but with
the understanding that Roger would record sixteen sides at a rate
of $100 per side. From these cuts a single and an album were to
Kennedy producing, Roger went into Music Row's famous Quonset Hut
Studio for the first Smash session the night of January 10, 1964.
With Bill Justis handling the arrangements, Roger cut a trio of
full production numbers that night, opening with the rich country
soul of "Ain't That Fine", written by Dorsey
Burnette. He followed with a song called "Why",
then closed out the session in the early morning hours with one
of his own originals, a moody song called "Less and Less",
that Kennedy gave the Nashville Sound treatment.
first SMASH session 1/10/64
latter was a beautifully orchestrated performance - lush, but not
overbearing - and Kennedy pegged it as the A-side of Roger's first
After only a few hours sleep, at ten o'clock in the morning of January
11, Miller and Kennedy and a small combo of Music Row pickers returned
to the studio to record the album sides and earn Roger the rest
of his moving money.
Roger brought twelve of his own songs with him, and Kennedy made
sure that everyone understood the album agenda was totally different
from the single session the night before. The accompaniment was
to be sparse. It was Roger, Ray Ederton and Harold Bradley on guitars,
Hargus "Pig" Robbins on piano, Bob Moore on bass, and
Buddy Harman on drums. With the tape rolling the tiny group kicked
in and Roger leaned into the unforgettable lyric of that winter
day's first song.
Clocking in at just over two unique minutes, "Chug-a-Lug"
set the tone for what turned out to be one of the most imporant
days in the history of Country music. Miller, Kennedy, and the band
"hit the groove that really felt right," as Kennedy put
it, and stayed in the groove through all twelve sides. Roger wound
up cutting fifteen, not sixteen songs during the two day run. The
session was as off-the-cuff as they come, but it was organized in
such a loose fashion as to let Roger, the complete artist, finally
take over. "I was just conscious of letting Roger and his music
shine," says Kennedy. "That was the goal, and I think
we accomplished it."
Of all the songs cut that day, "Dang Me" stood
out over the rest. Roger wrote it in four minutes in a Phoenix hotel
room while picturing himself sitting in a booth at Tootsie's Orchid
Lounge, the legendary musicians hangout.
Ironically, Kennedy very nearly missed the chance to release "Dang
Me" upon an unsuspecting public. Each night he would take
home tapes from the session that he had produced that day, but the
Wollensat recorder he played them on at home didn't have a full-size
take-up reel. So the reel filled up before it got to "Dang
Me". Kennedy had already started "Less and Less"
through the singles pipeline when he finally bought a full size
take-up reel and played the rest of Roger's session. "My kids
came screaming down the stairs when 'Dang Me' came on," he
says. "They thought that was the greatest thing they'd ever
heard. I started playing it over and over and over again, and I
said, 'What have I done?'"
was now certain "Dang Me" was the hit, so he
called Mercury. He explained he had to scrap "Less and
Less" as the single. They agreed to slot "Dang
Me" as Roger's first Smash single. The original version
of "Less and Less" was sent to the vault where
it remained until a couple of years ago.
Meanwhile, Roger pocketed his $1,500 session stash and "caught
the 3:44 pm covered wagon for California." There he moved into
an apartment above pop luminary Lee Hazelwood's garage.
"Dang Me" had a lot to compete with. The British
Invasion was in full swing. Nevertheless, "Dang Me"
was such an original, infectious song, it broke huge right out of
the box. The action hit first in Seattle and Houston on pop radio,
then on jukeboxes everywhere.
Mercury was hoping for some Country success, but they were pleasantly
suprised that it was more than that. In fact, Smash Records had
no Country promotion department, but that probably worked to Miller's
advantage with the Top Forty deejays, who associated the Smash label
with noteriety and runaway pop success. As for the Country deejays,
they'd known Roger for years anyway. By the end of June, "Dang
Me" was flying up both charts simultaneously. "The
hit charts look good with 'Dang Me,'" Miller acknowledged at
the time, "very American."
With his career taking off, Roger got out of Lee Hazelwood's garage
and hit the road. "The day 'Dang Me' was released, I played
a little club in northern California for seventy-five dollars,"
Miller told William Whitwood. "Had four people in the audience
and got a hot check. But in about a week my phone started ringing.
Wanting to do this and that, and pictures, and busy, busy, busy.
After that, uh, I don't know what became of me after that."
Early that summer, Miller worked a San Francisco TV show, allegedly
"breaking all audience reaction records," and in June
he embarked on a ten-day "TV-deejay tour of the Midwest."
On August 11, he stopped off in Nashville long enough to record
"Re-incarnation" and "Hard Headed Me",
a couple of his goofiest songs yet, and during July or August he
sat in front of the Smash microphones at three separate locations
in the South for live recordings.
By September, "Dang Me" had about run its course,
at least on Top Forty radio (it spent twenty-five weeks on the Country
charts); but no matter, for "Chug-a-Lug" was
already hitting hard and fast. Concerned about offending their core
Country audience, Roger and Kennedy had initially balked at releasing
"Chug-a-Lug" as a single, and at one point an
alternate version of the song was produced with the word "wine"
edited out. But Fach, seeing the larger picture, knew that Miller's
ode to forbidden liquid pleasures would be a monster. "Charles
was the one who wanted 'Chug-a-Lug,'" says Kennedy. "We
didn't know he was testing this thing in places. he said, "The
college crowd is eating up this "Chug-a-Lug".
And I said, "Well, we've got our country fans to consider here.
And fortunately they loved it too."
Recorded in October, "Do Wacka Do", a lesser
hit but one of Miller's most enduring lyric inventions, followed
"Chug-a-Lug". Then, on November 3, during yet
another album session, Miller recorded "King of the Road",
his career record.
had written the song that summer, probaby 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, as opposed to the four minutes he spent on "Dang
Released early in 1965, "King of the Road" (featuring
Buddy Killen and guitarist Thumbs Carlisle on finger snaps) took
off as fast as "Dang Me" had, so fast that Kennedy
didn't even know it was happening until Fach called him one morning
and said, "That hobo song's a smash." The hobo song was
#1 on the Country chart in March and stayed there for five weeks.
It got to #4 on the Pop chart, and in May the single was certified
Gold for sales of a million copies.