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Roger onstage with Minnie Pearl, Lester Flatt and others

Roger's 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.


Roger at WSM show
early career photos

Roger's first wife Barbara

Auditioned 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.
Married 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 hit.
Meanwhile, 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.
The 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."


Roger and Donny Little
(aka: Johnny Paycheck)

Much 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.


Roger & Ray Price on Grand Ole Opry

With 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.
One 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.


Roger and Little Jimmy Dickens

While 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.

Less 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 the move.

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.


Roger & Loretta Lynn @ DJ convention c. 1961

As 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 be released.
With 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.


Roger's first SMASH session 1/10/64
SMASH recording session

The latter was a beautifully orchestrated performance - lush, but not overbearing - and Kennedy pegged it as the A-side of Roger's first Smash single.
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.
"Chug-a-lug, chug-a-lug..."
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?'"

Kennedy 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.

King of the Road lyrics

Roger 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 Me".
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.

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