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Mary & Roger Miller

After leaving Mercury, Roger signed with Columbia Records. His first album for the new label was called, significantly, "Dear Folks: Sorry I Haven't Written Lately", though he then had begun to do so again. In fact, the best cut on the album, was "What Would My Mama Say". In 1974, he wrote and sang songs for the Disney cartoon, "Robin Hood". He also continued to work the road, never allowing his show to get stale.
"He was truly original, and he would just add on something that we had no idea what he was doing," laughs Mary Miller, Roger's third wife. Formerly a member of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, Mary worked with her husband as a back-up vocalist from the 1970's on. "I always joked that the first year I knew him, I didn't understand anything he said. He had a brilliant mind and a wonderful slant on things. There was such a richness to his life."
In 1981, Roger got a call from Willie Nelson who had been recording a series of duet albums with old friends like Ray Price. When Willie asked Roger, he said, "Well, Will, you've done a duet with about everyone." Willie replied, "I know, but we're down to the M's."
Roger agreed and offered a new song, "Old Friends", which he had written for his mama and dad back in Oklahoma, and of which he was especially proud.
Ray Price joined them for the session, and the sweetly melancholy tune made a respectable showing on the charts. As it turned out, "Old Friends" was the last most people heard of Roger Miller until Huck Finn floated down Broadway.
The story of Big River is as fantastic as any of Roger's life. The key man was Rocco Landesman, a former Yale professor at the Yale School of Drama who happened to be the world's #1 Roger Miller fan.
"I thought he was an absolute genius," Landesman says. On the way to a New York appearance by Roger at the Lone Star Cafe, Landesman conceived the notion that Miller ought to write a Broadway score - and the Adventures of Huckelberry Finn would be the perfect vehicle. He approached Roger's wife, Mary, after the show. She encouraged him to write a letter to Roger with the idea. Roger jokes, "He made me an offer I couldn't understand."
Nevertheless, Landesman wrote a number of letters to Miller and about a year later had him convinced he was the right man for the project. Roger was off on another new journey. Landesman commissioned William Hauptman to adapt Twain's book and the project was underway.
Roger, initially intimidated, spent a year and a half on the first phase of the musical. He was "writing from every corner of my heart," as he put it. The play opened at Harvard's American Repertory Theatre, then moved to La Jolla, California, where a struggling young actor named John Goodman took the role of Huck's father, Pap. In the play, Pap's feature song is "Guv'ment", which Roger wrote while thinking about the uncle who raised him. Elmer Miller didn't drink like Pap, but he did "used to cuss out the government," Roger said.


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Big River opened at New York's Eugene O'Neill Theatre on April 25, 1985, during one of the bleakest seasons in the history of the Great White Way. The press offered the hope, which they clearly considered him, that Big River might save the day.
As it turned out, the play was a smash hit, earning seven Tony Awards, including Miller's for best score. When Goodman left the role for the movies, Roger took over his part for three months. He also made an album on MCA, called Roger Miller, on which he sang several songs from the play, including "Guv'ment" and the magnificent "River in the Rain".


Roger Miller (L) as "Pap" - Eugene O'Neil Theatre NYC 1985

For Roger, Big River was the crowning achievement of a fantastic career that to him only then seemed complete. He is still the only Country artist to win a Tony Award. With Big River a proven success, Roger was able to relax at his Santa Fe home and focus on the family life he had made with Mary and their two young children, Taylor and Adam. "I (had) a brother who's five and sister (who was) seven," says Dean Miller, "and they were his all-consuming passion." Roger had found a happiness with Mary and the children he had longed for all his life.


Rev. Will Campbell
emcee of memorial service
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Country Music Hall of Fame
induction plaque

In September 1990, at the urging of Stan Moress, Roger's longtime friend and manager, and booking agent Tony Conway, Roger embarked on a tour unlike any he had ever done - solo with guitar. Scared to death the first date, he slew the audience for ninety minutes. "They laughed, they laughed, and they laughed," Conway says.
It was in the fall of 1991 that Miller found out he had a form of lung cancer. His last performance was during CMA week in Nashville. Publicly, he refused to let his illness phase him. After a year of treatment and one remission, Roger Miller died at the Century City Hospital on October 25, 1992, at the young age of 56.
A week later, Moress and his wife Mary held a memorial service for him at a place he held so close to his heart, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Mary wanted the memorial to be a celebration of his life. Hundreds of relatives and friends, many of whom had known him when he was still the Singing Bellhop, squeezed into the Ryman to tell their favorite Roger Miller story and listen again to his music. It was a beautiful tribute to the man Roger was, and to the unique artist represented by this career retrospective. For if his music proves anything about Roger Miller, it's that God made him equal parts laughter and soul.
In 1995, Miller was post-humously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. "This would have been his ultimate dream come true," says Mary Miller, "the ultimate recognition of his songwriting and musical artistry."
When asked how Roger wanted to be remembered, he replied. "I just don't want to be forgotten."


The Crossing

We are pilgrims on a journey
through the darkness of the night
We are bound for other places
crossing to the other side
Jesus will be there to meet me
He will reach his hand in mine
and I will no more be a stranger
when I reach the other side

- Roger Miller -
1936-1992

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