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
"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.
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".
Miller (L) as "Pap" - Eugene O'Neil Theatre NYC 1985
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.
emcee of memorial service
Music Hall of Fame
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.
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."
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 -