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This Week in Texas History: Trip ends too soon for “King of the Road”

By Bartee Halie

NBC gave Roger Miller, the hottest solo act in show business, an hour a week of prime-time television on Sep. 12, 1966.

The Depression baby was still in diapers, when his father died in his twenties from spinal meningitis.  Unable to care for her three sons, Roger’s desperate mother gave one each to a trio of brothers and disappeared from her children’s lives.

That was why Roger Dean Miller grew up on a farm in western Oklahoma instead of his birthplace, Fort Worth.  He never felt at home with his adoptive family, which treated him like an extra pair of cotton-picking hands.

The lonely youngster’s only friend was Sheb Wooley, a local lad 15 years his senior and a cousin by marriage.  Wooley, best known for the novelty hit “Purple People Eater,” taught the boy how to play the guitar and bought him his first fiddle.

Roger ran away from the unhappy home the summer before his senior year of high school.  Before long he was behind bars, arrested for stealing a guitar.  Given the choice of jail or the army, he picked military service.

The day he was discharged, Roger caught a bus for the capital of country music.  The ex-soldier found a job as a bellhop in a Nashville hotel.  Anyone trapped in the elevator with him instantly became a captive audience for his latest lyrics.

Roger eventually got his foot in the door as a fiddler for Minnie Pearl’s road band.  Soon after that, he met George Jones at a radio station and the established star graciously listened to several of his creations.  The fellow Texan liked what he heard and arranged an audition for Roger with Mercury-Starday Records.

The music executives were impressed enough to schedule a recording session in Houston.  On the car ride to Texas, Jones and Roger collaborated on a number of songs, including “Tall, Tall Trees,” which Jones cut in the spring of 1957.

Married and with a baby on the way, Roger reluctantly decided to put his dream on hold.  But even in Amarillo, where he worked as a fireman, destiny tracked him down.  In less than a year, Ray Price hired him as tour singer for the Cherokee Cowboys.

Back in Nashville, Roger wrote “Invitation to the Blues” for Price, which shot up to No. 3 on the country-music chart.  In short order he turned out Top Ten hits for Ernest Tubb, Faron Young and Jim Reeves.

But as the 1950s drew to a close, the successful songwriter was far from satisfied.  He wanted to perform his own material, and RCA agreed to help him to do exactly that.

However, except for “When Two Worlds Collide,” No. 6 in 1961, the Top Ten was unreachable for Roger.  RCA dropped him in late 1963, about the same time his marriage self-destructed.

Roger took the setback in stride because he already had taken a different career path — television.  A guest appearance on the “Tonight Show,” courtesy of substitute host Jimmy Dean, had left millions of viewers in stitches.  America could not get enough of his off-beat sense of humor.

Roger needed cash in a hurry in order to move to California, and a pop-music subsidiary of Mercury Records answered his prayers.  Smash Records offered him $100 a song for 15 cuts to be recorded in two back-to-back sessions.

That historic songfest on Jan. 10-11, 1964 produced “Dang Me,” written in four minutes in an Arizona hotel room, and “Chug-a-Lug.”  Within six months, the latter conquered both the pop and country charts, and the former repeated the unusual feat that fall.

On Nov. 3, 1964, Roger recorded his signature classic.  “King of the Road” was released in early 1965 and took the music world by storm, staying atop the country chart for five weeks and peaking at No. 4 on the pop list.  By May it had sold a million copies.

The previous month, Roger won five Grammys, the musical equivalent of the Oscar.  He proved he was no flash in the pan by adding six more in 1965 for a career total of 11.

In September 1966, Roger’s postponed wish came true with a variety show of his own on network television.  But he could not get the hang of the small-screen format, and NBC canceled “The Roger Miller Show” after 13 weeks.

A fresh challenge brought Roger out of semi-retirement in the early 1980s.  A college professor talked him into writing the score for a musical based on the Mark Twain character Huckleberry Finn.

“Big River” was, according to an admiring critic, Roger’s “crowning achievement.”  The Tony he received for best score was the first ever awarded to a country-music artist.

While on a comeback tour in 1991, Roger was diagnosed with lung cancer.  He put up a good-natured fight but succumbed to the disease the following October.

Before his premature death at the age of 56, Roger Miller said he did not care how he was remembered.  “I just don’t want to be forgotten.”  With so many devoted fans, there is no chance of that ever happening.

“Murder Most Texan” is a must read for fans of true crime and Texas history. Order your copy for $24.00 by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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