Roger Miller - vocals, guitar; Mary Miller - vocals
When Roger Miller died of lung cancer on October 27, 1992, America lost one of its best-loved entertainers and humorists. During a career that spanned four decades, he wrote more than 800 songs, over 700 of which were recorded by artists ranging from George Jones to k.d. lang. Five gold singles and 11 Grammy Awards earned him a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame and a posthumous induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. But perhaps the most accurate measure of his talent, wit and style were his live shows.
According to his longtime manager, Stan Mores, Miller never lost his passion for performing. "He exhibited a great affection for his audience," Mores says, "He was always cutting up with them. He would crack himself up, and the audience would start to laugh. He just reveled in it. He'd come offstage bouncing. You seldom see that these days."
This performance, recorded for the Silver Eagle Cross Country Radio Concert series on May 8, 1982, in Fort Worth, Texas - the city where he was born - is a testament to that affinity for the stage. Mary Arnold, a onetime singer for Kenny Rogers' First Edition who joined Miller's band after they married in the late '70s, remembers that night at Billy Bob's - a large club that put itself on the map by installing the first mechanical bull - as a typical show. Although Arnold says the band rarely stuck to a set list, the hits are all here, even the breakthrough single "Dang Me" to "Old Friends," Miller's 1982 collaborative effort with Willie Nelson and Ray Price.
At the time this performance was recorded, Miller was beginning work on his Broadway musical, Big River, a production based on Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. "When (producer) Rocco Landesman approached him about doing the musical, Roger said, 'I can't write 17 songs on one subject!'" Arnold recalls, "But Rocco kept on him to do it." The show, the bulk of which was written in 18 months after a 5-year song writing hiatus, won seven Tony Awards in 1986, and spawned a Top 40 single: "River in the Rain." "It was a tremendous accomplishment for him," Mores says. "He had success in the music business, television, and now the theater. It was a perfect addition to his career."
Ironically, this latest triumph, like many of his other successes, may well have been rooted in a past Miller would have liked to forget. "Roger had a very painful childhood that contributed, he felt, to this outpouring of writing," Arnold notes. Miller's mother found it impossible to raise her three sons alone after their father died of spinal meningitis, and each of her husband's brothers took a boy to raise. Miller, then 3, went to live on his Uncle Elmer's two-mule cotton farm in Erick, Oklahoma, where he attended a one-room schoolhouse and helped the relatives coax a living from the land.
Arnold recalls that her husband hated "pulling cotton" and spent a good deal of his time daydreaming of life as a musician. He received his first fiddle, which he taught himself to play, at the age of 11 from Elmer's son-in-law, actor/singer Sheb Wooley. He played with several western swing bands after a brief stint in the U.S. Army, and in 1957 headed for Nashville, where he found work as a bellhop at the Andrew Jackson Hotel. A letter from a mutual friend, Jethro Burns' army-sergeant brother Happy, provided an audition for Chet Atkins. Stints at Minnie Pearl's fiddler and Ray Price's drummer (Arnold says Miller learned how to play the skins in a weekend) followed. Although his first attempts as a recording artist fizzled, Miller's songwriting abilities began to attract attention. During the next few years, George Jones, Jim Reeves, Johnny Paycheck, Ray Sanders, Andy Williams and Claude Gray would all score hits with Roger Miller songs.
Miller's own first recording success came in 1960, when "You Don't Want My Love" became a country chart single. The 1961 Top 10 hit "When Two Worlds Collide" (which he wrote with Bill Anderson) and 1963's "Lock, Stock, and Teardrops" followed. But his career truly took off in 1964, when his Grammy-winning album Roger and Out produced the smash hits "Dang Me" and "Chug-A-Lug." Both singles scaled the pop and country charts, a feat he repeated the next year with the release of his signature song, "King Of The Road," in addition to the singles "Engine, Engine #9," "England Swings," "Kansas City Star" and "One Dyin' and a Buryin'."
By 1966, Miller had his own variety show on NBC-TV and had, as Arnold points out, "changed country music as it was at that time," blurring the lines between country and pop long before it was fashionable to do so. His career, in contrast, saw a slump in the '70s. "We were able to carry on because of who he was," Mores admits. "At that point in time he was on the tail end of the recording industry." He went through a painful divorce from his second wife, Leah Kendrick, and in 1974 his "Kings Of The Road" motel chain failed. But he married Arnold in 1978, and in early 1979 the couple moved from Los Angeles to a ranch near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they settled into a more relaxed pace and began a family.
Miller spent his time on the ranch inventing and tinkering. He developed a method of changing guitar strings that reduced the laborious process to a quick task and repaired dozens of clocks, many sent by Tonight Show viewers who heard the artist tell Johnny Carson that he liked to fix them during a late '70s appearance.
In 1991, Miller was diagnosed with an advanced case of lung cancer. Mores says his friend and client kept his trademark sense of humor to the end. "One day, when he was sick, we thought it would be a good idea for him to write with some other folks, get his energy and his creativity going," Mores remembers. "He looked me right in the eye and said, 'Write with somebody? Did Picasso co-paint?'"
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