A Man Like Me – The Early Years of Roger Miller

May 17, 2021

Liner notes for A Man Like Me: The Early Years of Roger Miller, Bear Family Records

Originally published in 2006

with special thanks to Darrell McCall

As a youngster, this author was introduced to country music through his grandmother, who was a real, honest-to-goodness gray-haired granny widow living up in the hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. She had one of those big ol’ console stereos, ordered from Sears, and one of her favorite record albums was a compilation of older country hits. I would sit and listen intently for hours, but one song by one artist in particular truly perplexed my fragile young psyche. The song was “You Don’t Want My Love (In the Summertime)” and whenever the singer would start scatting the solo, sounding completely incoherent, going into a falsetto punctuated by sounds resembling Donald Duck, I just didn’t know what to think.

“That’s Roger Miller,” my granny explained with a chuckle. “He’s CRAZY!”

Roger Miller was the most unlikely of country music super stars. Although he led the sort of extreme wild-man existence that no grandmother could ever comprehend, he somehow was able to charm the pants off the entire nation with his immense wit and original song style. Miller could have made it on any one of his talents—songwriter, comedian, singer, entertainer, actor—but his hyperactive creativity couldn’t be tempered until he had excelled in all of his pursuits. By the mid-1960s Miller was hot as a pistol, with an NBC television special, his own regular TV show, a mantel full of Grammy awards, and a string of huge hits including “Chug-a-Lug,” “Dang Me,” “Engine Engine #9,” and of course his career-defining hit “King of the Road.”

It took less than ten years for Miller to come from nowhere and arrive at the top of the hill. As with others who have achieved monumental success, the story of how he got there was an interesting one. Until now, not much attention has been paid to Roger Miller’s early recordings. This collection attempts to rectify the situation, gathering together all of his early sides from his very first session in 1957 up to the time he signed with RCA-Victor in 1960.

Though Miller could lay claim to being a Texan, having been born in Fort Worth on January 2, 1936, his father, Jean Miller, died when he was only a year old, and his mother Laudene had to farm her three boys out to Jean’s family. Roger went to Erick, Oklahoma, to live with his Uncle Elmer and Aunt Armelia Miller, and today Erick proudly proclaims itself the home of Roger Miller, even hosting a Roger Miller museum downtown!

Miller remembered his upbringing in small-town Oklahoma as “so dull you could watch the colors run.” Between working in the fields, walking three miles to school, and feeling lonely and cut off from his mother’s love, life was hard for him. Nonetheless, he exhibited a bright mind from an early age, making up songs on his long walk to school. His loneliness and isolation helped fuel his creative drive. “We were dirt poor,” he once told an interviewer. “What I’d do is sit around and get warm by crawling inside myself and make up stuff. . . . I was one of those kids that never had much to say and when I did it was wrong. I always wanted attention, always was reaching and grabbing for attention.”

Release eventually came in the form of his cousin Melva’s husband, Sheb Wooley (yes, the same Sheb Wooley who later had a huge hit with “Purple People Eater” in 1958 and a string of hits under the pseudonym Ben Colder in the 1960s). Wooley was fifteen years older than Miller and was a powerful mentor to the young miscreant, encouraging him to take up music as a creative outlet. Wooley was the first one in the family to make a dent in the music business, making records for Bullet in 1945 and MGM beginning in 1950. He moved to California in the mid-’50s, and in addition to making records he also worked as an actor in countless low-budget westerns and television shows. It must have seemed terribly exciting to the young Miller, stuck in the Dust Bowl of the Oklahoma prairie.

Miller spent countless hours listening to the radio, from the Grand Ole Opry to the Light Crust Doughboys, daydreaming about Wooley’s exciting life out in California. Soaking up influences from what he heard, he eventually declared Bob Wills and Hank Williams to be his favorite artists. When Wooley came back to Oklahoma to visit, he helped Miller by showing him chords on the guitar, and he bought him his first fiddle. Eventually wanderlust got the best of Miller, and he began traveling as far as he could run away, getting odd jobs during the day and listening to music at the honky-tonks by night. His desire to become part of the professional music world led him to steal a guitar in Texas, which he reckoned was the only way he would ever be able to own one.

After he was caught (or turned himself in, depending on which story you believe), the judge gave him the option of jail or joining the army. Though he was only seventeen at the time, he chose the latter and was immediately shipped off to the conflict in Korea. According to Miller, “My education was Korea, clash of ‘52.” By the time he arrived at Fort McPherson in Atlanta, Georgia, to finish his stint in the army, his talents as a musician had become known and he joined his first band, the Circle A Wranglers, on fiddle. The Circle A Wranglers were an armed services outfit that already had one famous alumnus—Faron Young—who later would be one of Miller’s first professional employers.

Bolstered by this experience, Miller headed straight for Nashville after his release from the army. The first thing he did when he hit town was to walk right into Chet Atkins’s office and announce that he was a songwriter. Atkins handed him his guitar and asked him to play something, at which point Miller became completely overwhelmed that he was in Chet Atkins’s office playing Chet Atkins’s very guitar. According to Miller, “I was so nervous, people thought I was wavin’!” Although he flubbed the audition, Atkins told him to work on his songs and come back to see him when he had it together.

Undaunted, Miller got a job as a bellhop at the Andrew Jackson Hotel in downtown Nashville. He was so eager to sing his songs to anyone who would listen that he became known as the Singing Bellhop, a tag that would stick with him for years. “It had more dignity than washing dishes,” he would say later. The job put him in the thick of the bustling downtown music activity, and indeed his Singing Bellhop shtick served to get him noticed. He caught his first break when Minnie Pearl offered him a job as fiddle player in her touring road band.

After that ended, his next opportunity came when he met George Jones at a late-night session on WSM. Miller played Jones some of his songs, and Jones was sufficiently impressed to recommend him to Don Pierce and Pappy Daily of Starday Records, the label that Jones was recording for at the time. Miller auditioned for Pierce and Daily at the Andrew Jackson Hotel, and they agreed to record him at their studio, Gold Star, in Houston. Miller rode from Nashville to Texas with Jones, and on the way they wrote songs together, including “Tall, Tall Trees,” which Jones recorded soon thereafter, and “Happy Child,” which was recorded by future sausage magnate Jimmy Dean (it was the first of Miller’s compositions to be committed to wax).

Gold Star Studios in Houston (no relation to the Los Angeles-based Gold Star, but rather a Texas independent still in business today as Sugar Hill Studios) was at the time an extremely primitive recording studio situated in a corrugated tin barn. Lined with egg cartons and equipped with the most basic of monaural equipment, it was nonetheless a hit-making institution. George Jones had recorded all of his earliest hits there, including “Why Baby Why” and “Window Up Above.” It had also been host to countless rockabilly and country obscurities. Unfortunately, Roger Miller’s debut single would fall into the latter category.

“Poor Little John” b/w “My Pillow” was released as Mercury-Starday 71212 in fall 1957. “Poor Little John” was a great Cajun-meets-rockabilly uptempo number, and “My Pillow” (sometimes listed only as “Pillow”) was a superb country weeper; both were written by Miller. The same session produced “You’re Forgetting Me” and “Can’t Stop Loving You,” two more Miller originals that were released as Starday 356, but copies are so rare that this author didn’t believe it existed until recently, when a legitimate one surfaced. Both singles were re-released in the mid-’60s to cash in on Miller’s success, but original copies of both are exceedingly rare.

The Starday discs went nowhere, and though Miller continued to pen tunes for George Jones and several other Starday artists, he became discouraged with the music business. When his first wife, Barbara, announced that she was pregnant, Miller decided to get a day job to support his new family and moved to Amarillo to join the fire department. While this move today sounds like the plot of a sitcom (Roger Miller as a fireman?), he worked at the fire department during the day and continued playing music in the honky-tonks around Amarillo by night. With predictably comical results, he was soon relieved of his fireman duties around the same time that he was introduced to Ray Price at a local show.

The two kept in contact, and a few months later Miller was hired to replace Van Howard as Price’s front man (a relatively thankless job that involved warming up the crowd to begin the show and also singing vocal harmonies with Price) in the Cherokee Cowboys. Miller and his wife moved back to Nashville, where he toured with Price and continued writing songs, including “Invitation to the Blues,” which was recorded by both his boss and Rex Allen. Price’s version became a number-three hit, and Roger Miller suddenly found himself not a struggling songwriter but a successful one. Grand Ole Opry bassist Buddy Killen signed Miller to a songwriting deal with Tree Publishing (still in business today as Sony/ATV publishing). Tree was a veritable gold mine of unknown talent that also employedfuture stars Johnny Paycheck (then known as Donny Young) and Bill Anderson as well as many other future notables. Miller wrote many hits during his tenure at Tree, including “Half a Mind” for Ernest Tubb, “That’s the Way I Feel” for Faron Young, and “Home” and “Billy Bayou” for Jim Reeves.

While he was establishing himself as a proven writer of hits, he also earned a well-deserved reputation as a loose cannon, and Buddy Killen was always after him to make a finished song out of the hundreds of brilliant scraps he left in his wake. Bill Anderson recalls, “Ernest Tubb wrote the last verse of ‘Half a Mind’ because Buddy couldn’t get Roger to sit down and finish 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.” Buddy Killen adds, “The songwriters in Nashville would follow him around and pick up his droppings because everything he said was a potential song. He spoke in songs.”

Another of Miller’s peers, Darrell McCall, said of his old friend, “Roger had what I call a double-barreled brain. He just thought differently than everybody else. If you rode along with him in a car, he’d be thinking of something from the back end forwards, for instance one of my favorite Roger quotes: ‘I went to a fight last night and a dance broke out.’ He just had a really unique way of looking at the world.”

Roger Miller was the most unlikely of country music superstars. Although he led the sort of extreme wild-man existence that no grandmother could ever comprehend, he somehow was able to charm the pants off the entire nation with his immense wit and original song style. Miller could have made it on any one of his talents—songwriter, comedian, singer, entertainer, actor—but his hyperactive creativity couldn’t be tempered until he had excelled in all of his pursuits.

Miller became fast friends with Donny Young, aka Johnny Paycheck, and the two became infamous “roaring” buddies, staying up all night on a combination of uppers and pure nervous energy. Both managed to get signed to Decca as artists around the same time, with Miller contributing vocal harmonies to Paycheck’s first single, “On This Mountain Top,” recorded in September 1958. Paycheck sang harmonies on Miller’s “A Man Like Me” b/w “The Wrong Kind of Girl,” recorded three months later and released as Decca 9-30838. Both were excellent songwriting efforts by Miller. “A Man Like Me” stands the test of time as one of the finest honky-tonk records ever made, with superb production by Owen Bradley and his A-team session musicians. The flip was another brilliant weeper. Sadly, though Miller clearly poured his heart and soul into this record, it sank without a trace.

Six months later, on June 30, 1959, Miller again returned to Owen Bradley’s studio, where he cut “Sweet Ramona” and “Jason Fleming,” which were released as Decca 9-30953. “Sweet Ramona” was an attempt at a country pop hit, whereas “Jason Fleming” was as close as he ever got to rock and roll. The session logs for “Jason Fleming” say it was recorded between midnight and 2:30 a.m., which echoes the loose, party atmosphere of the record. The Bradley studio was really swinging that night, and session drummer Buddy Harman plays some of the best snare fills of his career on this one. Overall it’s a marvelous record, one of the most infectious Miller ever cut, a solid gas from the first note to the last. While it’s usually easy to say forty-plus years later that it “should have been a hit,” the sad fact is that it’s truly hard to figure out why “Jason Fleming” didn’t click. It strongly foreshadows the sort of carefree, good-natured songs that Miller would take to the charts just a few years later, but when it was released in late 1959 it didn’t make a dent. Miller (just like his buddy Donny Young) was soon dropped as a Decca recording artist.

One reason for this alarming lack of success may have been that although Miller was a well-known songwriter around Nashville, he was still very much an unknown as a performer and didn’t tour much under his own name. One story has Miller, Donny Young, and Bill Anderson setting out on their lone solo tour, only to end with Miller having to pawn his new portable record player (purchased so that the trio could listen to their own songs while on the road) for gas money home.

Back in Nashville, Miller had the dubious distinction of being a successful songwriter who had somehow managed to spend all of his royalties and was back to being broke. 1959 and 1960 were lean and somewhat desperate times, and like his buddies Donny Young and Darrell McCall he found himself taking on scab (nonunion) sessions, recording soundalike versions of current hits down at Starday (which had by this point established its own low-rent studio in Nashville) for ten bucks a pop. No doubt Miller needed the money, but those ten-dollar sessions came back to bite him a few years later. At the time a few of the songs were released on a couple of obscure, budget, top-hits-of-the-day discs with anonymous artist billing, but in 1965, after Miller was a real honest-to-goodness star, Starday issued everything they could dig up (save for one unreleased track, included here, “Hot Rod Lincoln”) on a cash-in LP called Wild Child Roger Miller: Madcap Sensation of Country Music (Starday SLP 318). No doubt fans of his recordings for RCA and Smash—big-budget, high fidelity, current-sounding discs—were in for a shock when they bought the Starday LP. Made to look like it was his most recent album, Wild Child was a collection of some of the most primitively recorded stuff any country star had ever done, and most of it was covers of songs that had been hits years before by other artists! While it was a great relic for collectors, one can only imagine that Miller must have been less than thrilled when it was released.

During the lean years of the late 1950s, Darrell McCall remembers, “If it hadn’t been for Ray Price, Faron Young, and George Jones, we’d have all starved to death.” One way to stay afloat was to sign on as a sideman with an established act. Faron Young recalled seeing Miller hanging out one day at Tootsie’s Orchard Lounge, seemingly depressed. When Young asked him why he was so down, he replied it was because he didn’t have a job. Young then asked if he was a drummer. “No, but when do you need one?” was Miller’s reply. “Monday,” replied Young. “Well,” Miller responded, “Monday, I’m a drummer!” Young sent Miller to pick up a set of drums, and he toured as Young’s drummer for over a year.

Faron Young also employed Miller’s old buddies Donny Young and Darrell McCall, who had both carved a niche in the Nashville scene as excellent harmony singers and utility musicians. Their wild times on the road are legendary. McCall summarizes what it was like to tour with Young and all the boys together in a cramped station wagon: “I remember we crossed over into Mexico, and on the way back, Faron had to tell the border guard ‘AMERICAN!’ as we drove back over the border. Well, a short time later the same day, Roger and Donny were under a blanket in the back seat, smoking pot, and there was some kind of road construction going on. Faron, thinking it might be a police checkpoint, yelled at the two to stop what they were doing, and in something resembling a scene from a Cheech and Chong movie, Roger came out from underneath the blanket in a huge cloud of smoke, just in time to roll down his window and exclaim ‘AMERICAN!’ at the flagman just as we passed by.”

It was during Miller’s tenure with Faron Young that he signed his next record deal, with RCA-Victor. His success with songs he wrote for Jim Reeves brought him back to Chet Atkins’s office, where he had flubbed his audition many years before. He had a new song that Buddy Killen was hot on, called “You Don’t Want My Love.” Killen suggested to Atkins that Miller should cut it himself, and in one of the least-corporate moves of his career, Atkins agreed.

Commonly known as “In the Summertime,” “You Don’t Want My Love” was released when Miller was still touring with Faron Young. Darrell McCall reveals that Young was intensely jealous of others’ ambitions and told Miller many times he didn’t have what it took to be a star in his own right. When Young played at Carnegie Hall weeks after “You Don’t Want My Love” was released, he poked fun of his drummer to the audience and told him to come up and sing his new hit record, thinking he was setting Miller up for failure. “Roger got up there to the microphone and said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I am the king fool,’” Darrell McCall remembers, “and when he sang ‘You Don’t Want My Love,’ the place just went absolutely nuts for him. That night was the turning point. After that night, there was no doubt—Roger Miller was a star.”

Miller went on to have an incredibly successful run in the business. He had dozens of hits, won several Grammy awards, had his own NBC television show, and eventually became a Tony award-winning composer for Broadway plays. After he died in 1992, he was posthumously inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. That much of the story is well known to Miller’s fans. Hopefully this release will shed some much-needed light on the early days and the lean years of one of the most brilliant men in the country music business, Roger Miller.