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.
Born in Janurary 1936, 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 followed and would lead to Miller's eventual success.
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, which blurred the lines between country and pop long before it was fashionable to do so. His career, in contrast, saw a slump in the '70s. 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 Mary 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. Stan Mores, Miller's longtime manager, 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?'"