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Roger Miller; ‘King of the Road’ Singer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Roger Miller, the singer-songwriter whose sometimes offbeat country songs such as “King of the Road” earned him 11 Grammys in two years and made him a favorite pop and country minstrel, died Sunday in Los Angeles. He was 56.

Miller, whose best-known songs included “Dang Me,” “Can’t Rollerskate in a Buffalo Herd,” “Chug-a-Lug” and “England Swings,” died at Century City Hospital, said his manager, Stan Moress of Nashville, Tenn. In January, Miller said he was undergoing radiation treatment for a cancerous tumor below his vocal cords.

His career, which peaked with 11 Grammys in 1964 and 1965, revived when he composed 18 songs for the 1985 Broadway musical “Big River,” based on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn saga. The show, which ran on Broadway for 2 1/2 years, won seven Tonys, one of them for best musical score.

Miller hosted a short-lived television variety program in 1966, but it was his humorous, heartfelt songs and musical versatility that made his career.

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A native of Ft. Worth, Miller wrote his first number at age 5--for years, he told an interviewer, he composed his music on bubble gum wrappers and napkins. “We were so poor you’d have to spell it with five O’s,” he said.

He picked cotton--400 pounds of it--to earn the $8 to buy his first guitar, and eventually mastered the drums, banjo, fiddle and piano. He dropped out of high school to work his way across Texas and Oklahoma, playing with little bands when he could find them, and doing odd jobs like dehorning cattle when he couldn’t.

In the Army in Korea, he was assigned to a unit that entertained troops and met a sergeant who persuaded him to try his hand in Nashville.

There, he worked as a bellhop and spent his nights trying to get a break. Eventually he did, but not quite as he had hoped. He played backup fiddle, drums and guitar for Grand Ole Opry stars, but it was the music he wrote that caught the country world’s attention--songs such as “Half a Mind,” “Hey, Little Star” and “In the Summertime,” which would be recorded by the likes of Ernest Tubb and Andy Williams.

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Miller then went to Hollywood to make it as a singer as well as a songwriter. In 1964, when he recorded a quick album for a quick $1,800 advance, one cut--"Chug-a-Lug"--became a Top 10 country hit and a gold record.

In 1965, he scored with four hit songs--"Engine, Engine No. 9,” “Kansas City Star,” “One Dyin’ and a-Buryin’ ” and “King of the Road.”

The last, Miller’s hobo song, a wry and rueful anthem of the down-and-outer, sold 2.5 million singles, and within 10 years, some 300 artists had recorded versions.

“When ‘Dang Me’ hit, I was suddenly there,” he recalled. “Shoot, I thought I was Elvis.”

In 1966, he was country music’s Man of the Year. By 1969, he said later, he was drinking, mired in personal problems and addicted to amphetamines--a “snake pit,” he described it.

Even after his recording career waned, he toured the nightclub circuit, weaving wit and music into popular shows. He called himself a “sort of a Jekyll and Hammersmith; my music is depressive jazz"--a term he coined onstage when he could not think of the word “progressive.”

He wrote little new material in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. In 1973, Disney used his distinctive roguish twang as a character voice in the animated feature “Robin Hood.”

In 1982, when Broadway producer Rocco Landesman asked him about writing the music for “Big River,” he had only seen one Broadway musical: “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.” The songs he wrote blended instruments such as harmonica and banjo in American-sounding numbers that ranged in style from rhythm and blues and folk to gospel. They included droll songs such as “Hand for the Hog” and “Free at Last,” sung by the slave Jim, and inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.

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“I knew the meat of the story because my people were like the Twain people, and I tried to use that to make the songs accessible,” he told The Times in 1987.

Miller, who lived north of Santa Fe, N.M., is survived by his wife and seven children.


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