An Unpredictable Genius
During my tenure as a country music disk jockey and songwriter, I’ve had the occasion to meet some of the most interesting people on the planet. One of the most intriguing was Roger Miller. While most of the others were in Nashville or Los Angeles, Roger lived in Erick, Oklahoma, about 20 miles from my hometown, Shamrock, Texas. He was not only interesting, he was an unpredictable genius. This was noticeable in his songs, and in his personal approach to life.
Although Roger could be serious at times, he chose to present his life in a positive, easy manner. I was in his company dozens of times and I never saw him in a negative mood. If a conversation was beginning to take on shades of sadness or a dab of depression, Roger would manage to change the subject with an absurd comment that caused smiles or giggles. He had a remarkable talent for creating laughter. Even his musical compositions reflected that talent. One of his song titles that jumps out of the bunch is “You Can’t Roller Skate In A Buffalo Herd!” Other gems with noticeable titles and lyrics included “Dang Me” and “Chug-a-Lug”. They may have sounded a bit absurd, but “Dang Me” jumped to No. 1 in the country charts and “Chug-a-Lug” made it to #3 in 1964. The songs enhanced Roger’s career. He claimed he wrote “Dang Me” in four minutes. “The title just whizzed into my head and the lyrics came easy. Yeah, I’d say that song was finished in about four minutes, although I didn’t have a stop watch handy to time it,” he laughed. Later that year, he wrote and recorded the No. 15 rated hit, “Do-Wacka-Do”. Soon after that came the biggest hit of his career, “King of the Road”, which zoomed to the top of the charts, holding that position for weeks. It also reached No. 1 in the UK charts in May 1965. His record label, Smash Records, claimed Roger was inspired to write “King of the Road” when he saw a sign in Chicago that read “Trailers for Sale or Rent”. Roger told me he saw the sign in Amarillo. He said, “I guess the record company thought Chicago would grab more attention than Amarillo since more people lived in Chicago. Who knows?”
One thing is known, “King of the Road” was certified gold in May 1965, after selling a million copies. It won numerous awards and earned a royalty check amounting to $160,000 that summer. Later in the year, Roger scored with “Engine Engine No. 9”, “Kansas City Star” and “England Swings,” all of them big hits.
After establishing his career with quirky titled songs, Roger decided he should focus his talent in a different direction. After all, he was inspired by the musical works of Hank Williams and other Grand Ole Opry stars who specialized in serious love ballads. He began 1966 with the hit, “Husbands and Wives.” Then came “Little Green Apples,” “Invitation to the Blues,” “The Last Word in Lonesome is Me” and other serious love songs, all of them hits.
One thing Roger and I had in common was Jay’s hamburgers. A Shamrock citizen named Jay Burkhalter established a small hamburger spot in town named Jay’s Grill. He specialized in delicious hamburgers. Ask anyone who inhabited Shamrock, Texas during the ‘40s and ‘50s about Jay’s hamburgers and I can assure you, the grand majority will proclaim them as being the tastiest hamburgers they ever devoured. Jay’s hotdogs were also delicious, but his hamburgers were award-winning special.
I’ll always remember the night Roger and I were seated next to each other at an awards banquet in Nashville. As we were attempting to cut the big, thick steaks that were set before us, Roger set his knife down, nudged me and whispered, “Hey, Bill. What would you give for a good ol’ Jay’s hamburger right now?”
Although I wasn’t in the crowd, I’ve heard the story many times of when Roger had completed a huge concert in Oklahoma City, he invited a bunch of his chums to join him at his hotel for a “discussion session.” A big crowd showed up for the event. Around midnight, Roger decided hamburgers would be ordered for him and those with him. When the front desk at the hotel informed, him it was too late to order hamburgers at the establishment, Roger picked up the telephone and called Jay Burkhalter in Shamrock, located 180 miles from Oklahoma City. After Jay assured him he could fry up a few dozen hamburgers, Roger sent a private plane to Shamrock to pick them up! Although the sun had risen when the huge order was delivered to the hotel in Oklahoma City, they were proclaimed as being the hit of the evening!
I asked Jay Burkhalter about this happening. He said it required some extra help to fulfill the order, but every burger was set to go when the plane arrived in the wee hours of the morning. Jay said, “Actually, the private plane didn’t land in Shamrock because we don’t have an airport. We had a limited landing strip for older planes, but not the one Roger sent our way. Roger’s plane flew to Amarillo. I put the big box of hamburgers in a car, rushed to Amarillo and met the plane there. The plane finally headed back to Oklahoma City before dawn. All-in-all, it would have been a lot cheaper to have purchased the burgers in Oklahoma City but Roger had this strong attachment to those I fried up in my grill, and was determined to have some for him and his many guests that night.”
Obviously, Roger Miller was blessed with amazing talent. I often thought he would have made a good stand-up comic. He was the most quick-witted individual I’ve ever known. He was also a very close personal friend to me. Roger had his demons in life. He was addicted to drugs for a while, but managed to drop the habit. One habit he couldn’t drop was smoking. He chain-smoked cigarettes most of his life. Eventually, lung cancer claimed his life in 1992 at age 56. He was posthumously placed in the Country Music Hall-of-Fame three years later.
Yep, Roger Miller was a true genius. His lifetime achievements are now honored in the Roger Miller Museum in Erick, Oklahoma. I urge you to visit that spot sometime.