Friday, November 20, 2009
The greatest of them all...
The seventeen year old stood before the judge. His future hung in the balance. He had been caught stealing and the question was what to do with him. Enlisting in the Army was suggested and his heart nearly jumped out of his chest. What would this do to his career? His plans for stardom? But it was jail or Korea. Later he would tell people he graduated in the “Clash of 52.”
He would serve his Country and while in the Army, even develop the dream that had gotten him into trouble. The dream? To be a songwriter. The crime? Stealing a guitar. The young man who joined the Army to stay out of jail? And who went on to win eleven Grammys, bested only by Michael Jackson? And whose first hit went, Dang me, they oughta get a rope and hang me? It was Roger Miller...
A year or so ago I was watching Letterman, I think it was, when he had a legendary performer on as a guest, and drifting off to sleep, I THINK it was Glen Campbell, I heard them comparing notes. They talked about all of their years of entertainment experience, and all that they had seen over the years, especially at venues like Vegas. Finally Letterman asked, “In your mind, who was the greatest entertainer, that impressed you the most?” Without much hesitation, this great entertainer said there were many greats of course, but for him, he would have to say Roger Miller was the greatest of them all.
Roger Miller. At the mention of that name I perked up. Roger Miller! Not Glenn Miller, Roger Miller. Of all the hundreds, maybe thousands of wonderful, famous singers and entertainers, he said Roger Miller. Not Elvis, not Frank Sinatra, not Tina Turner or Michael Jackson. I wondered how many in the audience had even heard of Roger Miller or knew anything about him, or could even sing one of his songs. There was a flat response from the audience. But they listened as one of the world’s most famous entertainers gave homage to this underrated man, who had a handful of hits, and most of them on Country stations. Most of the memories and accolades shared about Miller evaporated into the air, and then the moment was gone to TV trivia heaven.
But I was gleaming. I had seen Roger Miller. In 1964, when I was nine years old, my father took my little brother and me to a Sunday afternoon concert at Dance City USA. We lived in Houston at the time and it was just a short drive across town to this legendary music venue, where Loretta Lynn was to be performing that day. I’ll never forget driving up to the sun bleached dancehall, a fairly unassuming, utilitarian structure, and shining in a gravel parking lot that looked to me as stark and lonely as the Great Salt Flats. There were so few cars we wondered if they were open. Still I couldn’t erase my expectations of hundreds of couples gliding to the rhythms of Texas Swing. Perhaps we were early. We walked in and gawked at great giant posters of the Country Music greats at the time, like Tammy Wynnette and Johnny Cash, imagining at first that they must be in the place. But the crowd was so sparse, that could not be the case. And it wasn’t. My dad bought us tickets before he understood that his favorite female vocalist was not going to be there either. My guess is there were too few ticket presales, and Loretta Lynn cancelled her engagement. If we wanted to wait, the evening show would feature the Carter Sisters; close but no cigar. Dance City was more like a Ghost Town. Deflated, we mulled it over and regrouped. There was a show anyway, and the ticket guy promised we would like the show. So we stayed to give it a chance.
Several lesser wanna-be stars were playing that day. Roger Miller had been recording for just a short while, and was nowhere near famous. He had cut his first hit album with Smash Records just months before, and he was killing time until its release. A star had been born, but the birth announcements had not been mailed. We sat and listened, underwhelmed, through a set by someone that I have forgotten, but something in the back of my mind says Tex Ritter, and I remember watching Miller watching them and us in the wings. He looked out of place in his slim, sixties sweater and slacks… and not even wearing cowboy boots or a cowboy hat. That seemed peculiar. He was either weird or poor. Either way it lowered my expectations. And then he did not change my impression by coming onstage, in a dorky, nonchalant way, an antithesis to a Country Western fan’s idea of a music star. He was clumsily introduced as a rising star, and I imagined that everybody there was probably described that way. The audience was told by the emcee that someday we would remember the day at Dance City USA when we saw Roger Miller perform. But this prophesy fell on ignorant ears, which had been primed for Loretta Lynn.
Miller came out, all by himself. He kind of ignored the sparse audience as he fussed with the microphone, and asked almost desperately for a stool, or chair or whatever they had. He seemed comfortable with no band, no fanfare, but I wondered if he was what my Dad called a flash in the pan. He sat on the stool and smiled real big as the sound crew fought with technical difficulties. The weekend shift seemed to be having trouble.
My Dad suggested we go get autographs while he was waiting to start. The idea mortified me. Why couldn’t Johnny Cash have been there that day? We wanted some real Nashville glitter and to see somebody famous!
Roger sat there, waiting graciously, as technicians fidgeted with the mic, and finally, the lights went low. A spotlight popped on him, and we hunkered down for the show… and we had no idea of what that meant. And then, very unpretentiously, he played his new songs that would soon be big hits. Some of his older songs, like Billy Bayou, we recognized immediately, and we began to warm up. Confident and very down to earth, Roger Miller sang Chugalug, In the Summertime, and his soon to be number 1 hit, Dang Me, and some yet unrecorded songs, sure to be Miller classics, as we began to laugh and forget Loretta Lynn.
Roger Miller had been writing and selling his songs since 1957, and had been recorded by other big stars, like Jim Reeves and Ray Price, but so far he never had a hit with one of his own releases. He had made quite a few singles, for Decca, and a local recording studio called Starday, and later for RCA. Miller played for about 45 minutes, and finally he put his guitar down. The gracious crowd clapped, unsure of themselves. He had a squeaky, rasping kind of voice, but the songs were cute. The lights came up as the emcee walked on the stage and asked Miller to stay, and fill in an unplanned time gap. “Ladies and gentlemen, we are in for a real treat. You’ll never see this anywhere else. Roger has agreed to stay and do a few impressions.”
Being ten years old, I had no idea what that meant. I looked at my father who was nodding and grinning with expectation. What we saw next was riveted into me and my brother’s brain for the rest of our lives. Roger Miller was a great songwriter and performer, sure enough. But he also may have been one of the most spontaneous entertainers ever. He was known to write hit songs in five or six minutes, on more than one occasion. He joked extemporaneously, yet was so funny he could leave a crowd in stitches. He would throw himself to the wolves, in a self deprecating diatribe, with that dry Oklahoma styled, Will Rogers wit, and you had to like him. “Our town is so small we don’t have a village idiot, so we have to take turns.” Everyone cracked up. He relished being a struggling entertainer on the road, as it provided lots of humor:“I got all the money I need… as long as I don’t have to eat or buy anything.” He was so quick-minded that most people never really took in what had just transpired. And his impressions or impersonations were nothing short of genius.
He might do voices that you would recognize like Jimmy Stewart, or Humphrey Bogart. Or he might take off his shoe and hold it to his ear, scrunching his body up as if he were in a phone booth, and make sound effects with his mouth and the microphone that sounded just like a dime ringing down a payphone, and then conversation with an Operator, then more money down the hatch, then an electronic dial tone, then sounds like a telephone dial clicking a phone number, and then ringing and then talking for two different people. Then doing the predictable interruption by a pesky Operator, wanting more money. He was hilarious. It was obvious he was not only a decent musician and songwriter, but a very good comedian. He did amazing sound effects; airplanes, trains and UFO’s. A car wreck. A train wreck. In short order we were infatuated, overwhelmed and wishing his short act after his act would not end.
Everyone was laughing and clapping and begging for more. So he did a few more. He told a few more jokes, and in the end, had completely disarmed the crowd, which all of a sudden, felt like a bigger crowd.
Miller was naturally funny, even when he wasn’t, once quipping, after a few duds, “I guess I didn’t have as many jokes as I thought I did!” Eccentric and full of witticisms, Nashville songwriters were known to just hang out with him, as it seemed everything he said could be the first line of the next big hit. He literally spoke in song. And he was a very cheerful, giving entertainer, even for just a handful of people on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
His talent was great, but we were aesthetically ignorant. And most of us are. Roger understood this well. “I’ve always been twenty minutes ahead of my time” he once said. The very same songs we had just heard would take him to the top of the Pop and Country charts by June, just three months later, and he would ride that wave until late that Autumn. Two years later he would have his own television show.
Finally he got down from the stage, just thirty feet or so from our table, and signed autographs. I remember sitting frozen as my Dad went over and talked to him. Dad was always very friendly and could talk to anyone. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I would almost swear my little brother went over and shook his hand. He was such an outgoing little cuss. I always envied that. We never thought to get his signature though, not even a souvenir photo. When it occurred to us, we looked up and he was gone.
Recently I asked my brother Reynolds, only six years old at the time, if he remembered this landmark Sunday afternoon. I wondered if it had made the same kind of impression on him. It had, and he even remembered that it was the day General Douglas Macarthur died, because we heard the announcement on the car radio on the way home, which means it was April 5th 1964. How’s that for a six year old kid? He and I make one good brain, he remembers the headlines and I remember the particles of dust floating in the sunbeams. Anyway, unbeknownst to us, Miller was headed to Hollywood, and he had planned to use the money from the Nashville record deal to finance his hopes out there. He wanted to be an actor. And the young man whose time had come, could not be denied. This was the year that Roger Miller got a role on the Daniel Boone television series as Johnny Appleseed. But when his next album came out, with King of the Road, his destiny had finally materialized, and he found his place in American entertainment history.
Later that summer as his hits came out on the radio, and rose up the charts, one after another, we took pride knowing we had personally discovered Roger Miller. We were sure that day had made a great impact on him as it had us. After all, he had not even existed until that day, when we saw him. And not long after, Johnny Cash, Mel Tillis, Glen Campbell and many other great artists “discovered” him. Eventually he had won eleven Grammy’s. Only Michael Jackson has won more. But more than the awards, his friends remember him for the way they were touched by his friendship and wit. "Roger was funny," Glen Campbell still loves to quote him, slinging Miller’s jokes every chance he gets, still in love with the man and his humor. "He said his wife was such a bad cook, a swarm of flies got together and fixed the screen door." Campbell once served as best man at one of Miller’s weddings. One admirer beautifully described his music as “art disguised as fun.” And when this great artist on television said Miller was the greatest, it made me realize the point of this story.
Every Friday and Saturday night great artists perform here in Navasota, from all over the country. Several have come from Nashville to play the Texas circuit, and start their tour right here. We are seeing top flight entertainment, and some of them are going to be big stars someday. Some of them already are, in a strange, niche market kind of way. People miss so much while holding out for a Loretta Lynn, when a Roger Miller is begging for an audience. Someday the right person will recognize them, and suddenly they are on the national scene. Roger Miller said that he worked diligently, doing gigs in bars for twenty years, before he was suddenly an “overnight sensation.” When asked how he would like to be remembered, he retorted, “I just don’t want to be forgotten!”
Go search on Utube for “River in the Rain,” by Roger Miller, just one song from the score he wrote for the Broadway play Big River, and you will sense how a great American artist can slip through our fingers, and never be fully appreciated… except by those who are closest to the business. Few of us paid attention when he did the voice for the minstrel rooster in Walt Disneys’ cartoon movie, Robin Hood. Most of us had lost track of him when he wrote the score for Big River, a Broadway play about Mark Twain, and won a Tony award. Go to his official website and read the devoted reviews of fans young and old, and it is obvious his art was and is timeless, and his music will outlast many of his contemporaries. Someday multitudes will be writing the same kind of things about people who pass though here.
Overnight sensations always start first with a little unsuspecting crowd, and overnight APPRECIATION. Don’t cheat yourself out of the chance to see history in the making. You can’t go back and capture missed opportunities. Roger Miller put it this way: “If I had my life to live over again, I wouldn’t have the time.” We all put a lot into our lives, and spend millions of hours, but how many of them do we cherish for the rest of our lives? The secret to enjoying life, is not letting the world out there rob you of simple treasures right in front of you. And most of them are free. You just have to open your eyes and ears. Sometime, you might even get to see the greatest of them all.