194. Roger Miller – King of the Road (1965)

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Toppling Ticket to Ride after three weeks was another song about travelling. Roger Miller’s charming country tale of a hobo, King of the Road was a very different beast, however.

Miller was born into poverty at the height of the Great Depression on 2 January 1936 in Fort Worth, Texas. His mother died when he was only a year old. His father was unable to support the family and so Roger went to live with an aunt and uncle on a farm outside Erick, Oklahoma.

Educated in a one-room schoolhouse, Miller was an introverted dreamer, and began making up songs from a young age. He fell in love with country music, and a relative bought him a fiddle. Desperate but broke, he stole a guitar when he was 17, but turned himself in the next day. He enlisted in the army to avoid jail, and while in service he became the fiddler in The Circle A Wranglers.

Upon leaving the army he moved to Nashville and auditioned for the influential Chet Atkins. He was so nervous he sang in two different keys, so Atkins asked him to come back later. Miller went to work at a hotel, where he was soon known as ‘the singing bellhop’. He met with George Jones and was introduced to music executives, but Miller chose to marry, start a family, and become a fireman. He later claimed he was only there for two fires, and slept through the second, so decided maybe music was the life for him after all. He returned to Nashville and soon found himself in demand as a songwriter, with Jim Reeves among those recording his material.

Miller signed with Decca Records in 1958, and then RCA Victor in 1960, but his waywardness increased, and despite growing success he ditched the songwriting, and his wife, and became a dedicated wild child instead.

Eventually he had ambitions to become an actor, but was short of money and signed a deal with Smash Records in exchange for cash. He wrote Dang Me in four minutes, and both that and Chug-a-Lug were huge country hits and made the top ten in the Billboard chart. Miller had discovered a knack for writing simple, humorous country hits, and his career was transformed. When it came to writing King of the Road, he recalled driving one day and seeing a sign that read ‘Trailers for sale or rent’.

Despite being normally wary of country music, I don’t see how anyone could dislike King of the Road. At a push, you could argue that the life of a tramp is probably not half as fun as Miller’s song suggests. But it’s tough not to be won over by the imagery he conjures, and that weather-beaten, wry voice of his fits the character like a fingerless glove. It comes across like a not-too-distant cousin of Sixteen Tons, which had been a number 1 for Tennessee Ernie Ford 10 years previous.

The subject matter was inspired by a hobo Miller met at an airport, and considering the singer-songwriter’s upbringing, it’s fair to say Miller identified with the tramp’s way of life. He wasn’t blindly romanticising such a lifestyle. I first became aware of this song thanks to REM, who disowned their cover, for some reason.

The hits continued for Miller, including the wry, timely England Swings. 1967 saw his popularity wane though, and his TV series was also cancelled.

In 1973 he voiced the rooster minstrel Allan-a-Dale in Disney’s animated animal version of Robin Hood. Much maligned over the years for looking cheap and ripping off earlier Disney features, I won’t have a bad word said about it. I saw it at a young age and will always have a soft spot for it, and that’s partly down to Miller’s three songs from the movie – Whistle-Stop, Oo-De-Lally and Not in Nottingham.

Miller stopped writing songs in 1978, but in the early 80s he received an offer to write a score for a Broadway musical based on the 1884 novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He had never read the book, but when he realised it was based in rural Oklahoma, he felt inspired once more. Opening in 1985, Big River was critically-acclaimed and Miller won the Tony Award for Best Score.

As the 90s began he co-wrote and provided backing vocals to Dwight Yoakam’s hit It Only Hurts When I Cry and embarked on a tour, but it was cut short the following year when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Miller’s carefree past caught up with him, and he died on 25 October 1992 aged 56.

Written by: Roger Miller

Producer: Jerry Kennedy

Weeks at number 1: 1 (13-19 May)

Births:

Journalist Christina Lamb – 15 May
Presenter Jeremy Vine – 17 May

Meanwhile…

13 May: It was well under a year since Labour narrowly got into power in the general election, but already the Conservatives were fighting back, making big gains in the local elections.

17 May: Tragedy struck Cambrian Colliery when an explosion killed 31 miners.

19 May: West Ham United became only the second British club in history to win a European trophy, defeating West Germany 2-0 at Wembley Stadium to take the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

98. Johnny Preston – Running Bear (1960)

This number 1 is one strange beast. Breaking an unusually lengthy spell of UK artists at the top (five months) was US rockabilly singer Johnny Preston with an un-PC novelty-teenage death song (these ‘death discs’ were becoming ever more popular) about the forbidden love of two Indians from warring tribes. Sounds interesting, yes?

Preston, of Cajun and German descent, had been born John Preston Courville on 18 August 1939. After entering singing contests in high school, he formed his first band, The Shades, who caught the eye of JP Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, of Chantilly Lace fame. In 1958 they went into the studio with future country legend George Jones and saxophonist Link Davis to record Richardson’s bizarre song, Running Bear.

Certainly one of the weirder number 1s to date, Running Bear begins with cheers before settling down into comedy stereotypical Indian ‘ocka chunka’ chanting from The Big Bopper and Jones, creating the rhythm of the verses, as Preston tells the tragic tale of the star-crossed lovers. It’s actually a good rhythm they create, but tacky and tasteless to modern ears.

The story is that Running Bear and Little White Dove love each other, but their two tribes hate each other, and as we all know, when two tribes go to war, one is all that you can score. Not only that, there’s a bloody big river separating them. This being the case, I’m not sure of the origins of their love, or how these tribes are managing to do battle, but hey, this isn’t a concept album, you can’t expect the full story I guess. As the verses shift into the chorus, Running Bear changes into your average rock’n’roll track, and the return to the verses afterwards sounds a bit clunky. Before you know it, they’ve decided to meet in the river, have a kiss and drown. And that’s it! I think it’s supposed to come across as romantic, but can’t help seeming a bit stupid. What a way to go.

You couldn’t get away with Running Bear now of course, but it’s not as offensive a number 1 as Guy Mitchell’s She Wears Red Feathers. It’s just outdated, and odd, all in all. The musicians seem to be having a good time, and some of that enthusiasm comes across, at least.

Of course, The Big Bopper died alongside Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens in a plane on 3 February 1959, so he never got to see Running Bear become number 1 in the US and subsequently the UK. Due to Richardson’s death, the song got caught up in legal issues, causing its release to be delayed. Perhaps its posthumous release is the reason it did so well, although Richardson isn’t credited as the artist, so how many people would have been aware of the connection? Perhaps it’s just that cowboys and indians were still very popular, and teenage death songs were about to become big. Or maybe it’s just one of those many unsolved mysteries where it’s impossible to work out how a song made it to the top.

The rest of Johnny Preston’s life is fairly mysterious too. His follow-up single, Cradle of Love nearly repeated Running Bear’s success, hitting the top ten in the US and UK. Another release, the rocking Leave My Kitten Alone, was later covered by the Beatles, and is perhaps the best unreleased track of their early years, with Lennon in fine shouty voice. It eventually surfaced on Anthology 1 in 1995. Preston was entered into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and performed on the nostalgia circuit, but eventually retired. He died of heart failure on 4 March, 2011, aged 71.

I can’t imagine why anyone would cover this track, but when I discovered Tom Jones had recorded a funk version in 1973, I had to have a listen. And you know what, it’s actually pretty good! Take a look at this insane clip from a TV special, with crazy dancing and camerawork. Tom should have got his funk on more often.

Written by: JP Richardson

Producer: Bill Hall

Weeks at number 1: 2 (17-30 March)

Births:

Artist Grayson Perry – 24 March

Meanwhile…

26 March: The Grand National was televised for the first time, with Merryman II becoming winner.

28 March: Tragedy struck in Glasgow when a warehouse fire broke out on Cheapside Street. Over a million gallons of whiskey and rum burned out of control for hours. 19 fire-servicemen were killed, making the incident the worst fire services disaster in peacetime, up to that point.