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.

167. Peter and Gordon (Accompaniment directed by Geoff Love) – A World Without Love (1964)

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Despite being the year’s biggest seller, Can’t Buy Me Love only stayed at number 1 for three weeks. However, such was Beatlemania’s power at the time, it was replaced with yet another song with links to the group.

World Without Love was credited to Lennon and McCartney, but had in fact been written by McCartney alone when he was 16, and he had never considered it good enough for his band. He was more than happy though, to help out his lover’s brother, and his schoolmate.

Peter and Gordon were pop duo Peter Asher and Gordon Waller. Redheaded Peter was Jane Asher’s brother, and both were child actors. Born on 22 January 1944 into a wealthy family in Park Royal, London, his father was a consultant in blood and mental diseases at Central Middlesex Hospital, and his mother a professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. By coincidence, George Martin was a student there. He first met Gordon at Westminster School.

Gordon was born 4 June 1945 in Braemar, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. His father was a prominent surgeon. The family moved to Middlesex while Gordon was a child. They began performing professionally together as Peter and Gordon in 1962 in coffee bars, and aspired to be the UK’s answer to The Everly Brothers. So when McCartney began dating Jane, he probably thought World Without Love would be the perfect for the duo. The adolescent McCartney was a keen Everlys fan, and he was bound to have had them in mind when writing this.

Back in those first few years of fame, Lennon and McCartney understandably didn’t know how long their fame would last, and McCartney once said in an early TV interview that when the hits dried up they’d like to write for others. If this was the case, it’s probably fair to say they’d have had to try better than World Without Love if they were to continue to score number 1 hits.

It’s not that it’s a bad song, it’s pretty pleasant, but the lyrics are melodramatic and clearly written by an adolescent. (The rest of the Beatles used to laugh at the opening ‘Please lock me away’ line). Peter and Gordon’s harmonies are nice, but they’re no match for Phil and Don. The jangly guitar sound is a winner, but this is negated by an awful Hammond organ instrumental section. All in all, it’s doubtful this would have got to number 1 in 1964 without the Beatlemania link, but it does prove that McCartney had an uncanny ear for a nice melody at a young age.

It was downhill after this debut single for Peter and Gordon. McCartney penned several follow-ups specifically for them, but only second single Nobody I Know troubled the charts.

In 1966 McCartney wrote Woman for them but used the pseudonym Bernard Webb to see whether he could give them a hit without his reputation helping. The truth soon came out though, and it only reached 28, regardless.

After the duo split, Asher continued to be associated with the Beatles, becoming the head of A&R at Apple Records. He later became a recording executive in California. Gordon Waller fared less well as a solo artist (although hats off to him for naming his album ...and Gordon in 1972).

In 2008 Peter and Gordon reunited for live performances, but sadly Waller died of a heart attack on 17 July 2009, aged 64. Asher, who was appointed a CBE in 2015 for services to the British music industry, occasionally plays live shows with guitarist Albert Lee.

Written by: John Lennon & Paul McCartney

Producer: Dave Dexter Jr

Weeks at number 1: 2 (23 April-6 May)

Births:

Erasure singer-songwriter Andy Bell – 25 April
Lady Sarah Chatto – 1 May

Meanwhile…

29 April: All schools in Aberdeen were closed following reports of 136 cases of typhoid.

1 May: Princess Margaret gave birth to a baby girl, Lady Sarah Chatto.

2 May: The Queen’s seven-week-old son was christened Edward.
That same day, West Ham United won the FA Cup for the first time, defeating Preston North End 3-2 at Wembley Stadium.

5 May: The start of a milestone in TV history, as Granada Television broadcast Seven Up! as part of its World in Action strand. Originally conceived as an attempt to examine the differences between social class in the 60s, Michael Apted, researcher on Seven Up! and director from 7 Plus 7 onwards, has returned to the lives of many of the children from the original documentary every seven years. One of the greatest documentary series of all time, it has offered a fascinating look at age and the changes in British society over the years. 63 Up was transmitted in 2019.