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Monday, October 26, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Singer-Songwriter Roger Miller, 56; His Tunes Known To Millions

Nashville Tennessean

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Singer-songwriter Roger Miller died yesterday in Los Angeles of cancer at age 56.

His career encompassed network television stardom, multiple Grammy Award recognition, million-selling pop hits, Broadway composing and a long string of country radio favorites.

Whether singing such well-known tunes as "King of the Road" and "Dang Me" or writing the Tony Award winning musical "Big River," Mr. Miller was regarded as one of Nashville's most talented troubadours.

"Roger Miller was one of the most exciting songwriter-artists I have ever known," Broadcast Music Inc. president Frances Preston said yesterday.

One of the most popular country acts of the mid-1960s, Mr. Miller had numerous hits, including "Chug-a-Lug," "Engine Engine No.9," "Kansas City Star," "Husbands and Wives" and "England Swings."

In 1964-'65, he won an unprecedented 11 Grammys. Three consecutive LPs earned Gold Record awards in 1965-'66.

He hosted the NBC-TV national variety program, "The Roger Miller Show," in 1966, and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1973.

In 1985, his Huckleberry Finn musical "Big River" won seven Tony Awards in New York, including Best Musical and Best Score.

Born in 1936 in Fort Worth, Texas, Roger Dean Miller grew up on a small cotton farm in Erick, Okla. He received an eighth-grade education in a one-room schoolhouse and taught himself to play fiddle and guitar.

He served in the Army during the Korean War. In 1957, Mr. Miller came to Nashville, where he worked as a bellhop. He auditioned for Chet Atkins and worked as a band musician for Faron Young, Ray Price, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash while honing his songwriting skills.

He became a staff writer for the newly formed Tree Publishing for $25 a week. Ray Price's "Invitation to the Blues," Jim Reeves' "Billy Bayou" and "When Two Worlds Collide," Ernest Tubb's "Half a Mind," George Jones' "Tall Tall Trees" and Andy Williams' "You Don't Want My Love" were among Mr. Miller's early successes.

Mr. Miller recorded for Starday and RCA before striking pay dirt on Smash Records in 1964-'70. Five of his country singles became top-10 pop hits.

They were quirky, jazz-flavored ditties he initially wrote for his own amusement. One afternoon in 1964, he recorded an album of these humorous, non-standard songs. To his surprise, the album's title song, "Dang Me," became a No. 1 hit.

Mr. Miller starred in the showrooms of Lake Tahoe, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. In 1970, he opened his own King of the Road Motor Inn in Nashville.

In 1974, his first wife, Leah, filed for divorce. Mr. Miller entered what he called his "fallow period," moving to Los Angeles and then to Santa Fe, N.M., to settle with second wife, Mary, who was a former singer in the First Edition.

After hosting the SRO Awards Banquet during Country Music Week in 1991, Mr. Miller sought medical help in Nashville for a hoarseness in his throat. Doctors at Vanderbilt Medical Center discovered a cancerous tumor below his vocal cords and he underwent radiation treatment.

In January, the star said he thought the procedure had been successful. But he had to resume cancer treatments in Los Angeles this past summer.

He died at 5 a.m. yesterday at Century City Hospital with wife and son Roger Dean Jr. at his side.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Miller is survived by two other sons, Adam Gray and Alan; four daughters, Margaret Taylor, Rhonda, Shari and Shannon Elizabeth; mother, Laudine Burdine, and a sister, Melva Pate.

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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