The Purple People Eater & The King of The Road
Erick, Oklahoma is on the fast track to becoming a ghost town. The Route 66 corridor signed as Roger Miller Boulevard is lined with long shuttered motels, empty storefronts and century old brick buildings that hint of better times.
For fans of the double six Erick is internationally known for the Sandhills Curiosity Shop housed in the old meat market and the ribald vaudevillian performances of Harley Russell. This is rather fitting as Erick is the home of two celebrities.
Roger Dean Miller was born January 2, 1936, in Fort Worth, Texas. He was only a year old when his father, Jean, died. This was the era of the Dust Bowl and his mother, Laudene Holt Miller, was unable to provide for her boys. So, each of his fathers three brothers came and took one of the boys to live with them. And so Roger was raised by Armelia and Elmer Miller on a cotton farm outside Erick, Oklahoma. It was a hardscrabble life made even harder as Miller struggled with loneliness.
Even though more than twelve years separated them, Miller struck up a friendship with Shelby Fredrick “Sheb” Wooley, an Erick native. They worked together fixing fences, herding cattle and doing other farm chores. And they also talked of dreams about making it big in show business, and listened to the Grand Old Opry program on the radio. Wooley also taught Miller how to play the guitar, and bought him his first fiddle.
At the age of 15, with a talent for music, Wooley played in a popular regional band, the “Plainview Melody Boys,” that performed at area events and on radio station KASA in Erick. And later he became a professional rodeo rider. In 1940 he married Roger Miller’s cousin, Melva Miller. In 1946 the couple moved to Fort Worth, Wooley formed a band, and took the show on the road.
In 1950, Wooley moved to Hollywood with a hope of breaking into the movies by using his rodeo schools. It worked. Over the course of the next few decades he appeared in dozens of movies. In 1950, he appeared in Rocky Mountain Starring Erol Flynn and Slim Pickens. In 1952 he played the role of the outlaw Ben Miller in High Noon, a movie that starred Gary Cooper. He appeared in episodes of television programs including the Lone Ranger, The Adventures of Kit Carson, Cheyenne, and the Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. Wooley was cast as the drover Pete Nolan in the CBS western series Rawhide that aired from 1959 to 1966.
In the late 1950s, Wooley kicked off a recording career with a smash hit, “The Purple People Eater.” earning him considerable fame. He followed up with a series of novelty hits, a few pop recordings that climbed the charts, and then country and western tunes. Over the years Wooley’s work was honored with numerous awards including Comedian of the Year Award, Songwriter of the Year Award, and Western Heritage Award.
Miller also fulfilled his childhood dream but his road to fame was a rocky one. While he was still in high school, Roger began hitchhiking from town to town in Texas and Oklahoma and picking up day jobs as a laborer. And he spent the evenings in road houses and honky-tonks. His care free days as a drifter were brought an abrupt end after stealing a guitar from a music store in Texas and returning home to Oklahoma. Even though he was only seventeen, the judge gave the option of jail time or enlistment in the United States Army. And so he joined the army and served in Korea. The end of his tour was spent at Fort McPherson in Georgia where he was assigned to Special Services. It proved to be a fortuitous break as he had the opportunity to play the fiddle for the Circle A Wranglers, a band that had been started by Faron Young.
Miller would eventually become a renowned and award winning song writer and performer. He would even have a television program. But the road to stardom had detours, and a few dead ends.
In coming weeks I will be sharing more of Miller’s and Wooley’s story. And I will be sharing the stories of other celebrities such as Garth Brooks, who will be performing at the inaugural celebrations for President Joe Biden, Sammy Davis Jr. and Gene Autry. These will be published as exclusive content on our Patreon based Jim Hinckley’s America crowding site.