Eddie Miller had a minor career as a bandleader in the '30s and '40s, the heyday of Western swing. Proudly proclaiming their heritage on the front of the bass drum, Eddie Miller & His Oklahomans cut a few sides: the punctual "Motel Time" and the pathetic "Don't Break My Heart Again" are available to interested listeners on enjoyable compilations entitled Lone Star Swing: Texas Dance Hall Music, Volume Two and Wanderer's Swing. As a songwriter coming up with hits for the Nashville sound, Miller succeeded in a major way and was responsible for some of the best, as well as the worst, material to hit the country & western charts.
His response to the latter comment has already been written in the form of a song, "Thanks a Lot,," the choice of at least one hardcore country fan as representing the top cream of Miller's songwriting craft -- as recorded by the sterling duo of Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn. "Release Me," however, is the only logical place to start with any discussion of Miller's career. The actual life of the song in the Hit Parade charts was unusually long. It was established as a country standard in the '50s, then brought back in the following decade with a life force that would have startled Dr. Frankenstein, by a Brit-pop superstar, no less.
For at least 20 years no country or pop cover band dared mount a stage without a version of "Release Me" in the set list. It was always there on the jukebox in a tavern, the line of depressed patrons wishing to release it with their quarters forming to the immediate left. It was parodied by Homer & Jethro and Martin & Lewis and its title, of course, made poking fun easy. The listening public eventually desired its own release from such domination, a development almost worth tossing bouquets into the air for. It was such a lurking, moody, despondent, hopeless, bitter bit of country crossover, the kind of song that becomes that way because it isn't that countrified to begin with.
Many of the better songs Miller wrote, interpreted by country greats such as Patsy Cline and Ray Price, were an important part of a new era in Nashville recordings. This material was downright sophisticated! Sympathy can be felt toward those country fans who would like to remove "Release Me" entirely from Miller's menu of major works simply out of respect for overindulgence on the part of their ancestors. Nonetheless it is important to insist that "Release Me" is of major significance not only to Miller, but to the history of songwriting itself. There are few song titles which speak with such irony about events in the actual history of the song itself. For a song to be able to comment not only on itself but on its own destiny is probably more important than it being any good in the cosmic scheme of things.
First of all, it was "Won't Someone Please Release Me," Miller submitting the song to every publisher and recording contact he could think of for more than four years. "I Had to Release Me Myself" would be a clever title for an autobiographical ditty about Miller, but at least this action in 1953 established that the pleading ballad could exist as a record on a jukebox.
That's where singer Jimmy Heap found "Release Me," literally, in a heap of new indie country singles. Ray Price's cover was next, certainly upping the tally of funds collected in royalty payments. Miller may have thought he was doing well when the supreme country queen Kitty Wells presented the female perspective. After all, at that point there were three cover versions in the Top Ten at the same time, a feat not repeated by any other song until the "Macarena" was danced. But Esther Phillips was waiting to unscrew"Release Me" for the '60s, and went to the top of both pop and R&B charts with her pleas. This inspired Engelbert Humperdinck, who in 1966 made "Release Me" a hit throughout the world, most likely did so in an effort to forever halt the flow of stupid puns concerning artists releasing "Release Me."
A former locomotive engineer, Miller had already been writing songs for nearly 20 years when he got the idea for "Release Me." His first song, "I Love You Honey" was published in the early '30s. He moved to Nashville in 1967 and by the time of his death a decade later had supposedly written 1,150 country & western songs. Anyone attempting to follow such a track record should be advised that Miller commented once that he wrote his songs backwards. There have been more than 400 cover versions of "Release Me," which in the Humperdinck interpretation stayed close to the top of the charts for 54 weeks. Miller also worked as a record producer for labels such as MGM, one of his projects being his daughter Pam Miller. She began recording with him when she was ten-years-old.