Wednesday, May 05, 2010
It's Miller Time: A Tribute to a Forgotten Novelty Star
It's been said that to truly find happiness, you should do what you love and then find a way to make money from it. Someone who lived that dream was a lady who probably had no business being on shows such as Ed Sullivan, Mike Douglas and The Tonight Show but was doing what she loved and making a living from it. Portly, 59 years old, and looking more like someone's grandmother or aunt rather than a go-go dancer, Elva Connes Miller - or Mrs. Miller, as she was known - belted out 60s pop standards including hits by the Beatles, Petula Clark, and Nancy Sinatra in a strange, wavering operatic style that would make Simon Cowell's molars hurt. Many people who remember the sixties are quite familiar with the era's other great novelty act, Tiny Tim, but fewer for some reason recall Mrs. Miller, perhaps because her 15 minutes of fame ended sooner. The difference between Mrs. Miller and Tiny Tim, not to mention the legions of today's wannabe but vocally challenged American Idol contestants, is that Mrs. Miller never sought fame: her success was simply the result of being in the right place at the right time, which enabled her to live out the American Dream. "Everyone has a hobby," she told the Progress Bulletin in May 1966. "My hobby has always been singing. I've made records and tapes of sacred or classical songs for my own amusement. A closet at home is filled with them."
It was that hobby of recording religious and classical songs ("just for the ducks of it", as Mrs. Miller put it) that caught the ears of Fred Bock, a record producer, (who later became her manager) during the 60s. Whether Bock saw genuine talent in Miller or an exploitation opportunity is unclear, but either way dollar signs must have been spinning on his pupils. He convinced her to record some modern songs and shilled them to a few record companies. Capitol Records, which was looking to experiment with a female vocalist with a new sound, was remarkably interested. Mrs. Miller's first LP, called "Mrs. Miller's Greatest Hits", debuted in 1966 and sold over 250,000 copies. She followed it up with "Will Success Spoil Mrs. Miller?" the same year, and "The Country Soul of Mrs. Miller" (which features her on the cover sporting a cowboy hat and Mexican bolero) a year later.
With that, an unusual star had been born. She not only appeared on the most popular variety shows at the time, but also joined Bob Hope in entertaining the troops in Vietnam and enjoyed a hilarious bit part in the 1967 movie The Cool Ones, singing "It's Magic" in front of an audience of giggling teenagers and a bemused Roddy McDowell. Elvis Presley even sent her a telegram before her appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Throughout it all, the lady originally from Dodge City, Kansas alluded a Midwestern, easy-going attitude and charm about her new-found fame. "I never worry about the future nor get concerned about the present," she stated to the Progress-Bulletin in 1966. "The last thing I want is an ulcer. There's no tragedy if this ends tomorrow. I've got my home and my family and I'm perfectly happy with them. Meanwhile, I'm having fun and meeting some wonderful people."
The mystery surrounding Mrs. Miller's success was always whether she was in on the joke or not. Surely she must have been aware of how bad her singing was perceived, especially while drawing fits of laughter, as during this 1966 performance below (this clip also highlights a good mix of the songs that she recorded):
Her voice sounds remarkably like a cross between Julia Child and Katherine Hepburn, punctuated by her whistling technique, which she achieved by sucking on ice for 20 minutes before recording a song. Although she is off-tune and off the beat in many recordings, she later insisted that Capitol forced her to sing during her worst moments. "I don't sing off key and I don't sing off rhythm," she told The Los Angeles Times in 1967. "They got me to do so by waiting until I was tired and then making the record. Or they would cut the record before I could become familiar with the song. At first I didn't understand what was going on. But later I did, and I resented it. I don't like to be used."
That last quote came when Mrs. Miller's fame was on the wane. After three albums, she was dropped by Capitol and picked up by a small label named Amaret. Her first LP with Amaret, called "Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing", was apparently the record producers' attempt to turn her into a late-60s psychedelic icon, as she's featured on the cover wearing a colorful dress and smirk and holding an outstretched plate of green brownies. On the album, she covers tracks full of hidden drug references such as "Mary Jane", "Green Tambourine", "Green Thumb", and "Renaissance of Smut." At that point the Mrs. Miller joke was old, and she eventually faded into obscurity.
Childless, what little money Mrs. Miller made from her singing career was used to care for her ailing husband (who was thirty years her senior.) She spent much of her free time attending classical music performances and enjoying visits with her nieces and nephews. She passed away in 1996.
Today, an entire century after her birth, there is still a legion of fans that enjoy Mrs. Miller's music and legacy. A compilation CD of some of her recordings (Ultra-Lounge: Wild, Cool & Swingin' - Artist Series Vol 3 Mrs. Miller) was released in 1999 and has received several high ratings and glowing reviews on Amazon (for the bargain basement price of $7.97.) Many reviewers cite Mrs. Miller's ability to make them laugh or feel better after a bad day, and that her singing reminds them of their mother. Indeed, the characteristic of Mrs. Miller's singing that so many people find endearing is the joy that comes through in many of her recordings. It's pretty obvious from listening to many of the track samples that she simply loved singing, and I would theorize that her ordinary appearance and approachability appealed to many people.
That, perhaps, was the secret to Mrs. Miller's short lived success: her hobby allowed her to live out a dream that most people cannot obtain, but can admire greatly.
And just in case you didn't get enough of those singing chops, here's some of the popular 60s hits that she covered, including my personal favorite, These Boots Were Made For Walking.