The inimitable Mrs. Miller
December 21, 2006 6:36 AM   Subscribe

In April of 1966, there emerged onto the American pop music scene a singer like no other. Off-pitch and off-tempo, a 59 year-old grandmother would perform rock standards such as A Hard Days Night and Downtown [link to audio] in a bizarre operatic style. Often considered the worst pop star of all time, she rode the line between farce and reality, as the reputable Capitol Records promoted the so-called "new sound" without cracking a smile. Her name was Elva Connes Miller, but on stage she was known simply as Mrs. Miller. Was her recording career one of the cruelest practical jokes ever devised by the record industry?
posted by flapjax at midnite (25 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The Mrs. Miller phenomenon is not without precedent, however. See also Florence Foster Jenkins and Tryphosa Bates-Batcheller.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:39 AM on December 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Mrs. Miller was a hoot and a half. And unlike Wing and later similar phenomena, she knew it was all a goof by all reports, so she was in on the joke, which keeps it all from being cruel.

(She even inspired an imitator. Or I should say, she inspired some wanna-be impresario to hunt down a random drunk, who they named Mr. Miller, who cut the most bizarre version of "Mrs. Brown, You've Got A Lovely Daughter" ever. Dana Countryman (I believe) posted his record way back, but it's been taken down. I have the mp3 at home, it's a fucking trip and shows you just how far some people will go to make a few bucks. (and how people will latch on to the slightest wisp of a trend).
posted by jonmc at 6:47 AM on December 21, 2006

Wing, baby.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 6:51 AM on December 21, 2006

I'd love to hear her with the Shaggs as her backing band. That version of 'A Hard Days Night' is a riot.
posted by GalaxieFiveHundred at 7:05 AM on December 21, 2006

You should hear her version of "May The Bird Of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose." (No, I'm not kidding).
posted by jonmc at 7:07 AM on December 21, 2006

She was the Zardoz of pop music.

People go along with it because, although she's an acoustic train wreck, her unbridled naive enthusiasm bubbles up in every vibrato and helps temper the pain of listening.

After all, she appeared on national variety shows and no one booed.
posted by CynicalKnight at 7:15 AM on December 21, 2006

I'm a fan with several of her CDs. However, a little goes a loooong way. I'm commenting just to make sure she gets as much love as the Fugs (right below this post.) Who will win the battle of the outsider music?
posted by DonnieSticks at 7:34 AM on December 21, 2006

Good post flapjax, flagged as such.

At some point in my life I queued up some Wings expecting Sir Paul's sweet sweet voice, and got Wing instead.

At first I thought it was Linda McCartney, but then I realized what had happened. /smirk
posted by Ynoxas at 7:51 AM on December 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

Well before Mrs. Miller there was Florence Foster Jenkens.
posted by jfuller at 8:52 AM on December 21, 2006

Long before jfuller, there was flapjax at midnite.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:10 AM on December 21, 2006 [1 favorite]

(YouTube Filter ahead)

For those who wish to acquaint themselves with Jenkins' marginal talent, listen to this excruciating rendition of Queen of the Night, one of the most demanding Soprano arias in classical music.

Here are a few examples of how the aria should be performed. Most astonishing of all is this video of a male child soprano's rendition.
posted by The Confessor at 9:18 AM on December 21, 2006

never heard of her, but she can't be any worse than william hung "she bangs"
posted by bruce at 9:33 AM on December 21, 2006

Don't forget The Cherry Sisters. They were being booed 20 years before Jenkens gave her first recital.
posted by forrest at 9:55 AM on December 21, 2006

My mate is torturing me this year with her excellent Mrs. Miller imitation and my favorite Christmas songs.
posted by jamjam at 11:04 AM on December 21, 2006

That rendition of a Hard Day's Night is almost trance inducing. It's utterly undescribable.
posted by psmealey at 12:08 PM on December 21, 2006

That vibrato is just fucking sick. SICK!!
posted by psmealey at 12:09 PM on December 21, 2006

Oh, Mrs. Miller, how I love you. I had a friend who used to collect her albums and the country soul album, if you should find it, is well worth it.
posted by sleepy pete at 12:18 PM on December 21, 2006

Her version of "Monday, Monday" by the Mamas and the Papas is one of the weirdest things I've ever heard. Great post, flapjax.
posted by EarBucket at 2:49 PM on December 21, 2006

Scroll down this page to April 7th for an mp3 of Mrs. Miller's early collaboration with Gary "Beautiful Downtown Burbank" Owens.
posted by wendell at 4:51 PM on December 21, 2006

Hey, wendell, thanks for that link. And also to Confessor: that Jenkins clip is just so astonishingly horrible. She has none of the endearingness of Mrs. Miller: she is just simply awful. Hilariously so, but still just awful. And forrest, thanks for the Cherry Sisters link. I didn't know about them.

It's perhaps worth mentioning that the ultra-wide vibrato that figures so prominently in Mrs. Miller's performances is also a key characteristic of the Japanese enka singing style, which is why enka can often seem rather comical.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:47 PM on December 21, 2006

flapjax: In Mrs. Miller's case, it surely is partially stylistic, but also she is no spring chicken, and vibratos tend to become slower in oscillation and wider in pitch variation as people age.
posted by Ynoxas at 9:16 PM on December 21, 2006

vibratos tend to become slower in oscillation and wider in pitch variation as people age.

Ynoxas: That's an interesting point, I guess I never really thought about the relationship between age and vibrato width!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:53 AM on December 22, 2006

The downside of Top 40 radio was that you could hear the same songs so many times in a period of a few weeks that you thought your head would explode if you heard this or that song one more time. Novelty songs shot up the charts and then lingered like terminal cancer. They're Coming To Take Me Away, Ha-haaa by Napoleon XIV comes to mind, for one. Imagine hearing such composition on the radio four or five tiimes a day for four or five weeks. Novelty wears off fast in such circumstances.

One of the charms about Mrs. Miller was that most white people who went to church in small town America those days had at least one Mrs. Miller, or far worse, who sang every Sunday in their church--the rich little old lady no minister ever dared kick off the choir--so the experience was not at all unfamiliar. Mrs. Miller was like Ray Charles in that respect--she took a style of music that people formerly only knew in a sacred context and made iit secular. It was revolutionary to hear such a familiar style of singing on the radio as pop music.
posted by y2karl at 6:03 AM on December 22, 2006 [1 favorite]

y2Karl, that was a damn interesting and insightful comment. Thanks.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:55 AM on December 22, 2006

flapjax: Yeah, I've heard them called "warblers" before, which as a musician I know you'll be able to picture immediately. The way an old choral instructor explained it was when you're young, you have to exert effort to initiate a vibrato, and as you age, you have to exert effort to constrain the vibrato. It's physiological. Of course, like anything else, constant use and proper preventative measures can help, but time does indeed march on, and some things are inevitable. For elderly sopranos, God bless 'em, on a long note they'll vary a quarter tone at about 30 cycles per minute. But, you know, on certain occasions that can be at least as pleasing as some 30 year old diva throwing high A's and 240 cycles at you.

y2karl: Precisely. You grew up like me. Good old Mrs. X, who'd been in the choir since the Pastor was in elementary school.
posted by Ynoxas at 7:53 AM on December 22, 2006

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