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. Amid the many great musical acts of the 60s who appeared on such prominent TV talent shows at the time including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show, and The Mike Douglas Show, there was a lady who probably had no business being there, but who was doing what she loved. 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 quirky, 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 much 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. “Some people take pictures and file them in albums. Others paint pictures and store them in the garage. 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) which 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 the pressing to a few record companies. Capitol Records, which was looking to experiment with a female vocalist with a new sound, took the bait. Her first LP, called “Mrs. Miller’s Greatest Hits”, debuted in 1966 and sold over 250,000 copies. She followed that 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.
Mrs. Miller shot to fame. 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 exuberated 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 farce or not. Surely she must have been aware of how bad her singing was perceived, especially while drawing fits of laughter during a performance. But then again, in much the same way American Idol contestants ignore the judges’ laughter while auditioning, she seems blissfully unaware that she’s anything other than a talented melodist. She smiles and shimmies her way through her performance in “The Cool Ones” then finishes with her palms pointing towards the celing as if to proclaim, “ta da.” Disarming at first to listen to, you soon realize there had to be some inherent talent to Mrs. Miller’s chops, so much so than William Hung, Weird Al Yankovic, or anyone else you’d hear on the Dr. Demento Show. Her voice sounds remarkably like Julia Child attempting an opera, 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 not in accord with the beat in many recordings, she later insisted that Capitol forced her to record 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 had been taken too far, 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 her immense joy that comes through in 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. Shine on, Mrs. Miller, shine on.
To learn more about Mrs. Miller, I highly recommend checking out the Mrs. Miller’s World website at http://www.mrsmillersworld.com/. I also guarantee a good laugh and a warm and fuzzy feeling from watching footage of Mrs. Miller on the Web, such as her performance of “It’s Magic” in “The Cool Ones” as preserved by the wonder that is YouTube. You can see that at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m-XpI8ua1Jw.