But first, allow me to introduce you to Mrs Miller.
Elva Ruby Connes Miller first came to fame in 1966 when Capitol records, not known for having much of a sense of humour, released her first album, Mrs Miller’s Greatest Hits. The shrill and off-key warblings of this 59 year-old grandmother seemed to strike a chord with the public – that debut album sold 250,000 copies in three weeks - and her bizarre versions of rock and pop standards (including such greats as Downtown and These Boots Were Made for Walking) led to her becoming known as the worst pop star of all time.
But the Mrs Miller story didn’t begin there – this overnight sensation had already self-financed a number of recordings and had released at least one EP (Songs for Children) before Capitol snapped her up.
She originally came from Dodge City, Kansas, married John Miller (a man thirty years her senior) in 1934 and moved to Claremont, California. An active member of her local church, producer Fred Bock - who made a career out of religious music - heard Elva’s EP and convinced her to try more modern songs which he then took to different record labels in the hope of securing her a deal. Disc jockey Gary Owens (who wrote the sleeve notes for Mrs Miller’s Greatest Hits and went on to become the announcer on Laugh-In) was friendly with Bock and featured Elva on his radio program as early as 1960 and included her on his first comedy album, Song-Festoons, in 1962. Owens claim to have created the character of Mrs Miller is stretching it a bit, but he can certainly be credited with having brought her to the attention of Capitol Records and producer Lex de Azevado – who long-time WWR followers will know as the producer of Ric King’s dreadful Return of a Soldier.
Mrs Miler’s fame spread like wildfire. She made appearances on countless TV shows, including Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, the Ed Sullivan Show and Laugh-In; performed for the troops in Vietnam with Bob Hope, and appeared in the film The Cool Ones with Roddy MacDowell. Her cover of Petula Clark’s Downtown was a minor chart hit, she played the Hollywood Bowl and went on to release two more albums for Capitol and a fourth and final album in 1968, Mrs Miller Does Her Thing (with her dressed in a psychedelic muumuu on the cover holding a batch of hash brownies and singing songs about marijuana) on the Amaret label. She later issued several singles on her own label, but retired from singing in the early 1970s when interest in her novelty act had all but waned. It was a short, sparkling career, echoed by contemporaries such as Tiny Tim and in some ways aped by Canada’s Mme St Onge.
But there's more to Mrs Miller than a mere novelty act. She initially claimed to be serious about her singing and to resent the fact that Capitol made her recording sessions difficult for her in order to get the performance that they wanted. As she said in an interview in 1967: "Capitol Records created the angle that 'she's so bad that she's good.'
I don't sing off
key and I don't sing off rhythm: 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."
Even so, once she became fully aware that her singing was being treated as a joke by her record company, she went along with it. Yet that all changed by the time her final album was released. On Mrs Miller Does Her Thing the joke was starting to wear thin. The overt drug references on the cover and in the lyrics of songs such as Mary Jane, the Renaissance of Smut and Granny Bopper were too much for her, as was the attempt to repackage Elva as a late sixties hippy icon. Even though Mary Jane went on to become the theme to a film starring pop star Fabian, playing a school teacher fighting a drugs gang, Elva Miller had had enough. That same year her husband took ill and passed away, so Elva sold up and moved and all but turned her back on the music business.
Two singles were released on her own Mrs Miller Records in 1971 but sales were disappointing and Mrs Miller disappeared from the spotlight. Sadly Elva's apartment building collapsed in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake. She moved to a convalescent hospital in Vista, California, where she passed away in 1996.
So, today I bring you, as a tribute to the wonderful Mrs Miller, both sides of a rare promotional EP issued by Capitol in 1966 to help publicise Mrs Miller’s Greatest Hits. Record companies often issued open-ended interviews; these were banded discs which just contained the answers to questions by the artist involved. The disc would be sent out with a cue sheet full of questions and with timings for musical interludes, allowing the local radio DJ to, in effect, interview the artist in his own studio.
This rare recording also includes Mrs Miller performing Happy Birthday – a track which does not appear on any of her albums. It’s short, sweet and currently unavailable in any official form. I've even included the cue sheet for you so that, should you wish, you can posthumously interview Mrs Miller in the comfort of your own home. Enjoy!
Learn more about Mrs Miller at Mrs Miller's World