The Incomparable Mrs. Miller.
I’m writing this on a gloriously sunny day while listening to, and thoroughly enjoying, the disjointed, off-key warbling of the subject of this chapter, Mrs. Miller. If you haven’t discovered the joys of Mrs. Miller’s recorded work yet then go out immediately and buy a copy of her one and only legitimate CD release, which collects the highlights from her first three albums and serves as a brilliant introduction to one of the most remarkable artists of the 1960s.
Elva Ruby Connes Miller first came to fame in 1966 when Capitol Records released her debut album, the ironically-titled Mrs Miller’s Greatest Hits. Her shrill, tuneless braying seemed to strike a chord with the record-buying public: that album sold 250,000 copies in three weeks and her bizarre versions of rock and pop standards, including Petula Clark’s ‘Downtown’ with its incredible whistling solo and the Nancy Sinatra chart-topper ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’, led to her becoming known as the worst pop star of all time.
However, the Mrs. Miller story didn’t begin there – this overnight sensation was in fact a fifty-nine-year-old housewife who had been singing since childhood, had already self-financed a number of recordings and had released at least one EP before Capitol ‘discovered’ her and snapped her up.
Born on 5 October 1907 to Edward and Ada Connes, Elva was born in Joplin Missouri, but by her teens was living in Dodge City, Kansas. According to one of the earliest major articles written about her (in a May 1966 issue of Time magazine), when she was a child people were forever telling her to ‘knock off the singing and please go skip rope or something. But she persevered, joined the high school glee club and the church choir’ and, remarkably, ‘later studied voice for seven years’. In 1934 she married John Miller (a breeder of horses and a man twenty-five years her senior) and later moved to Claremont, California. Theirs was a good marriage: John was indulgent of his wife’s hobby and she in turn created and kept a wonderfully comfortable and fragrant (she was a keen horticulturalist) home for him. Elva balked, however, at the oft-repeated theory that the man in her life had financed her way to the top. ‘Of course my husband supported my hobby of recording songs - he's paid all the bills since we were married. But he didn't buy me a career,’[i] she once said. Elva doted on John, but sadly by the time she found stardom the couple were living apart: at 84 years old he had become too frail was residing in a rest home.
She never forgot Fred, or the encouragement he gave her: ‘There was a turning point in my singing, and Fred brought it about. He felt I always sang at a very slow tempo and suggested I speed it up.’ Fred Bock would, rather pleasingly for bad music-ophiles, go on to produce several Little Marcy albums. Elva became close to Fred’s young wife, Lois, who would accompany the pair on their trips and act as her secretary. ‘She was very proper,’ Lois Bock told writer Skip Heller. ‘Once she walked off of a session at Capitol because a musician told an offensive joke. I talked her into going back, and they put a sort of glass booth around her so she couldn't hear the musicians talking.’[iii]
Disc jockey Gary Owens (who would later write the sleeve notes for Mrs. Miller’s Greatest Hits and who would enjoy international fame as the announcer on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In) was friendly with Bock and featured Elva on his radio program as early as 1960. He was the first person to bring her to public attention, including Elva as a guest artist on his first comedy album, Song Festoons (co-produced by Bock), in 1962. Owens would later claim (in a 2010 interview with Kliph Nesteroff for his Classic Television Showbiz blog) that he created Mrs. Miller. That’s stretching it a bit: Elva appeared on his album not as herself but in character as Phoebe Phestoon, the ‘wife’ of one of Owens’ own comedy characters, mauling the song ‘Slumber Boat’ (which had previously appeared on her debut EP), but he could certainly be credited with helping to bring her to the attention of Capitol Records and the composer, pianist, producer, arranger and conductor Lex de Azevado – who bad record aficionados will know as the producer of Ric King’s dreadful ‘Return Of A Soldier’ – who would go on to produce her debut album. Apparently Lex, who was friendly with both Bock and Owens, jumped on the Elva train after being won over one night while enjoying dinner with Fred and his wife Lois. He started to bring in acetates of her recordings into his weekly A&R meetings – which took place every Wednesday on the twelfth floor of the Capitol tower - and play them to the assembled company executives for a bit of light relief. Once they had recovered from the hysterical laughter induced by Elva mangling tracks including early versions of both ‘A Lover’s Concerto’ and ‘Downtown’ these hardened music business executives agreed that they had a potential hit on their hands.
That first album - recorded with a crack team of session players that included Earl Palmer and Jimmy Bond, both members of the infamous Wrecking Crew - contained Mrs. Miller’s unique take on a number of contemporary hits, including ‘A Lover’s Concerto’, ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and the Four Seasons’ classic ‘Let’s Hang On’. Released in the US on 11 April 1966, by 30 April music trade paper Billboard was reporting that the album had already sold out of its first two pressings (of fifty thousand and one hundred thousand respectively), and that Capitol Records were ‘one hundred and fifty thousand orders in arrears’. The previous week that same trade magazine stated that ‘the LP is reminiscent of another package which made sales noise several years ago featuring New Yorker Sam Sachs, who sang out of wack [sic] and became the favourite of DJs in many cities.’ The article went on to compare Elva to both Florence Foster Jenkins and Leona Anderson: high praise indeed. Mrs. Miller’s Greatest Hits reached number 15 on Billboard’s album charts, and soon copies of her debut album (and its accompanying 45) were being snapped up in Britain, across Europe, Australia and New Zealand, as well as in America and Canada. ‘The record certainly wasn't my idea’, Elva revealed to reporter Vonne Robertson. ‘It was just a series of coincidences that could happen to anyone. Everyone has a hobby. 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.’[iv]
Mrs. Miller fan clubs were set up in Los Angeles and in New York, and teen magazines carried interviews with the latest rave. Orville Rennie, the one-time keeper of the Cherry Sisters’ flame, even attempted to establish an award in their name, and declared Mrs. Miller the first recipient. For a woman fast approaching 60, who only a few years previously had thought herself lucky if she could command an audience of a half-dozen or so at her local Baptist church, her sudden and massive success must have been a shock, but she seemed to take it all in her stride. Danny Fields, a reporter from Datebook, was entranced by her: ‘I don’t want to talk to all these old fogies from Time and Life and Look, and all the other old fogey magazines’ she told him at a press reception. ‘I want to talk to the teenagers… I love them and they love me.’[v] She and John were stoical about her success: ‘he knows I am mature enough to realise things like this run their course’.[vi]
According to that early Time article ‘While Elva may not replace Elvis, her rocking chair rock features a kind of slippin' and slidin' rhythm that is uniquely her own. Her tempos, to put it charitably, are free form; she has an uncanny knack for landing squarely between the beat, producing a new ricochet effect that, if nothing else, defies imitation. Beyond all that, her billowy soprano embraces a song with a vibrato that won't quit.’ The following year that same magazine, reviewing a live performance at the Coconut Grove (where she made her debut on February 1, 1967) said: ‘”A Hard Day’s Night”… was reduced to chaos - off-pitch, off-tempo, desperately tremulous at times, otherwise hopelessly shrill. The harder she tried, clasping a rose-coloured wrist hanky before her, the worse she sounded and the more they heard, the louder the audience responded - with peals of derisive cackling.’
However, the appeal of Mrs Miller goes beyond the humour found in a mere novelty act. She initially claimed to be serious about her singing and to begrudge the fact that Capitol made her recording sessions difficult for her in order to get the performance that they wanted. ‘Capitol Records created the angle that “she's so bad that she's good.” Or, it’s what you call camp,’ she told an interviewer from the Los Angeles Times. In his book Between Wyomings, Capitol executive Ken Mansfield, one of the men in the office the day Lex de Azevado dropped the needle on her Downtown acetate, confirms this: ‘Mrs Miller was dead serious about her singing career and actually thought that Capitol was signing her as a legitimate recording artist. She was so sweet and so sincere and completely clueless that this was all a joke.’
Once she became fully aware that her recordings were being treated as comedy releases by her record company she went along with it; initially at least. Mrs. Miller’s fame spread like wildfire, even though Time described her as possessing a ‘uniquely atrocious vocal style and [a] fearless gusto with which she assails - and destroys - a song’. She made appearances on countless TV shows, including Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, the Ed Sullivan Show (where she was greeted by a ‘good luck’ telegram from Elvis, exactly as The Beatles had been a couple of years before) and Laugh-In; she performed with Jimmy Durante on popular variety show the Hollywood Palace, sang for the troops in Vietnam with Bob Hope, and appeared on TV in the western drama the Road West – as a grandmother who had once been a dance hall singer – and in the film The Cool Ones alongside Roddy McDowell: her performance of ‘It’s Magic’, right at the end of the movie, is the highlight of this mediocre teen flick. Many column inches were given over to her unique whistling prowess, a skill she sharpened, she explained, by using ice cubes to shrink her prominent pucker. She performed live in New York, Hawaii, Ontario and even in Disneyland.
Both sides of her 45 ‘Downtown’/’A Lover’s Concerto’ became minor chart hits; she played the Hollywood Bowl and went on to release two more albums for Capitol – Will Success Spoil Mrs. Miller?! (which was originally scheduled to be released as Strangers in the Night: other rejected titles included Mrs. Miller Sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook and Capitol Punishment) and The Country Soul Of Mrs. Miller - and a fourth, Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing, on the Amaret label, although each sold significantly less than its predecessor. She even inspired an imitator, of sorts, when an act calling itself Mr Miller and the Blue Notes released their own, off-key rendition of the Herman’s Hermits hit ‘Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter’ on Swan records in 1966. It was a short, sparkling career, echoed in many ways by that of Tiny Tim and aped – much less successfully - by Canada’s Mme St Onge.
But she soon tired of being treated as a joke. ‘I don't sing off key and I don't sing off rhythm,’ she insisted. ‘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.’[vii] She left Capitol to set up her own company, Vibrato, which would lease her masters to independent labels (such as Kenny Myers’ Amaret), but was hurt when her former home announced that they had dropped her, an action which, she insisted, was untrue. Sales of her second album had been around ten percent of her debut: her final album for the company sold even less: she simply felt that Capitol were no longer prepared to give her albums the promotion they needed. Despite that, reporters guesstimated that she had made somewhere in the region of $100,000 while at Capitol: much of it had been placed in a trust fund to care for the ailing Mr Miller.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Mrs Miller was keen to leave her image behind by taking, of all things, vocal lessons: ‘”It's a gamble,” she admits, “but I'm willing to take a chance on a new Mrs Miller. After all, the people weren't responding to the old Mrs Miller.”’[viii] Again, Ken Mansfield backs up her story: ‘One day she walked into the Capitol lobby and, upon seeing the promotional cardboard stand-up (a life-size Mrs Miller proudly holding copies of her first two albums), kicked it over, stomped on it, then marched upstairs and asked to be dropped from the label.’ It was a rare show of pique from someone referred to time and time again as charming, sweet natured and sincere, but clearly illustrated how she felt she had been misrepresented by Capitol. It is little wonder that one reviewer described her as having the ‘charm and determination of a defensive Valkyrie.’[ix]
Leaving Capitol also meant leaving Fred and Lois Bock, and Lex de Azevado, behind too but, sadly, this reinvention would not produce the success she hoped for. By the time her final album Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing was issued in 1968 the joke was starting to wear thin and her audience was deserting her; in the pop charts and on the TV chat shows her charming innocence was replaced by the high camp folderol of Tiny Tim. The blatant drug references on the cover – which had her dressed in a psychedelic muumuu brandishing a batch of hash brownies (the cakes hand-tinted a garish green in the printed photograph just in case anyone missed the reference) - 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 precursor to Anna Madrigal. However, the album does have its highs (if you’ll excuse the pun), and her version of the Lemon Piper’s hit single ‘Green Tambourine’ is a wonderfully shrill assault on the ears: there’s even a little dig at her ukulele-plucking successor. Even though ‘Mary Jane’ went on to become the theme to a film starring pop star Fabian as high school teacher fighting a marijuana gang (Mrs Miller’s version of the song was included on the soundtrack album, although she went uncredited on the sleeve), Elva had had enough, and the death of her beloved husband that same year put paid to any thoughts of a major-label comeback.
Although John had gone, his widow continued to record and to make sporadic live appearances. Two singles were released through her own Mrs. Miller Records in 1971: production values were high (she put together a great band of big name jazz musicians to back her efforts) but sales were poor and in 1973 Mrs. Miller had disappeared from the spotlight for good, retiring gracefully to her Claremont home before moving to Los Angeles where she would spend the remainder of her years. Still, this amazing performer took it all in her stride. ‘If something comes along to stop this merry-go-round, I'll be able to go right back to being a housewife,’ she once said. ‘In the meantime, I will have met lots of people and had a great deal of fun. Not many women my age have such an opportunity.’
Although she was often referred to during her stellar career as a grandmother, the childless Elva spent her remaining years doing charity work instead of employing what Jordan Bonfante, writing in Life shortly after she left Capitol, called ‘the voice of a tubercular parrot’. In her later years she gave few interviews: when she did she was always gracious and often surprisingly candid about here 15 minutes (more like 15 months) in the spotlight: Capitol, she said, wanted to make her into ‘some kind of kook… I belonged in opera. I wanted to do ballads but they wouldn't let me. Life was full of turmoil because of that. I didn’t need it, so I got out. I was glad when it ended.’[x] Luckily the world still had her recordings to comfort and confound.
It has been some time now since Elva left the building. She passed away on 5 July 1997 – just three months shy of her ninetieth birthday – at the Garden Terrace Retirement Centre, in Vista, California, three and a half years after the apartment she was living in was levelled by an earthquake. Sadly, she passed too soon to enjoy the resurrection of her career instigated by Capitol’s career-spanning compilation Wild, Cool & Swingin', The Artist Collection: Mrs Miller. In late 2012 news broke that a movie about her life (titled Will Success Spoil Mrs. Miller?, starring Annette Bening and written by Matthew Fantaci) was in the offing: sadly that movie has yet to transpire, it’s thunder stolen somewhat by the very real success of the Meryl Streep vehicle Florence Foster Jenkins. However, in March 2017 a stage musical, Mrs Miller Does Her Thing, written and directed by Pulitzer Prize winner James Lapine, opened to enthusiastic reviews in Washington DC, with Elva portrayed by Debra Monk (NYPD Blue, Frasier). It seems that Elva Miller’s story is not quite over yet.
Here are a couple of cuts from her final album, Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing: Green Tambourine and Mary Jane. Enjoy!
Download Tambourine HERE
Download Mary HERE
[i] Vonne Robertson, ‘Sudden Fame at 59- She’s Having a Ball’, the Progress-Bulletin, 29 May 1966
[ii] Jordan Bonfante, ‘Mrs. Miller is Off-pitch for Profit: A Most Unlikely Lark’, LIFE Magazine, 22 September 1967
[iii] Skip Heller, ‘Searching for Mrs Miller’, Strange and Cool Magazine, Issue 14, 1999
[iv] Vonne Robertson, ‘Sudden Fame at 59- She’s Having a Ball’, the Progress-Bulletin, 29 May 1966
[v] Danny Fields, ‘the Sound of Mrs Miller, Twenty-minute Fandangos and Forever Changes; a Rock Bazaar (Jonathan Eisen, ed.), Random House, New York 1971
[vi] Bob Thomas, ‘Mrs. Miller Sings Beatle-Type Hits’, The Courier-News (Bridgewater, New Jersey), 12 July 1966
[vii] Bob Thomas , ‘Mrs. Miller Tries to Change Image’, Los Angeles Times, 2 October 1967
[ix] Martin Bernheimer, ‘Most Memorable Debut for Coloratura From Claremont’, Los Angeles Times, 6 June 1966
[x] Jim Houston, ‘Postscript: Bravo for Mrs. Miller - She Had to Be Free’, the Los Angeles Times, 7 July 1976