Friday, 10 July 2020

The Incomparable Mrs Miller

Mrs. Miller has featured a few times on this blog, but it's been eight years since I wrote about here in any detail, and seven since she appeared in my first book, the World's Worst Records Volume One. Later on today (10 July 2020) I am hosting a two-hour audio documentary on her life, so now seems like the perfect time to expand on her story, correct a few mistakes I have made in the past and bring you the Complete Mrs. Miller. It's a long read, but I hope you enjoy it!

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.

In Claremont she became the founding member and secretary of the Foothill Drama and Choral Society and continued her music studies at Pomona College. ‘At first I worried about how the younger students would receive me, but they liked the idea of an older woman there. And within three weeks, they were coming to the house, to copy my notes or listen to my records,’[ii] she later revealed. Once every few weeks, Elva would drive into Los Angeles and indulge her hobby. Carrying her own portable tape recorder, she would spend a few hours in a recording studio accompanied by a young man by the name of Fred Bock, who would later carve out a successful career as a producer of religious music. Fred helped Elva record the self-financed EP Songs For Children, signed up to become her accompanist and manager, and convinced her to try more modern songs – including an unreleased (so far) version of the Bobby Vinton hit ‘Blue Velvet’ and the Petula Clark hit ‘Downtown’, which he then took to different record labels in the hope of securing her a deal. 

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
[viii] ibid
[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

Friday, 3 July 2020

What's It All About, Johnny?

 A couple of song-poems for you today which I hope that most of you will not have heard before. They come from  my collection and I have not ripped them nor blogged about them before, so the chances are pretty good that, although they were released over 40 years ago, they will be ‘fresh’ to you.

Starting today, and for the next three Fridays, I shall be sitting in for DJ Jan Turkenburg, hosting three, two-hour specials. If you wish to join me the show starts at 7pm (BST) or 2pm (EDT), but you can also stream it at your convenience:

Today’s show (3 July) is a space-themed special, featuring mostly-instrumental music (although I have thrown a Geoff Goddard vocal and a song-poem 45 into the mix) from the 50s and 60s. The following week I am hosting a two-hour audio documentary dedicated to the marvellous Mrs. Miller and, on 17 July, a two-hour song-poem special, featuring several discs from my own collection that have not been heard before.

Including this one.

Issued by Columbine record in February 1977, these two cuts come from one of the many four-track EPs issued by the company. Perhaps not as well known as Preview, Halmark or MSR, Columbine was, in fact, one of the most productive of all the song-poem labels, issuing hundreds of 45s, EPs and albums, and more through its’ associated labels Century 21, Hollywood Artists and others.

Both of today’s tracks come from Ralph Lowe, one of the busiest of all song-poem stylists, and both are fairly self-explanatory. The wonderfully-titled What's It All About - Our Bicentennial Year actually arrived a few months too late to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of the country we now call the United States, and John F. Kennedy was a late addition – by a good decade at least – to the countless tributes to the assassinated President.

Ralph Lowe, the lounge singer from hell, is one of my favourite song-poem performers, along with Halmark’s Bob Storm and the ubiquitous Rodd Keith, of course. For years he was Columbine’s go-to guy for anything out of the ordinary; Kay Weaver usually got the mopey, dull country or Christian rubbish but it was Ralph who got the mangled and the mad, off-the-wall nonsense like the brilliant I’m The Cat or The Lottery Freak. And these two of course. He was Columbine’s Gene Marshall – until, of course, they brought Gene Marshall into the stable: Marshall (real name Gene Merlino) recorded for Columbine under the name John Muir.

Anyway, here are both What's It All About - Our Bicentennial Year, penned by Wilhelmina McClellan and, from the pen of Michael McDonald (no, not THAT Michael McDonald) John F. Kennedy.


Download Bicentennial HERE

Download Kennedy HERE

Friday, 26 June 2020

Neither of Them Are Just Soldiers

 A real oddity for you today, a rare cover of an obscure Little Richard track, but one that has been taken to another level altogether.

The anti-war polemic He’s Not Just a Soldier was originally recorded by Little Richard, co-composer of the song as the flip side to his 1961 Mercury 45 Joy Joy Joy; it also appeared on the album The King Of The Gospel Singers: Little Richard, issued the same year. The single did not do well, stalling at 113 on the Billboard charts.

Recorded in Las Vegas, Thomas Douglas’s version, complete with an utterly ridiculous preamble, appeared in late 1969, updating the song to include overt references to America’s involvement with the war in Vietnam. When Richard recorded his version, the US were already participating in the conflict, however by 1969 protesters were demanding an end to the war and that the American government bring the troops home. It was a different world, a world that needed a different version of the song.

So, who was Thomas Douglas, the man credited for recording this, his only 45? Well, like me you will probably struggle to find much information about Mr Douglas elsewhere, because he doesn’t exist. Thomas Douglas was in fact two people, Tom Willett and Doug Rockwell and, although uncredited, the added spoken word passages must have come from the febrile minds of Tom and Doug themselves. Backed with their unique cover of the gospel standard He’s Got The Whole World (In His Hands), unsurprisingly this too failed to chart although, as Willett says, ‘We received a lot of airplay in Las Vegas and in some Texas markets’.

Willet also recorded several sides for Freeway, the label that put this out, under the name Herman Schmerdley and is still about today, regularly posting videos – a mix of product reviews, piano lessons and stock trading tips - on his popular YouTube channel, Featureman.

Here are both versions of He’s Not Just a Soldier (I know which one I prefer) plus the b-side to the Thomas Douglas 45, he's Got the Whole World (In His Hands)


Download Hands HERE

Download Douglas HERE

Download Richard HERE

Friday, 19 June 2020

Why, Kay?

As it’s still officially Pride month (not that any of us are able to go out and celebrate in any real sense of the word) I thought it would be the ideal time to discuss one of the more obscure – and fun - gay-themed discs in my collection.

Credited on the sleeve to The Brothers Butch, but on the disc to The Butch Brothers, the innuendo-laden Kay, Why? (titled, if you did not already know, after the leading brand of water-based lubricant, K-Y Jelly) was written penned by one Eileen Dover, a wonderfully silly pseudonym that would befit many a drag queen. There is a fairly good chance that the men behind the release had heard of California’s Camp Records, but the song itself, and the flip, I’m Not Going Camping This Winter, owe more to the British school of campery than its US cousin. This is Julian and Sandy-land, all double entrendres and limp wrists.

Who were the real people hiding behind the name the Butch Brothers, or for that matter who was Eileen Dover? Sadly, I cannot tell you. There’s not a trace of information on them anywhere. Issued in 1967, just as the law of the country was changing and finally decriminalising sex for homosexual men – assuming that those men were over 21 and only met in pairs and in private, of course - the disc appears to have been the only release from Thrust Records of 494 Harrow Road, London, now a flat above a fast food takeaway.

It’s vaguely possible that there could have been a second release from the label: a peculiar digital release of dubious origin is available from Amazon and iTunes, coupling both of these tracks with the very similar sounding The Girls In the Band and Bald alongside three other totally unconnected songs. With no writer credits or recording information available it’s impossible to know for sure, but could these tracks be by the Butch Brothers? The vocalists certainly sound the same, but sadly I can find no official release for either The Girls In the Band or Bald. Perhaps there was a second single planned or even pressed by Thrust and physical copies have yet to surface.    

There appear to have been two pressings of Kay, Why?, one – presumably the original – on a blue label with silver lettering and a four-pronged push out centre; the other (second?) pressing is on a red label with black lettering and either a solid centre or a push-out one. Both came in the same picture sleeve, and the four-pronged red label version does looks like late 60s pressing, so they may have appeared simultaneously. It is possible that if indeed there was a second pressing it was issued in late 1972: the disc was repromoted, with the sides reversed, in Gay News shortly before Christmas that year.

It’s not much to go on, I know, but that’s all I have. If anyone has the slightest idea who may be involved please do let me know.

Here are both sides of this rather fun 45: enjoy!

Download Kay HERE

Download Camping HERE

Friday, 12 June 2020

Tinkle Tinkle Dash Dash Dash
One of my all-time favourite records is the fey, fun Let’s All Be Fairies, issued in early 1933 by Durium records and recorded by the little-known Durium Dance Band. the song was composed by Algy More, writer of comic songs including We All Go Oo, Ha, Ha! Together (recorded by Jack Hylton) and Ever So Quiet.

Durium records differed from the norm, which in those days was the brittle shellac disc. These were made of a sturdy brown paper base coated with Durium, a lightweight synthetic resin discovered by a Dr. Beans of Columbia University. Flexible and with a high melting point, Durium was particularly useful as a protective varnish on aeroplanes.

The company claimed that their records were unbreakable, and that 'accidental scratching or dropping, even hitting with a hammer does not damage the playing qualities of a Durium record'. 

These one-sided, 10" square records (usually containing two songs) were sold in newsagents, inside a sealed envelope, for a shilling: the reverse of the disc was either left blank or occasionally contained an advertisement: by mid-1933 this was replaced with a photograph of the featured artist. New Durium records were issued every Friday. The company, which operated in the UK for just 10 years, was a subsidiary of the US company Durium Products Inc., which specialised in quick knock-offs of current pop tunes on this unusual flexi-disc hybrid under the label Hit Of the Week.

Most of the artists who recorded for Durium did so anonymously, mostly because they were under contract elsewhere. We shall probably never know who the vocalist on Let’s All Be Fairies is, but my best guess is that the Duriam Dance Band in this instance are in fact members of the Roy Fox Band, with trumpeter Nat Gonella on vocals. It seems that, in 1932, while Fox was being treated for pleurisy in Switzerland, the band recorded several sides for Durium without his knowledge. When he found out he was furious, and after a major row the band split up, with Lew Stone taking control of the majority of the original line-up, and Fox forming a new act. In June 1932 Lew Stone was made MD of Durium Records in the UK: surely more than a coincidence?  

However, this is only my opinion. Comic artist and composer Leslie Sarony also recorded a version of Let’s All Be Fairies for the Imperial label; the singer’s inflections are very similar to Sarony’s, and it is perfectly possible that he is handling the vocal, playing an exaggerated version of himself. Sarony was well-known for comic songs such as Jollity Farm, later covered by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, and it’s interesting that the second song on the Fairies release was a Sarony composition, Toasts. 

There is a film clip in the Pathé archives from 1932 of Leslie Sarony performing Toasts, complete with a little tap dance solo. See what you think.

One of the things I find fascinating about Let’s All Be Fairies is that there are two almost identical but distinctly different versions in circulation. The first, as detailed above, appeared in 1933. A second must have been pressed at some point, possibly for export (Durium also operated throughout Europe) because it was compiled by archivist Robert Parker on the 1987 BBC Records compilation Silly Songs – which is where I first heard it.

So, here are both known versions of the magnificent Let’s All Be Fairies. I hope you enjoy the song as much as I do.

Download the original version HERE

Download the alternate version HERE

Friday, 5 June 2020

Camp Records

Happy Pride month everybody! To celebrate I thought I would relate the story of one of the oddest – and queerest - record companies of all time, Camp Records. If you have read the World's Worst Records Volume One or David Bowie Made Me Gay then much of what follows will be old hat to you: but bear with... or simply scroll on down to the two tracks at the foot of the post!

In the dark days before the Stonewall riots and the Wolfenden report you would never see LGBT people portrayed in a positive way in the media. Certain gay stereotypes (especially that of the effeminate man) were routinely exploited as source material for comedians, and camp characters often appeared in movies and on TV. LGBT people were used to being ridiculed, but away from prying eyes, a gay subculture sprang up: an underground social network where men and women conducted their lives away from the public and the police. LGBT people had their own places to go, their own language to use and their own entertainment to enjoy – from the politically subversive to the outrageously arch. 

In 1959 the American men’s magazine Adam began a series of stag party albums. There appear to have been about a dozen, put out by the Fax Record Company – a company that specialised in sex in its many forms. These discs, by mostly-anonymous performers, usually featured a mix of ribald songs interspersed with slices of blue humour, although they also issued a series of documentary-style albums, including Nights of Love on Lesbos, which was subtitled a Frankly Intimate description of a Sensuous Young Girl’s Lesbian Desires. Sold under the counter in specialist shops and through adverts in men’s magazines, these albums spawned many imitators, including those issued by the British company No Holds Barred, with many companies eager to jump on the bandwagon. It’s here, in the land of slightly risqué mail order, that the Camp label was born.

Although in the strictest sense the modern-day use of the word camp derives from the French se camper (to pose in an exaggerated fashion) this flighty, limp-wristed aesthetic got its name from the acronym KAMP, an effeminate man who was Known As a Male Prostitute. The actor and comedian Kenneth Williams wrote that ‘To some, it means that which is fundamentally frivolous, to others the baroque as opposed to the puritanical and to others – a load of poofs’ (The Kenneth Williams Diaries, edited by Russell Davies, Harper Collins 1993) and he should have known: the closeted Williams and his out companion in comedy Hugh Paddick (who spent the last 30 years of his life with his partner, Francis) made a bona little living, thank you very much, as the über- camp Julian and Sandy, stalwarts of the hit Brit radio show Round the Horne.

Originating from a company called Different Products Unlimited in Hollywood, California, Camp Records (run by the elusive E. Richman) specialised in producing gay-themed novelty records which they advertised, under the banner ‘racy . . . ribald . . . madly gay . . . way out!’ in the back pages of publications such as Drum: Sex in Perspective (a revolutionary magazine from the Janus Society with a national circulation of around 15,000), One and Vagabond, a mid-’60s catalogue aimed exclusively at gay men. Mail-order businesses that specialised in gay and lesbian books, such as Washington DC’s Guild Book Service (run by gay publishing pioneer H. Lynn Womack), San Francisco’s Dorian Book Service and Philadelphia’s Lark Publications also carried stock of the discs. The releases were, naturally, ‘shipped postage paid, in sealed plain package’. Described by their own press releases as ‘wilder, madder (and) gayer than a Beatle’s hairdo,’ Camp Records issued ten 45s. None are dated, but according to correspondence on the company’s headed notepaper, the first two releases (the single Leather Jacket Lovers and album The Queen Is In The Closet) were issued around July 1964. What is certain is that no new releases appeared from the company after late 1965. The material typically consisted of parodies of well-known songs with their lyrics rewritten to reflect a camp sensibility – I’m So Wet (the Shower Song) is a rewrite of the French folk song Alouette; London Derriere is a rewrite of Danny Boy (or Londonderry Air, geddit?) – or new songs in various styles including rock ‘n’ roll (I’d Rather Fight Than Swish and Leather Jacket Lovers), Sinatra-style crooner-pop and Latin jazz. 

Depending on how you view these things these records are charming period pieces, badly dated Carry On-style comic cuts or complete anachronisms of a thankfully-bygone age.  Lispy, wispy and fey, and about as sophisticated as a hammer blow to the head the humour, such as it is, is broader than the backside of the average McDonald’s customer. The lyrics comically portrayed homosexual subculture using broad stereotypes, gay slang and double entendres. Where artists are credited their names are jokey: Byrd E. Bath & the Gay Blades, Sandy Beech, The Gentle Men. The name Rodney Dangerfield crops up on several releases, he’s even credited as performing the tap-dancing solo on Homer The Happy Little Homo (‘a daring, madcap romp right from the pansy patch,’ went the advertising blurb for that particular oddity), but this is a pseudonym that had been in popular use for at least three decades prior to its appearance in the Camp catalogue, not the late Jewish comedian who found mainstream fame in frat house flicks in the 80s. Jack Benny had used the same name for a character on his 40s radio show.

It’s no surprise that the performers and producers of these discs were happy to go about their work uncredited. In fact, it was important that the entire operation was kept as anonymous as possible in order to avoid trouble: the company was operating in a time when the production of recordings like these could lead to arrest for possession and distribution of obscene material. Different Products were only contactable via a PO Box number: Richman kept an office on Hazeltine Avenue, Van Nuys, but no address or telephone number appeared on the company’s letterhead.

Camp Records also released two full-length LPs: The Queen Is In The Closet, which consisted of ten songs culled from the singles, and Mad About The Boy, a collection of ten popular torch songs which would usually be sung by a woman but recorded instead by a male vocalist without changing the song's gender. This produced what the album’s sleeve notes called ‘a wonderful potpourri of love songs done in a most unique way’ and, unlike the rest of the releases on the label, this album eschewed the campness for a much more ‘straight’ approach.

‘The primary reason for doing this album,’ the anonymous author of the sleeve notes wrote ‘was to prove that good songs could and should be sung by everyone. Gender should not be the determining factor as to who should sing what.’ A bold statement for the time. Two years before Mad About The Boy was issued, a similar album, Love Is A Drag, had appeared on the Lace Records label, featuring 12 songs including The Boy Next Door, Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man and, of course, Mad About The Boy. The cool, sophisticated torch song singer on Love Is A Drag (subtitled For Adult Listeners Only: Sultry Stylings By A Most Unusual Vocalist) was finally revealed (by LGBT archivist JD Doyle) as Gene Howard (born Howard Eugene Johnson in Nashville, Tennessee), a straight, married professional singer who had worked with a number of big jazz names including Gene Krupa and Stan Kenton.

No performers are credited on the two Camp albums, although the sleeve notes to Mad About The Boy – and flyers issued by the company - allude to some pretty big names being involved in what, for them, would have had to have been a covert project: ‘Unfortunately, we are not at liberty to give credit to the arranger and the many gifted artists involved in this production. However, to those with a discerning ear, you will recognise the stylings of some very fine and well-known personalities. Our male soloist is a delightfully gifted young man, whose name unfortunately must be withheld at this time. The vocal group used in this production is make up (sic) of four of the better known Hollywood T.V. and screen personalities. Here again, we are not at liberty to reveal true names.’ The front cover of Mad About The Boy features illustrations from another Different Products item, a desk calendar called Roy’s Boys: E. Richman and his co-conspirators seem to have felt that using these images would made the album appeal to an audience already familiar with Julie London’s 1956 album Calendar Girl.

Very few copies of these records were pressed: even fewer have survived the past half-century. Luckily JD Doyle,  curator of the Queer Music Heritage website (, has collected all of these recordings together and made them available once again.

Here are a couple of Camp classics – Stanley the Manly Transvestite and Florence of Arabia. Enjoy!

Download Stanley HERE

Download Florence HERE

Friday, 29 May 2020

Erica Sang

 The name Alice Armand may not mean much to you, but if you’re a fan of 1930s cinema the chances are you’ve seen her face.

Born on 15 December 1890, as Erica Herrmann, and known to her family as ‘Ricky’, when she was still a teenager she married a New York policeman, becoming Mrs Erica Newman.

It was as Erica Newman that she first struck out for fame. After appearing in several Broadway shows, she arrived in Hollywood at the dawn of the Talkie era. Erica appeared in a couple of movies (including The Girl Habit with Paulette Goddard) and several shorts, including a musical showcase for singer Rudy Valee at Paramount in 1929, and a Jack Haley short (1930s the 20th Amendment), but found it hard to compete, so returned to New York where she took up modelling. 

But acting was in the blood, and seven years later Charles Goetz signed her to 20th Century, in the process changing her name to the slightly more exotic Alice Armand.

By the time she got her second crack at Hollywood Ricky was already in her late 40s, far too old for the ingénue roles she once longed for. Instead, she was cast in a variety of minor character roles, as a secretary, a model, a clerk. Her biggest role came in the 1940 bio-pic Lillian Russell, playing one of Russell’s sisters. That same year she appeared in two Shirley Temple vehicles, the hit fantasy the Blue Bird and Young People, Temple’s last movie for 20th Century Fox, who allowed the future diplomat’s contract to expire aged just 12 years old. Sadly, the did the same to Ricky: she would not appear in a Hollywood movie again.

Leaving any hope of stardom behind her, she and her husband retired to a small farm in the Adirondacks, to be nearer to family, and the couple lived a quiet, contented life, Aunt Ricky enchanting her nephews and nieces with tales of her life in Hollywood.

Erica Sings, her one and only album, appeared around 1960. Self-recorded, self-financed and self-distributed, Alice even created her own company, Erica Records and handcrafted the sleeves, gluing a vintage photograph of the actress in her Hollywood heyday to the front of the cover.

It’s a thoroughly bizarre and rather wonderful album and, from the subject matter, I would imagine that she wrote the songs over a prolonged period. Over 14 tracks, Ricky sings her own self-composed songs, plays Hawaiian-style guitar and even drags her brother in to sing on one song. Recorded in the family home, the songs have a wonderfully old-fashioned, almost ethereal feel; she would have been close to 70 when these recordings were made.

Erica, or Alice, passed away in January 1964.

Here are a couple of cuts from this magnificently odd – and rare -record, the delightful Mommy Do They Shine Up Shoes In Heaven? and the ghostly To Hawaii’s Shore.

Download Heaven HERE

Download Hawaii HERE

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