This week's slightly longer (14 mins) podcast is all about the inimitable Mrs Miller. Brace your ears.
Hello. Today I’m going to talk about the owner of this extraordinary voice (clip):
Elva Ruby Connes Miller - known to the record-buying public simply as Mrs Miller - was born on the 5th of October 1907 in Joplin, Missouri. When she was 27, she married a professional investor called John Richardson Miller who was 30 years older than she was. And, around this time - and funded by her wealthy husband - she began making vanity records for her own amusement. At least one called ‘Songs for children’ was pressed as a 45 single and featured four tracks with Mrs Miller’s vocals accompanied by organist Laurie Metcalfe.
Now, it just so happened that Capitol Records was experimenting with new recording techniques at the Los Angeles studios where she was recording with keyboard player Fred Bock. They decided to use her as their guinea pig and Mrs Miller consequently provided vocals for a host of popular classics, much to the amusement of Bock and the men from Capitol. Mrs Miller's curious operatic warbling vibrato and strange whistling technique (she would fill her mouth with ice beforehand to get a better sound) made every song … unique.
Bock passed the recordings onto A & R man Lex de Avezedo and she was soon signed to Capitol Records. Her first LP on that label, ironically titled Mrs Miller's Greatest Hits, appeared in 1966 when she was 59 years old. It was made up entirely of pop songs, and sold more than 250,000 copies in its first three weeks. It even spawned a hit single; her version of Petula Clarke’s Downtown. Here it is in all of its delicious glory (clip).
An article in Time magazine described the single like this:
'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 that, her billowy soprano embraces a song with a vibrato that won't quit ... '
Though Irving Wallace and David Wallechinsky, writing in The People's Almanac, were less kind. They compared her voice to ‘the sound of 'roaches scurrying across a trash can lid.'
Shortly after her second album Will Success Spoil Mrs Miller? was released in 1967 she was invited to appear in a feature film called The Cool Ones, starring Roddy McDowell.
Her third album The Country Soul of Mrs. Miller followed a year later and was, as the name suggests, focused on country and western songs like ‘There goes my everything’ and ‘A little bitty tear’.
She was a huge hit with the public and appeared on the Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan shows, and duetted with Jimmy Durante on his live Hollywood Palace show.
She was even flown out to Vietnam to sing for the troops and appeared on stage with Bob Hope.
But then, all of a sudden, the vogue for out of time and often out of tune elderly lady singers passed and she was dropped by Capitol. But, undeterred, she signed to the smaller Amaret label and, in 1968, she released her final album, Mrs Miller Does Her Thing. The cover saw her dressed in a psychedelic kaftan and holding a plate of hash browns – presumably containing hash. The album featured several trippy songs associated with drug culture, including the theme song she provided for the drug exploitation movie ‘Mary Jane’ which featured pop star Fabian and a very young Terri Garr. Mrs Miller was apparently completely unaware of the drug symbolism until the album was already in stores.
But her professional career was over and by 1973, barring a few singles that she put out on her own Vibrato Records and Mrs Miller labels, she had officially retired. She died in 1997, at the age of 90.
I love Mrs Miller. She had a passion for singing and didn’t give a brace of hoots what other people thought. She lived to sing and, if nature hadn’t equipped her with the voice of an angel, it had at least given her balls of steel. The liner notes on her LP ‘Mrs Miller does her thing’ have this to say:
‘Mrs. Miller is an experience that should happen to everyone once. We don't mean just seeing or hearing Mrs. Miller. We mean being a Mrs. Miller, and having that elusive, magic chance we all dream about. The chance to do your own thing, whatever it may be. Mrs. Miller's thing is singing. Singing her heart out. And it's all she's ever wanted to do.
Go back a few years. Singing was still her thing, but there was no one to listen. Success in the music world was limited to a chosen few. Beautiful people who looked just right or sounded just right and always seemed as though they'd just come from a refreshing dip in a vat of plastic.
Things are different now. In the mid sixties, a chain reaction of mind-blowing and time-changing young musicians began to explode all over the world. They were open, honest and real. And their communication with their audiences was both instantaneous and permanent. Suddenly, the lamination process was over. Music was no longer a spectator sport. It was a game the whole family could play.
Five years ago, Mrs. Miller's success couldn't have happened, and it's a compliment to our times that it can now. That she can get up on a stage or stand in front of a recording studio microphone and let it all hang out without being afraid or uptight about what she has to offer.
What she has to offer is herself, and she offers same on this album. In her own inimitable style, she socks a selection of songs to you. Songs that are somtimes funny, sometimes hip, and sometimes both.
In other words, she does her own thing. Don't you wish everybody would?’
There’s an interesting parallel here with what’s happening in music today. The big music companies are dropping what they call ‘unprofitable’ artists – even though they may sell thousands of records. But the advent of affordable digital technology and the abundance of social media means that artists can now make the records they want to, free of company control, and sell direct to the customer. And websites like Pledgemusic and Bandcamp even generate income through crowd-funding.
So that’s why I love Mrs Miller. She’s the embodiment of everything I hold to be true; that if you have a passion for something - follow that passion and to hell with what anyone else thinks. If it doesn’t hurt anyone – do what you want. We only get to live once and we’re dead a long, long time.
So, if you’ve enjoyed what you’ve just heard, just pop Mrs Miller into a search engine or Youtube and you’ll find a wealth of her work. She also has a fansite at mrsmillersworld.com. And, while her vinyl albums are hard to find these days, you can get a compilation of her first three albums on CD.
Buy it and smile.
I know I did.