Mrs. Miller is off-pitch for profit
A Most Unlikely Lark
At Los Angeles' Coconut Grove it was star-time. As the lights dimmed, crowd murmur and drink noise subsided into attentive anticipation. The spotlight focused center-stage, the leader guided the orchestra through a lush introduction. Then the featured vocalist, an erect, middled-aged lady swaying slightly in a flowing pink recital dress, erupted into song:
"It's been a hard day's night--I've been working like a dog.
It's been a hard day's night--I should be sleeping like a log."
A well-known Beatle tune, catchy and agreeable as originally composed, but after one measure of its performance by Mrs. Elva Miller, the piece was reduced to chaos- off-pitch, off-tempo, desparately tremulous at times, otherwise hopelessly shrill. The harder she tried, elasping a rose-colored wrist hanky before her, the worse she sounded. And the more they heard, the louder the audience responded- with peals of derisive cackling.
Meanwhile, dead-pan, the orchestra pursued its sophisticated arrangement in the background as solemnly as if Lena Horne were at the microphone. A vocal group earnestly harmonized as though nothing whatever was out of joint. And when the song had come to a shuddering close, the thousand spectators roared with laughter and applause and shouts of "More, Mrs. Miller, more!" Mrs. Miller- the singing star who can't sing- had scored another questionable triumph.
As a pop singer, Elva Miller is all wrong. She doesn't even own a slinky sequin gown or tight, bell bottom pants, and she resembles neither Nancy Wilson nor Nancy Sinatra nearly so much as she does Nina Khrushchev. Elva Miller owes her fame to her uniquely atrocious vocal style and to the fearless gusto with which she assails- and destroys- a song. Her debut album- Mrs. Miller's Greatest Hits, issued by Capitol Records in 1966- us a collector's item. It sold 200,000 copies and left an indelible stain on modern music. Her subsequent albums (Will Success Spoil Mrs. Miller?! and The Country Soul of Mrs. Miller) have, if anything, struck even deeper. Indeed, nobody who had heard the brazen close harmony of Mrs. Miller's "The Shadow of Your Smile" or her daring whistling chorus of "Downtown" can ever lend the same ear to those tunes again. Riding on the wave crest of her record success, Mrs. Miller has become a national TV personality (The Ed Sullivan Show, The Joey Bishop Show), as well as a nightclub performer of commanding stature. She even went to Vietnam this summer under the auspices of the USO and spent two weeks entertaining American troops. In addition, because stardom breeds stardom, she has made a movie- The Cool Ones with Roddy McDowall. And as a matter of course, more Mrs. Miller records are forthcoming.
Mrs. Miller did not seek stardom. She is the first to concede that the whole pratfall splash she has made in the entertainment industry is curious, at the very least. "I just don't get it," she ruminates with a grandmotherly frown. "If I were a beautiful young woman with a 21-inch waistline, I would understand it, but I am not." That, of course, is just the point: she isn't. If she were a young beauty with an acceptable voice, she probably would not attract either impresarios or the public: they might throw rocks at her on the amateur hour. Instead, with the looks of a calico grandmother and the voice of a tubercular parrot, she is a darling of "camp."
The phenomenon had been unsettling. As a 59-year old, childless, homebody housewife from the Los Angeles suburb of Claremont, she was ignorant of the camp esthetic which dictates that if bad is bad enough, it can be precious good. And, until recently at least, she was unfamiliar with the history of Florence Foster Jenkins, an aspiring soprano of 25 years ago, with whom Mrs. Miller shares a spiritual kinship. Miss Jenkins couldn't sing a note either, but she used to rent Carnegie Hall to perform her own earshattering recitals to the delight of the cognoscenti. Clearly, stardom has fallen upon a most unlikely personage. "If there's ever a square lived in this world," observes Mrs. Miller, "I'm it." Until fame arrived she devoted most of her time to keeping a spotless house and meticulous garden for her husband John R. Miller, a horsebreeder. She pursued self-improvement projects, even attended college in middle-age, and, as she had since childhood, persevered in her passionate love for serious music.
Mrs. Miller first heard classical music in her home town of Great Bend, KA at age of 12, rendered on the household player piano. Subsenquently, she studied real piano and sang in the high school glee club. In 1934, she married Mr. Miller who always encouraged her hobby.
After moving to California, she sporadically studied harmony, counterpoint, and music theory at Pomona College. She fondly recalls her salon, "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."
Her public performances were limited. Mrs. Miller sang with a town choral society in Claremont and also tried out for the choir of the First Presbyterian Church. But her voice proved to be a little too independent for ensemble work. "I have a heavy voice and they wanted a blend," she explains candidly. "Amoung the 100 voices, mine stood out like a sore thumb. So it became a matter of dispute and I thought better let it go." So did the choir conductor.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Miller would not be silenced. "Just for fun, the way some people play golf or knit," as she puts it, she persisted. With Mr. Miller's blessing and financing, she began to frequent small sound studios to make private recordings. Once or twice a month, Mrs. Miller would proudly tote home recordings of her own voice warbling or braying her favorite arias, children's songs, and such gospel perennials as "The Old Rugged Cross", "My Faith Looks Up" to "Thee and Rock of Ages". For the last five years of this enterprise, her piano accompanist and coach was a college music student named Fred Bock.
Bock had the inspired idea of encouraging Mrs. Miller to try pop music. With three chums playing organ, harp, and flute accompaniment, he tested her on Blue Velvet. The result, hilarious to everybody except Mrs. Miller, turned up on a radio disk jockey show.
Today, somewhat reconciled to the character of her talent, Mrs. Miller speaks with equivocal grattitude of Fred Bock's contribution. "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."
Bock cut a few more Mrs. Miller songs on a sample record, took it around the record companies, and Capitol bit. Almost before Mrs. Miller knew what was happening, she was surrounded by the personnel and papaphernalia of a big recording studio and a director was shouting at her:
"Sing!" "Don't sing!" "Whistle!" "Don't whistle!"
First the light signal from the control room went on ahead of time. Then behind time. "I just couldn't follow along," recalls Mrs. Miller. Her performance went from bad to worse- which of course was just what was wanted. Conducted a half-beat ahead of the orchestra and choral group in "My Love", she slowed down, whereupon the accompaniment was deliberately accelerated. When she caught up, the director again dropped half a beat behind. Another time, after six or eight tries at "The Shadow of Your Smile", the version farthest off-key was chosen.
At last the light came to Mrs. Miller. "They considered me very naive, I guess. When we did that off-meter part, I suspected. And when they printed the worst "The Shadow of Your Smile", I knew it was a gag."
To her, Capitol had described the venture not as a gag, but as an "experiment." "They told me they believed the public was ready for a new trend, a different type of sound, a different kind of voice. "What is the experiment?" I asked, and they told me they wanted an operatic type of voice doing rock 'n' roll. And they did say I should think it over, particularly about what I should tell my friends who might say "My goodness, you've always sponsored classical music- now you're singing rock 'n' roll." Gradually, Mrs. Miller has gone along with the gag. At first she played the innocent with Capitol, not letting on that she knew what was up. But lately, gaining confidence and stage presence, she seems willing to injure her own dignity for laughs. In Vietnam, clad in jungle boots and a muu-muu, she chatted with audiences about the 15 years she spent studying music, lopped five years off at each burst of laughter, and finally offered, "Would you believe one?" When that was howled down, she confessed she was starting lessons "tomorrow."
Even so, her emotions about her success are sadly mixed. For one thing, although the lady from Claremont has no children of her own, she genuinely adores kides and is concerned about their attitude toward her singing. She is pained by the idea that they might think she is making fun of what is after all, "their music." Some cetainly do. "Many teenagers dislike her intensely," says a Capitol executive. Her bag of fan mail contains many teen-ager jabs such as:
"Mrs. Miller, Mrs. Miller
You're a killer--killer-diller,
We love your voice,
And nostrils too,
But do us a favor,
And fill them with glue."
On the other hand, at the same time that many kids are wondering whether or not Mrs. Miller is on the joke, she is fearful that they will catch on:
"I'm worried that they'll ask their parents, "Did she do this as a gag, to make lots of money, and you mean she really isn't interested in singing for us?' I'm delighted that young people are listening to me, because that's meaningful to me."
Now that she is a pop entertainer with her name on the charts, Mrs. Miller's life has been transformed. Adult education and gardening have given way to rehearsals, performances and the innumerable appearances expected of a bona-fide star.When she is not appearing in nightclubs, Mrs. Miller goes to work inside one of the big sound studios where clinical quiet reigns, the better to reproduce the pure Mrs. Miller sound.For a rehearsal, Mrs. Miller- who always sings with a hat on- takes her place behind an acoustic shield. Fred Bock, who is still her accompanist, leads her in some warm up choruses of "Happy Birthday". Then she straightens her hefty torso to launch into "Downtown", followed perhaps by a perfected Bock arrangement of "Lover's Concerto", which is a Bach classical piece turned into a rock 'n' roll number by a group called The Toys but never stretched to the limit of potential variation until Mrs. Miller got hold of it. And sometimes she whistles, using her own special technique of "ice-whistling."
"If you are warm, your flesh is looser, your hands and feet are larger," theorizes Mrs. Miller. "But for whistling you need a good tight pucker. To reach the high notes for whistling, I use ice clamped between my lips. I leave it there about 20 minutes. It doesn't hurt. It just freezes up."
Success probably won't spoil Mrs. Miller, but it has begun to wilt the crisp simplicity of her garden-grown credo and concern. By way of consolation, her just-ended contract with Capitol brought her a 3 3/4% royalty on each record, and she has just formed her own record-production company under the name of Vibrato. What with records, nightclub appearances, television, and motion pictures, she has so far personally netted more than $100,000.
"She's the Primo Carnera of the music business," comments one Hollywood agent.
Mrs. Miller is, however, still a bit embarrassed and, in the midst of good fortune, still gropes for self-justification. "Maybe," she reflects hopefully, "the very young people have never considered it a gag."