Durante should have known. He co-starred with her on an episode of a TV variety show during her brief rise in show business in 1966, a woman loved by aficionados of campy, bad music.
We’re talking about Mrs. Miller.
Everyone has an aunt or an older next door neighbour who loves to sing at the top of their lungs but is horrendously, and obliviously, tone-deaf. That’s why Mrs. Elva Miller connected with people and rode the charts for a brief period until even her fans got tired of the joke and moved on. Well, temporarily. Mrs. Miller fans like myself are still out there, though I suspect they only want to hear her in occasional, small doses.
It wasn’t just the lack of rhythm and unfamiliarity with the scale that made people appreciate Mrs. Miller. She was just so darn sincere, you couldn’t dislike her.
However, somewhat like the way modern singers are overly assisted by AutoTune, Mrs. Miller’s blatant awfulness was assisted by producers at Capitol Records, or so she said in interviews (depending on the interviewer). Let’s bring you a few of them. Here’s an Associated Press story from May 3, 1966
1 More Time, Mrs. MillerBob Thomas of the Associated Press wrote two columns about the Coloratura of Claremont. The first one appeared in papers starting July 12, 1966. He revealed a little bit of show-biz chicanery to make her sound worse than she was. Interestingly, she told UPI’s Stephen E. Rubin in an interview published days before the Thomas column that “I am truly sorry when I don’t come in on the beat,” implying she couldn’t help it. That’s not what she, or someone else, told Thomas.
By MARY CAMPBELL
NEW YORK—(AP)—Listening to records made by a plump gray-haired grandmother who warbles and whistles rock 'n' roll songs, mostly off-key, is the current kick in U. S. pop music.
The singer is Mrs. Elva Miller of Claremont, Cal., 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Her family was against Mrs. Miller's trying to make records but she went ahead.
Her debut long-playing record, "Mrs. Miller's Greatest Hits," was released by Capitol Records April 11 and sold 50,000 copies its first two days out. The LP and two songs taken from it and released as a single, "Downtown" and "A Lover's Concerto," all are on the best-selling charts compiled by Billboard magazine.
Mrs. Miller sings with a vibrato which sounds as if she had once studied voice, which she did. Meanwhile she often changes key and goes flat, reminiscent of the late Florence Foster Jenkins.
She sucks ice cubes while she does, her bird-like whistles, to contract the muscles for a more-controlled pucker.
Ed Sullivan has signed her for an appearance on his TV show May 22.
Disc jockeys apparently love the novelty of "the Miller sound." A station in Denver played the record 24 hours straight.
Through radio stations, Mrs. Miller has been voted honorary mayor of Kalamazoo, Mich., a "good guy" in New York and Memphis and an honorary citizen of Cobb County, Ga.
In Honolulu, arriving to do a radio-sponsored benefit show, Mrs. Miller received one of the wildest welcomes in the state's history. Her record became the biggest seller there since "Meet the Beatles." A Chicago disc jockey said, "It's fun radio all over again."
Hymn Singer a Hit With Rock 'N' RollIndeed, things did run their course. Very quickly, in fact. But few performers can accept the fact their public has turned against them. A year later, Mrs. Miller insisted she wasn’t unpopular. After all, hadn’t she left audiences at the famed Cocoanut Grove with her performance (it seems they were laughing at her more than with her). No, it was all her record company’s fault. But she never reached the heights she briefly achieved for several months in 1966. This story is from October 9, 1967.
By BOB THOMAS
AP Movie-Television Writer
Capitol Records in rushing a version by Elva Miller onto the market, and the Sinatra hit song may never be the same. But then, the whole record business hasn't been quite the same since Mrs. Miller came on the scene.
Her album, "Mrs. Miller's Greatest Hits," already has sold 150,000 copies, a highly respectable figure. Her style? It has defied description. Suffice to say she sings teen-age record hits in a mature contralto. She also whistles.
Frankly 58, Mrs. Miller has no illusions about her achievement. "I'll go along with it as long as it lasts," she remarked. "It would be foolish at my age to become starry-eyed. If all this comes to an end, I still have my home and my many interests. And I will have had a lot of fun."
IT ALL STARTED because Mrs. Miller, an amateur singer of Claremont, Cal., made regular visits to a Hollywood studio to record songs, mostly of a sacred nature, for her own pleasure. On one occasion, her accompanist, Fred Bock, slipped some rock 'n' roll numbers among her hymns.
"I think you're having fun with Mrs. Miller," she said. But she went along with him. It happened that Capitol had been searching for an operatic voice to render beatle-type hits. Mrs. Miller seemed an ideal choice.
Most of her numbers were recorded in one take, to preserve the ingenuous duality. Some of the errors were deliberate, as in one number when she was instructed to begin singing a half-beat behind the orchestra.
Concerning the sales of her records, Mrs. Miller declared: "I don't understand it, but teenagers seem to be buying them.
As I see it, there are two kinds of teen-agers. There are the sophisticated ones; who dress like Sonny and Cher; they don't buy my album. Then there are the teen-agers who dress neatly; they are the ones who do buy my records."
Mrs. Miller, who had done no real performing since her high school days in Dodge City, Kan., now finds herself in show business.
She has appeared on the TV programs of Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Art Linkletter. During the Griffin show she found herself sharing a dressing room with Sally Rand—"a nice person; she lives in Glendora, not far from Claremont."
Recently she made her acting debut, portraying a dance-hall singer in a new TV series, "The Road West." Next month she plays her first night club engagement at Harrah's, Lake Tahoe.
Does she have any qualms about appearing in night clubs?
"Not as long as the stage is separated from the audience," she said. "I like to sing. What people do in the auditorium is their own affair."
Mrs. Miller has now had to acquire a manager, press agent, tax lawyer, accountant, etc. She is also planning to move to nearby Glendale to be closer to the entertainment capital. Her husband, a retired rancher, John Miller, is sympathetic with her career.
"He knows I am mature enough to realize that things like this run their course," explained Mrs. Miller.
Mrs. Miller Seeking New Singing ImageTen years later, the Los Angeles Times caught up with her and she claimed she never needed to sing, and never took her show business career seriously, though in the same breath she claimed it had been mismanaged. Regardless of whether she really felt she was a serious singer or didn’t, you couldn’t dislike Mrs. Miller any more than you could dislike your off-key Aunt Phoebe. She came across as genuine. And there isn’t a lot of that in show business.
By BOB THOMAS
RENO, Nev. (AP) — Will Mrs. Miller spoil success by taking vocal lessons to eliminate her tremulous long notes?
Whether she will or she won't, the one-time housewife is determined to fit her padded frame onto a new image. No more the singing a half-note behind the orchestra. No more the fractured melodies. She's going straight.
"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."
Since she burst open the music world last year with the album "Mrs. Miller's Greatest Hits," she has been a puzzle. How could a 58-year-old matron singing teenage songs in an uncertain contralto manage to sell 660,000 records?
Elva Miller reflected on this:
"Capitol Records created the angle that 'she's so bad that she's good.' Or, it's what you call 'camp.' But still that doesn't explain why so any records were sold. Its true that the album was a gag. But it's also true that I have drawers full of letters from young people saying, 'We think it's wonderful that you are singing our songs.' "
Was Mrs. Miller in on the gag? She claims that she wasn't—not at first.
"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 ecord. Or they would eut 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 didn't like to be used."
She made a second album for Capitol, prophetically titled, "Will Success Spoil Mrs. Miller?" Despite sales of 30,000 on that one, the record company put forth a third album, "The Country Soul of Mrs. Miller."
"I could see they were doing nothing for my records in the way of promotion," she remarked, "and I felt this was a signal. So we asked for my release. Without consulting us, Capitol released the news that I was being dropped."
Now she has formed her own company, Vibrate Records, and she will lease future discs to distributers. She is trying out, for an acting role at Paramount and is mulling a nightclub tour with her new image.