One of the oddest trends in popular music - and one of the longest lasting - has been the American penchant for women who sing very, very badly. You think you know what I mean by "very badly," but no - worse than that. Worse than Jessica Simpson. Worse than Paris Hilton.
We're talking women for whom the word "caterwauling" might well have been invented. Women whose tonsils, could they be smelled, would lead you to think something crawled under the house to die. Yet weirdly, these women have found large, eager audiences for over a hundred years.
Take, for example, the Cherry Sisters, who rose to prominence in the late 1890s. These four dour sisters rose from performing at local school presentations in their native Linn County, near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to long runs on the big-time circuit of vaudeville, eventually playing in Oscar Hammerstein's opulent Broadway "palace," the Olympia Theatre. The Cherrys did a sold-out, six-week run at the Olympia, saving Hammerstein from bankruptcy and establishing the venue as one of New York's most important vaudeville houses. And they managed to accomplish this with nary a whiff of talent or craftsmanship.
At many of the theaters where the Cherry Sisters played, so awful was their performance that they were met with what one newspaper called "vegetable applause" - fusillades of tomatoes and rotten fruit sent hurtling by aggrieved vaudeville patrons. At first, the sisters didn't take kindly to this form of criticism.
The eldest, Effie, would sometimes come on stage brandishing a shotgun, and in more than one city, the local law was forced to intervene during their performances for fear that someone would get hurt. But being incredibly bad proved to be better than being merely competent, and the Cherrys parlayed their lack of musical skills into a long career, until the death of youngest sister Jessie put an end to their act in 1903.
It was nine years later that Florence Foster Jenkins launched her musical career. Jenkins was the daughter of a wealthy attorney from Pennsylvania who lavished his daughter with musical lessons when she was a child, but who refused to bankroll Florence's ardently coveted career as an opera singer when the young woman came of age. And who can blame him?
For, having heard young Florence sing, he probably recognized she was as tone deaf and rhythmically insensitive as a fence post. But whatever Florence lacked in talent, she more than compensated for in sheer passion to perform. When her father passed away in 1909, leaving her a sizable inheritance, she founded the Verdi Club in New York City, where she proceeded to star in numerous musical recitals, often bedecked in ridiculously ornate costumes of tinsel and bangles. Soon, like the Cherry Sisters before her, she became popular for her very lack of vocal ability. That popularity continued to grow until she played a sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall, just a month before she died.
We'll look back at other remarkably successful and remarkably awful singers next week. Until then, take a lesson from the Cherry Sisters and Florence Foster Jenkins and remember: It is better to sing poorly than to never sing at all.
Notes is supported by the Gay and Lesbian Fund, promoting the success of youth leadership and mentoring programs throughout Colorado in cooperation with Big Brothers Big Sisters.
Craven Lovelace produces Notes, a daily cultural history of popular music, for KAFM 88.1 Community Radio, kafmradio.org. You can visit cravenlovelace.com for more of his musings on the world of popular culture.