Last week, we learned that America's appetite for god-awful racket makers goes back more than a hundred years, to acts like the Cherry Sisters and Florence Foster Jenkins. But after the Cherrys retired and Florence died, there were other women ready assume the mantle of most successful, worst singer in the world.
Some of these acts were parodies. Take Darlene Edwards, for instance, who caterwauled while her pianist husband, Jonathan Edwards (a man with two right hands, if the cover of the duo's "Greatest Hits" package is to be trusted) accompanied her on songs like "I Love Paris" starting in 1957. In actuality, Darlene's off-kilter (and off-key) singing was performed by the musically gifted Jo Stafford, a pop singer who had scored hits like "The Trolley Song," "Candy" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street" in the 1940s. And Jonathan Edwards was actually Stafford's real-life husband, the very gifted Paul Weston. Stafford and Weston won a Best Comedy Album Grammy in 1961 in their guise as the Edwards (tying with the classic "The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart" that year).
In 1957, at almost the same time the Edwards were winning by failing, a 72-year-old woman with operatic dreams released one of the true classics in the genre of horrible singing. "Music to Suffer By" was Leona Anderson's only album, but it launched a 10-year career that found her billed as "the World's Most Horrible Singer." In addition to butchering standards like "Carmen," Leona also assayed originals like "Rats in My Room" and "Fish." (The latter included a young Bil Baird playing tuba, some years before he would find fame as a world-class puppeteer. If you remember "The Lonely Goatherd" puppet sequence in "The Sound of Music," that was Bil Baird's work.)
Anderson had been working at the fringes of show business since she was a young woman. Her brother was the famous movie cowboy, "Bronco Billy" Anderson, and Leona herself appeared in silent films during the 1920s. Her last film role came in William Castle's camp classic, "House on Haunted Hill," a year after the release of "Music to Suffer By."
Probably the most famous terrible singer of all time emerged during the following decade. In April 1966, Mrs. Ela Ruby Connes Miller released her first album, "Mrs. Miller's Greatest Hits," on the Capitol label. The album was a hodgepodge of current pop hits like "Downtown," sung in a high-pitched, warbling voice that, while never rising to the level of good, was certainly unforgettable. Within a year-and-a-half, the album had sold over a quarter-million copies and Mrs. Miller had become a sought-after guest on television shows like "The Ed Sullivan Show," "Laugh-In" and "The Tonight Show." In 1967, she appeared in the motion picture, "The Cool Ones," opposite Roddy McDowell and Phil Harris.
It was never entirely clear if Mrs. Miller understood the kitschy appeal of her singing. But when she recorded her 1968 album, "Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing" (produced by future Republican lieutenant governor of California, Mike Curb), with song titles like "Mary Jane," "The Roach" and "Renaissance of Smut," it is clear that she didn't recognize the double entendres present throughout the album. Reportedly, when the drug references were explained to her later, she was outraged. She self-released two "straight" singles in the early 1970s, and then retired until her death in 1996.
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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.