Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: I frequently see William Hung, the most famous American Idol reject, either doing TV commercials or as a variety or talk show guest, and even in a movie.

He is, as you know, renowned for being a truly awful singer with very little redeeming talent.

Nevertheless, Hung recorded some albums which I read have sold quite well.

All of which reminds me of a frumpy woman in the mid-'60s who, though slightly better than Hung, still couldn't sing a note on key.

I do not recall her name but I do know she did have at least one hit song, an outrageous version of the Petula Clark hit, “Downtown.” She may have even made an album.

What is the name of this lady, who no doubt is the first to sell records based on being a terrible singer?
—Carla Evans, Meriden, Conn.

DEAR CARLA: For the record, William Hung's overall album sales are indeed impressive and now estimated to be over 250,000 units!

The amusing '60s soprano you recall is Elva Miller, who recorded simply as Mrs. Miller.

Issued in 1966, her only hit single coupled “Downtown” with “A Lover's Concerto” (Capitol 5640).

She immediately followed it with a debut album, humorously titled “Mrs. Miller's Greatest Hits” (Capitol 2494), and filled mostly with her versions of other people's mid-'60s hits.

A smashing success, “Mrs. Miller's Greatest Hits” eventually landed in the nation's Top 15 LPs.

In the months ahead, Capitol rushed out two more albums: “Will Success Spoil Mrs. Miller?” (Capitol 2579) and “The Country Soul of Mrs. Miller” (Capitol 2734).

At age 58 Mrs. Miller was an overnight sensation whose notoriety faded nearly as fast as it arrived.

As for her recordings, not only did Miller seldom sing the correct notes, she often lost track of the words and either hummed, mumbled, or made up substitute lyrics on the fly.

As for Mrs. Miller being the first to sell recordings that are off-key and bizarre, read on:

DEAR JERRY: Circa-1954, while working at KCMO-TV (Kansas City, Mo.) as Associate Woman's Director, my roommates often played a recording that was an absolute hoot!

I still remember the name of the singer — at least SHE thought she could sing. It is Florence Foster Jenkins and her songs are hysterical.

We played the recording at parties, usually claiming it to be one of our roommates practicing her voice lessons. I would love to hear Jenkins again, and I hope you can tell me if it is somehow available.
—Maryann Reynolds, Hudson, Fla.

DEAR MARYANN: Shortly after the turn of the century, and the 1907 birth of Mrs. Miller, Florence Foster Jenkins was already establishing herself as the best of the worst.

Florence's recordings demonstrate considerable unfamiliarity with such things as pitch, tempo, and occasionally hitting and holding a note.

Hysterical is an excellent term to describe Jenkins, who, like Mrs. Miller, reached her popularity peak when nearly 60.

Where they differ greatly is in song choices. Miller murdered contemporary pop and country hits whereas Jenkins usually attacked operatic arias.

Surprisingly, most Florence Foster Jenkins concerts sold out as soon as announced, including her most famous recital, October 25, 1944 at Carnegie Hall in New York. Even sophisticated audiences loved her.

Just one month later (November 26, 1944), Florence died.

Whether you crave William Hung's “Surfin' Safari” (wipes out right after the guitar intro), Mrs. Miller's “I've Got a Tiger By the Tail” (hearing it might have shortened Buck Owens' life), or Florence Foster Jenkins' “Die Fledermaus” (perfect for the soundtrack of the next Itchy & Scratchy movie), their many recordings are plentiful online (eBay, Amazon, Napster, etc.).

IZ ZAT SO? One of the many amusing Florence Foster Jenkins anecdotes tells of a minor automobile crash in 1943, involving a taxi in which she was a passenger.

Though shaken by the experience, she later claimed that as a result of the impact she could sing a higher F than ever before.

Rather than suing the taxi company, or anyone, she sent the taxi driver a box of expensive cigars to show her appreciation.

Memorable too is her most celebrated, and extremely accurate, assessment of her chosen profession: “People may say I can't sing … but no one can ever say I didn't sing.”

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