Sharps & flats

1960s socialite Mrs. Miller sang the Beatles and Sinatra worse than anyone. For the first time, her ungodly awful -- and hilarious -- repertoire appears on CD.

Published July 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

To describe the lone mistress of pop opera, Elva Ruby Connes Miller, is to describe Maria Callas crossed with a punch-drunk Miss Piggy. In the '60s Mrs. Miller was a respectable Republican socialite and the executive secretary of the Foothill Drama and Choral Society in Claremont, Calif. She probably didn't know it, but the booming vibrato that she applied to the era's biggest pop hits would create a catalog of the most weirded out kitsch ever recorded.

Mrs. Miller's crooning would have remained just a karaoke experiment if it hadn't been for Capitol A&R man Lex de Azevedo, who signed her in 1966 to sing three albums of pop, rock and country covers. As bad and unintentionally hilarious as Mrs. Miller's renditions of "Girl From Ipanema" and "Yellow Submarine" were, she ended up something of a success, even though she was being played for laughs. During her peak, Mrs. Miller played the Ed Sullivan show, entertained troops in Vietnam and even made an appearance in Roddy McDowall's "The Cool Ones."

Her followers claim that, comic realities aside, she was simply trying to sing as best she could. Even took voice lessons. They could be right. The 21 songs on "Wild, Cool & Swingin'" certainly don't sound like contrived, lounge goofing. Mrs. M is working.

On "There Goes My Everything," her voice is overdubbed into a screaming wall of vibrato. On "Memphis," she drops several registers into a delicious suburban rap. She mumbles in French on "Moon River," scats on "A Lover's Concerto" and, during "Downtown," whistles a solo, fumbles the next verse and slides back into a bird-call.

It's novelty pop at its best, the kind of album that makes you pull neighbors off the street, drive co-workers mad and turn Sunday brunches into unavoidable listening parties. Unlike the intentional goofs of Weird Al, the certifiable craziness of Wesley Willis and the vain missteps of William Shatner and other celebrity crooners, Mrs. Miller was the real deal: An everyday woman who really believed in her voice, so much so that she didn't realize how godawful it actually was.

All three of Mrs. Miller's Capitol albums eventually went out of print, and they've never been released on CD. (A Mrs. Miller bootleg did make the rounds a few years ago.) Now, three years after she died, the record label is plugging her first legit CD as part of a lounge series that includes Bobby Darin and Louis Prima. But Mrs. Miller's music wasn't about swizzle sticks and martinis. It was about a style that could not be denied, and a woman who believed she could be heard if she just sang a little bit higher, a little bit louder. The joke was on her.

By Geoff Edgers

Geoff Edgers is a writer at the Raleigh News & Observer and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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