Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Oct 10th 2008 6:30PM by James Sullivan
Off-key, off-beat and trilling like the Church Lady's operatic alter ego, the perverse singing sensation known as Mrs. Miller was a matronly California housewife who was already nearly 60 by the time of her "discovery." For years, Elva Ruby Miller recorded excruciating hymns intended for funerals for her own enjoyment. "A closet at home is filled with them," she said.
In Los Angeles to make a "vanity" recording, she piqued the curiosity of arranger Fred Bock, who pitched Mrs. Miller to a Capitol Records A&R man as an inadvertently comical novelty act. Given the cheeky title 'Mrs. Miller's Greatest Hits,' her debut album became a runaway surprise, selling more than 200,000 copies by dumbfounded word-of- mouth. Booking agents tripped over one another to get to her: Within a matter of months, Mrs. Miller appeared on 'The Mike Douglas Show' and 'The Ed Sullivan Show' (Elvis sent her a telegram of congratulations), in Lake Tahoe and at the Cocoanut Grove. She even sang for the troops in Vietnam.
So Capitol rush-released a followup titled 'Will Success Spoil Mrs. Miller?' There was, of course, no chance of that: Her singing voice was already as rancid as a month-old unrefrigerated egg salad.
For years, it was implied that Mrs. Miller was completely unaware she was being marketed as a joke. Not true, said Lois Bock, widow of the singer's discoverer: "Fred and I were honest with her. We told her it would be funny. And the audiences loved it. The more they laughed, the more she would, you know, work it."
After the dwindling sales of a country album suggested her time had passed, Mrs. Miller made one last stab with an album called 'Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing.' Released at the height of hippie pop, she posed winking for the cover, holding a plateful of green brownies. Whether she knew it or not, the whole project was intended as a not-so-subliminal message. The record company had her singing songs with titles like 'Mary Jane' and 'The Roach.' Only the over-the-top single 'Renaissance of Smut' actually represented the views of the old-fashioned homemaker.
When her career died down, Mrs. Miller went back to her quiet civilian life, dying in 1997 at the age of 90. She never took herself too seriously. "The laughter on the record is unpremeditated. That's when I forgot the words," she once explained. The laughter off the record remains.