Getting Rich by Singing Badly

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Every once in a great while, a singer comes along that is so untalented, yet willing to sing in public, that people buy records just to marvel at the awfulness. These "musicians" are actually selling laughs, and are even more effective if the audience isn't quite sure if the artist is actually in on the joke.

Florence Foster Jenkins

There may well have been earlier artists who became famous for a bad singing voice, but those who had such an act before recorded music left no evidence. Florence Foster Jenkins was born in 1868 and made recordings in the first half of the 20th century. Jenkins wanted to be an opera singer from an early age, but was discouraged by her parents and later by her husband. But she still pined for the stage, and after a divorce and upon receiving an inheritance from her father, set out to build her career. She staged infrequent concerts in New York, Washington, and Newport. Her audience was filled with loyal friends who encouraged her to pursue her dreams and curious music lovers who felt compelled to witness the carnage. Jenkins could neither carry a tune nor keep a rhythm, yet she loved performing. Her recitals included elaborate costumes, which she changed at least three times during a show. Later called "the Diva of Din". she shrugged off laughter from the audience and less-than-stellar reviews, attributing them to jealousy. There is no evidence that Jenkins ever gave less than her best efforts. Many who knew the charming singer declined to discourage her as she led her deluded but happy life as an opera singer.

Jenkins avoided Carnegie Hall for most of her life, but finally booked the hall in October 1944 when she was 76 years old. Tickets sold out weeks before the show, and she was enshrined as the worst singer to ever play Carnegie Hall. She died a month later, still oblivious to the real reason behind her fame. Hear Jenkins perform Mozart's "Queen of the Night" and more clips if you can handle them.

Mrs. Miller

Elva Ruby Connes Miller was known by TV audiences as simply Mrs. Miller. She grabbed the attention of Baby Boomers and their parents with her appearances on The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, Laugh-In, and other variety shows of the 60s. Mrs. Miller began her career as a self-published recording artist by singing gospel and children's songs and giving away the records. She was discovered by disc jockey Gary Owens, who later became the announcer on Laugh-In. Owens put Miller's music on his radio show in 1960 to draw laughs. Her first album. Mrs. Miller's Greatest Hits, was released in 1966 and sold 250,000 copies in three weeks! Miller herself was astonished at the reaction, and upset that her fame came by the poor quality of her singing.

"I don't sing off-key and I don't sing off-rhythm. They got me to do so by waiting until I was tired and then making the record. Or they would cut the record before I could become familiar with the songs. At first I didn't understand what was going on. But later I did, and I resented it."

However, money talks and Miller eventually got into the spirit of her act. She managed to stay in character while performing, as the unaware diva in the manner of Florence Jenkins. Miller was also a genuinely charming ladylike rural character from Missouri who inspired respect as she sang for laughs. Her 1968 album Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing featured the grandmotherly woman offering brownies on the cover and singing psychedelic 60s tunes. This endeared her to the hippie generation, but Miller always insisted she was not aware of the drug references. Feeling betrayed, she left her recording label and tried to change her image to that of a conventional singer. That attempt failed. She retired in the seventies and died in 1997 at the age of 90. Hear Mrs. Miller performing live in this video clip.

The Portsmouth Sinfonia

The Portsmouth Sinfonia was an orchestra formed in 1970 at the Portsmouth School of Art in England. The original goal was to make the experience of musical performance open to those students who didn't have a background in music -or talent. Those who played an instrument could join, but only if they switched to a different instrument. In fact, members didn't even have to be students, and they were forbidden to play less than the best they could. The band was an experiment that took off. They played concerts, then released an album, then played the Royal Albert Hall. The orchestra was led by several well-known guest conductors. The most illustrious regular member was Brian Eno, who went on to greater fame. The Sinfonia stopped performing in 1979. Hear their recording "Classical Muddly" on YouTube.

William Hung

William Hung (William James Hung Hing Cheong) found fame on the TV show American Idol in 2004. An engineering student at Berkeley at the time, Hung didn't make the cut for the competition, but his 2003 audition was featured in an episode dedicated to those who lacked the talent for the contest. His performance and his good-natured response to failure made him a sensation, particularly on the internet.

Hung was immediately invited to various TV talk shows to discuss his experience (and sing). This led to a record deal from Koch Entertainment and three albums, plus appearances in sitcoms, movies, and advertisements. Hung also performed live at various sporting events. Despite a lack of singing talent, crowds loved him for his sincerity and humility.

Wing

Wing Han Tsang, who records using only the name Wing, is a currently active singer from New Zealand. Of indeterminate age and Hong Kong origin, she began singing in nursing homes soon after she immigrated to New Zealand. Wing's reviews compare her to immortals, Mrs. Miller and Florence Foster Jenkins, but her Wikipedia entry gives no hint as to the comedy in the music, except for a reference to her "unconventional style".

Wing became all the more famous when she was portrayed in the TV series South Park. Trey Parker and Matt Stone tell how that episode came about at YouTube. You can arrange for Wing to sing you a song over the phone for a nominal fee. You can hear many of her performances on YouTube, such as this rendition of the Carpenter's "Close to You".

These five acts have a few things in common: no stage fright, thick skin, and lasting fame. It takes guts and charm to pull off a career as a bad singer, but the rewards can be great.

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May 25, 2010 - 5:44am
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