Bargain bin recording artists are people, too. In the interest of balanced reporting, I hereby submit to you the very human stories behind some of those infamous photos.
1. I Love My Life – Jim Post
Ten years before the above album was released, Jim Post had a Top 10 hit with his then-wife, Cathy. Recording as the folk duo Friend and Lover, "Reach Out of the Darkness" became something of an anthem for the flower power movement with its "I think it's so groovy now, that people are finally getting together" chorus.
In recent years, Jim has published a series of successful children's books and also puts that impressive 'stache to good use by touring the country in a one-man show as Mark Twain.
2. Julie's Sixteenth Birthday – John Bult
A girl's Sweet Sixteen should be special, but it looks like poor Julie received some bad news instead of a new car. I'm guessing Pop is reassuring her that everything will be OK. "Just tell me the boy's name, and I'll get my shotgun and Ma will rustle up the preacher..."
John Bult hails from Lake Charles, Louisiana, and once performed on the legendary Louisiana Hayride. He's a house painter by trade these days, although he still loves to sing and brings his guitar to crawfish boils to entertain family and friends. By all accounts he's just one all-around good ol' devoted family guy (he and his long-time wife, an Extension Agent with Louisiana State University, have two grown children, and neither one is named "Julie") who has a million stories to tell and will do so with minimal prompting.
3. Live at the Open Face Sandwich Club – Eddie Mack
Eddie Mack has a bona fide show business pedigree; his father was Charlie Mack, one half of the very successful vaudevillian comedy team "Moran and Mack, the Two Black Crows." (Yes, it was a blackface act, but in the 1920s that sort of thing still passed as entertainment.) When Eddie was four years old he was standing backstage one afternoon during auditions for a Broadway show. A man ambled up behind him, placed his hands on young Eddie's shoulders, and asked Charlie, "So, who is this brat?" Eddie was offended by the "brat" remark and kicked the man, who happened to be W.C. Fields, in the shin. As a result, even when Eddie was approaching adulthood, W.C. Fields always referred to him as "Charlie Mack's Brat."
Eddie grew up to be a talented pianist, singer, and actor. He was married and divorced six times. (The beauty perched on the piano was married to him for a brief period – Eddie was old-fashioned and didn't believe in "shacking up.") In 1969 he was on stage in Toronto as a member of the touring company of There's a Girl in My Soup (starring Don Ameche) when his throat started hemorrhaging during a song. He was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with throat cancer. Greasepaint was in his blood, though, so even though he couldn't speak while recuperating from surgery and radiation, he got a job leading the orchestra on a cruise ship and communicated with the musicians via gestures and a Magic Slate.
4. Push Push – Herbie Mann
A sweaty, nude man holding a flute (the classic phallic instrument) on the cover of a record entitled Push Push... You don't have to be Sigmund Freud to figure out that this is, as NPR's Jazz Profiles described it in Mr. Mann's obituary, a "sexually charged album." When Mann was a youngster growing up in 1930s Brooklyn, he loved rhythm and wanted to be a drummer. Drum kits were (and still are) expensive, so his mother bought him a clarinet instead. He developed an interest in jazz and learned to play several other instruments, finally settling on the flute because there was a surplus of clarinet and saxophone players vying for the limited amount of openings in professional jazz bands. Mann was known in the music industry for always being at least one step ahead of the current trend. He traveled the globe in search of inspiration and released a series of albums that were influenced by Afro-Cuban rhythms, Yiddish music, Brazilian bossa nova, and straight-ahead R&B. Sadly, Mann lost his battle with prostate cancer in 2003.
5. By Request Only – Ken
There are certain times when one feels a twinge of guilt for poking fun at some anonymous unsuspecting mook on the internet. One of those times is when said mook is found to be alive and well and aware of his infamy. Such is the case with Ken Snyder, a devout Christian (currently living in Iowa) who once upon a time found that he was best able to express his faith via song. Ken traveled the country, performing his original tunes and spreading The Word. So many people asked for a recording of his songs that he went into a South Carolina studio in 1976 and cut By Request Only. The album wasn't originally available in record stores; he carried them in his car and fans had to purchase them directly from Ken after his shows (he, that's how MC Hammer got his start!).
When Ken was contacted by a curious album owner a few years ago, he admitted that he knew he'd been voted "worst album cover" some place on the internet, but he was truly taken aback at just how many web pages had picked up on the Ken meme. And he was downright dumbfounded to learn that a copy of By Request Only had sold for $135.50 on eBay in 2007.
(In the more recent photo at left, Ken is on the far right.)
6. Something Special – Jeff Steinberg
Something Special was released in 1974, a time when folks with disabilities were more often described as "crippled" rather than as a person with "special needs." Jeff Steinberg was born with no arms and malformed legs. He spent most of his childhood first at a Shriner's Hospital and then at The Good Shepherd Home for the Physically Handicapped. His birth mother was Jewish, but Steinberg converted to Christianity after being fostered by a local Christian couple. The "Tiny Giant" (he stands 4'6") and his wife travel the world ministering through humor, scripture, and song, urging people to "Quit focusing on the handicap and start appreciating the Gift."
7. Reborn – Orion
Once upon a time, Georgia-based writer Gail Brewer-Giorgio concocted a story about a popular Southern rock and roll singer named Orion Eckley Darnell. Orion became so famous that his fans referred to him as "The King." Sadly, Orion eventually felt trapped by his success and staged his own death, complete with a wax figure in his likeness and an elaborate funeral. Elvis Presley died in August 1977 and shortly afterward Brewer-Giorgio's story was published. It didn't take fans and conspiracy theorists very long to decide that she was telling the true story of the King, and that the real Elvis was alive somewhere. A producer named Shelby Singleton sensed the opportunity and found a singer named Jimmy Ellis whose voice and style were nearly identical to Presley. Singleton dyed Ellis' hair black and had him grow some sideburns, but there was no hiding the fact that his face didn't look anything like Elvis'. Shelby had a brainstorm – have Ellis perform while wearing a mask. Not only that, but have him perform under the name "Orion," just like the guy in that book.
Ellis wasn't wild about having to perform incognito, but he went along with it and achieved an amazing level of success, considering his whole career was based on keeping fans guessing as to whether or not he was really Elvis Presley. His voice was so similar to Presley's that RCA almost sued Singleton; they thought he'd unearthed some pirated unreleased Elvis tracks. Orion recorded nine albums in three years and played to sold-out crowds in medium-sized venues. His career ended just that quickly, though, when he ripped off his mask onstage in a fit of anger during a performance in 1981.
A tragic postscript to the Orion story: Jimmy Ellis and his wife were shot to death in 1998 when the pawn shop they owned was robbed by armed bandits.
Joyce Drake is a devout Christian woman who lives in Sealy, Texas. Her father, the late Reverend Billy Yeats, was an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God for 60 years during which time he pastored at seven different churches. Likewise, Joyce's husband Clyde was a long-time pastor at the First Assembly of God Church, where Joyce often played piano and sang during his services. It is unclear whether Rev. Clyde is still preaching regular Sunday worship, but the Sealy-area obituaries indicate that he's been in high demand as an officiant for local funeral services in recent years. As for Joyce, well, I did find a telephone number for her but I couldn't bring myself to interrupt her while she's probably busy delivering Meals on Wheels and reading to the blind just to quiz her about an unflattering album cover photo.
9. Por Primera Vez (For the First Time) – Tino
Constantino Fernández Fernández, known to his fans as Tino, was one of many hopefuls who answered a 1979 ad in a Barcelona newspaper looking for pre-teens to be part of a pop group that Belter Records was assembling. Tino made the final cut and became the "red" member of Parchís; the band's name meant "Parcheesi" in Spanish and each member was assigned a different color to represent the tokens in the traditional board game. Parchís was very successful in Spain for two years (one of their biggest hits was a Spanish rendition of the Village People's "In the Navy") but by 1983 they were overshadowed by Latin-American boy band sensation Menudo. Tino left the group that same year at age 16 and launched a short-lived solo career aimed at capitalizing on his heartthrob status. Sadly, he later lost that provocatively positioned left arm in an automobile accident while driving in Buenos Aires.
10. Liebe Mutter (Dear Mother)... – Heino
"A Bouquet That Never Wilts" is German singer Heino's personal Valentine to dear ol' Mom. The cover photo just radiates familial affection, doesn't it? You can almost hear his mother murmuring, "Heino, my son, you are beautiful and angular and you make my uterus implode with affection" as she cuddles him.
Heino was born Heinz Georg Kramm in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1938. When he was 10 years old his mother got him an accordion for Christmas, though the family could ill afford such an expense. Five years later he formed a musical trio with two friends and got a regular gig playing at a local bakery. Eventually, in between playing for pumpernickel, the group gained notice when they took the top prize at the Oberbilker Markt hometown festival and they secured both a manager and a record deal. Critics described Heino's style as "folk music with a Beatles beat;" that may have been stretching the truth a bit, but he did have a certain appeal that inspired lumberjacks. Heino has sold more than 50 million albums over the course of his career and he's still performing today, with his basso cantante voice and platinum hair both intact.