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11 Mellow Artists Who Sold Millions Through Commercials

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They’ve sold millions of records! They are responsible for heart-touching music that no human should be without! There aren’t enough superlatives to describe these recording artists who were apparently huge in Europe but didn’t sell that many records in the U.S.—until the insomniac crowd started buying up their greatest hits collections from the relentless TV commercials that peppered the Late, Late Show. How many of these mellow million-sellers do you own?

1. Slim Whitman

Let’s face it … in a business where looks count for just about everything, Slim Whitman would’ve been Central Casting’s first choice when an oily, slick used-car salesman was needed, not a country yodeler. But although Ottis Dewey Whitman—as he was born in Florida—may have been an unfamiliar face to his fellow Americans until his All My Best collection hit late-night television in the 1980s, his legend has loomed large in the UK for several decades. Heck, no less of a music icon than George Harrison listed Whitman as an early influence—he’d seen a photograph of Slim in all his rhinestone-studded glory with his guitar slung around his neck in the 1950s and decided that playing the guitar was “cool.” Michael Jackson also often cited Slim as one of his Top 10 favorite vocalists. Whitman’s 1955 recording of “Rose Marie” stayed at number one on the British charts for an amazing 11 weeks, a record that held for 37 years until Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do for You)” snagged the top spot for 16 weeks.

2. Nana Mouskouri

Nana Mouskouri was born and raised in Greece, where she studied opera as a child. But her true love was American jazz—Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday were two of her favorite singers. In between placing 8th at the 1963 Eurovision Song Contest, touring with Harry Belafonte, and giving fashion tips to Lisa Loeb, Nana (short for “Iōánna”) managed to sell some 350 million albums in Europe and Asia. She was relatively unknown in the U.S. until a romantic treasury of heart-touching favorites that was Not Available In Stores! was advertised every five minutes during the wee hours of the morning.

3. Ace Cannon

“Don’t forget to invite Ace Cannon to your next party!” was the tag line for this collection of saxophonic ditties. Unfortunately, we can't find the original commercial, but Ace had the same “life of the party” expression on his face that he displays on this album cover. Cannon recorded his first single in 1961 (using the Bill Black Combo as his backing group) and built up a solid fan base via continuous touring. The fun never stops when Ace is on deck—slap one of his songs on the turntable and keep your guests from shuffling off early!

4. Zamfir

If you’ve got a hankering for some pan flute music, don’t waste time with  amateurs—turn to the master, Zamfir. Gheorghe Zamfir specializes in a monster-sized 30-pipe version of the traditional Romanian pan flute. Even though he has sold 30 million albums, the master has his critics. Some pan flute purists actually dismiss Zamfir’s two-record treasury of easy listening classics as “kitsch.” The horror.

5. Boxcar Willie

He earned 14 gold albums and made people from Hee Haw to the Grand Ole Opry happy. That impressive resumé could only belong to Boxcar Willie. Box, as he was known, wasn’t really a hobo, nor was his name Willie. Born Lecil Martin, he served as an Air Force pilot during the Korean War and then tried his hand at songwriting when he returned home. One of his first songs was called “Boxcar Willie,” about a man he saw in a train car at a railroad crossing, and the song title eventually became a stage name. Box actually appeared on The Gong Show before TV advertising made him a household name.

6. Cristy Lane

Cristy Lane is the voice behind the Number One Inspirational Album in the World (according to the commercial), which of course has sold millions of copies. Lane, born Eleanor Johnston (she took her stage name from a local disc jockey), has had her own faith tested in the past. Her husband, Lee Stoller, served as her manager, record producer, tour bus driver, and promoter. But in 1979, he was convicted of bribing a public official and sentenced to three years in prison. The couple actually managed to keep his incarceration hush-hush for a while (even from Stoller’s parents) lest a criminal charge upset her Christian fan base. Cristy is still performing today and releasing various versions of greatest hits packages.

7. Jim Nabors

He was loved by countless millions as beloved TV character Gomer Pyle, but little did viewers suspect that he was soon to also be cherished as America’s Romantic Recording Star. Don’t let Gomer’s hayseed accent fool you; Jim Nabors can truly belt out a tune. Carol Burnett considered him her “good luck charm” and had him as a guest on every season premiere episode of her variety show. He also officially launched the Indianapolis 500 race for over 30 years with his version of “Back Home Again in Indiana.”

8. Roger Whittaker

The Kenyan native has sold 24 million albums worldwide, even though 1975’s “The Last Farewell” was the only single he ever managed to land on the Billboard Hot 100. Besides being a balladeer, guitarist and songwriter, Whittaker is also an accomplished whistler. That’s right, his catalog includes three albums of him whistling to a musical accompaniment.

9. Red Sovine

Unless you drove an 18-wheeler, chances are you never heard of Red Sovine until Cindy Lou Music started hawking his music on television. Red specialized in truck drivin’ songs, and sad ones at that: lonely handicapped kids talking to drivers on the CB, widows who’d lost their husbands in highway wrecks, and loyal dogs who kept their trucking masters company on the road. Real cry-in-your-beer type stuff that touched a chord with the millions of lonely late night viewers who ended up buying his Best Of collection.

10. Floyd Cramer

Even though world-famous pianist Floyd Cramer had over 50 RCA records of his music released, the folks at Suffolk Marketing managed to dig up a collection of Floyd songs Never Before Released! Cramer had been a very popular session pianist in Nashville for many years before he started releasing albums under his own name. Even though this particular collection is Not Available In Stores! you might want to check out some vintage shops for some of his hard-to-find releases, such as 1967’s Floyd Cramer Plays the Monkees.

11. Frank Fontaine

Frank’s schtick was a bug-eyed character with a goofy speaking voice (think Pete Puma from the Warner Brothers’ cartoons) who then surprised the audience by bursting into song with a smooth baritone. He was a regular on The Jackie Gleason Show as Crazy Guggenheim in the 1960s, and 20 years later Suffolk Marketing reminded viewers of the melodic voice behind the wacky persona.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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