Before Auto-Tune, singers who sought fame and commercial success presumably needed to possess some semblance of vocal talent. Not so with Elva Miller, a frumpy housewife who, with her oddly shrill voice and off-key singing, achieved both fame and commercial success in the 1960s. Known as Mrs. Miller, she sold over 250,000 records in the span of three weeks, appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show twice, sang at the Hollywood Bowl, and performed for U.S. troops in Vietnam with Bob Hope.
Born in Joplin, Mo. in 1907, Elva Miller (nee Connes) grew up in Dodge City, Kans. with her family and sang in her church choir. In 1935, she moved to Claremont, Calif. (a suburb of Los Angeles) with her husband, John Miller. Mrs. Miller kept herself busy in Claremont: She took music and voice classes at Pomona College, sang with the local Presbyterian Church choir, and recorded herself singing classical hymns. After spending her own money to rent the recording studio and hire musicians, she donated her recordings to orphanages and local charities.
Fred Bock, a conductor and arranger of religious music, heard Mrs. Miller’s recordings and asked her to sing covers of contemporary pop songs. As a joke, Bock’s friend, Gary Owens, a Los Angeles radio DJ, played Mrs. Miller’s songs on his show. Bock then brought a demo of Mrs. Miller singing "Downtown" to Capitol Records, where A&R guy Lex de Azevedo gave her a record deal. (Lex was young but influential—his uncle was Capitol’s president, Bill Conkling.)
Despite (or because of) her strange operatic singing style, her first record sold more than 250,000 copies in its first three weeks. Ironically called Mrs. Miller’s Greatest Hits, the LP reached #15 on Billboard’s Top Albums chart. In April 1966, two of her songs hit the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart: "Downtown" at #82 and "A Lover’s Concerto" at #95. Listeners loved the novelty of Mrs. Miller. She sang off key and out of sync with the band, but she was a good-natured, plump 59-year-old woman whose enthusiasm for performing and overconfidence in her singing ability seemed authentic.
Although she may not have known initially that her singing was comically terrible, Mrs. Miller eventually realized she was being laughed at, but she went along with it anyway. When Life interviewed her in 1967, she said that Capitol would do everything they could to make her sound bad. Allegedly, they conducted her a beat faster or slower than the music, recorded her when she was tired, and used the first vocal take before she could learn the songs.
In 1966 and 1967, Capitol Records released two more Mrs. Miller records, which consisted of her singing current pop and country songs. After her third record failed to sell enough copies, Capitol dropped her, but she released more songs on her own until she retired in 1973. Mrs. Miller did charity work in Hollywood until she died in 1997, a few months shy of her 90th birthday.