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The '60s Housewife Who Couldn't Sing—But Landed on the Billboard Charts Anyway

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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.

By ABC Television via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?
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They both have narrative arcs set to song, so how are musicals different from operas?

For non-theater types, the word “musical” conjures up images of stylized Broadway performances—replete with high-kicks and punchy songs interspersed with dialogue—while operas are viewed as a musical's more melodramatic, highbrow cousin. That said, The New York Times chief classical music critic Anthony Tommasini argues that these loose categorizations don't get to the heart of the matter. For example, for every Kinky Boots, there’s a work like Les Misérables—a somber, sung-through show that elicits more audience tears than laughs. Meanwhile, operas can contain dancing and/or conversation, too, and they range in quality from lowbrow to highbrow to straight-up middlebrow.

According to Tommasini, the real distinguishing detail between a musical and an opera is that “in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” While listening to an opera, it typically doesn’t matter what language it’s sung in, so long as you know the basic plot—but in musical theater, the nuance comes from the lyrics.

When it comes down to it, Tommasini’s explanation clarifies why opera stars often sing in a different style than Broadway performers do, why operas and musicals tend to have their trademark subject matters, and why musical composition and orchestration differ between the two disciplines.

That said, we live in a hybrid-crazy world in which we can order Chinese-Indian food, purchase combination jeans/leggings, and, yes, watch a Broadway musical—like 2010's Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—that’s billed as “rock opera.” At the end of the day, the lack of hard, fast lines between opera and musical theater can lead composers from both camps to borrow from the other, thus blurring the line even further.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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History
Lost Gustav Holst Music Found in a New Zealand Symphony Archive
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English composer Gustav Holst became famous for his epic seven-piece suite "The Planets," but not all of his works were larger-than-life. Take "Folk Songs from Somerset," a collection of folk tunes composed by Holst in 1906 and largely forgotten in the decades since. Now, more than a century later, the music is finally attracting attention. As Atlas Obscura reports, manuscripts of the songs were rediscovered among a lost collection of sheet music handwritten by the musician.

The Holst originals were uncovered from the archives of a New Zealand symphony during a routine cleaning a few years ago. While throwing away old photocopies and other junk, the music director and the librarian of the Bay of Plenty (BOP) Symphonia came across two pieces of music by Holst. The scores were penned in the composer’s handwriting and labeled with his former address. Realizing the potential importance of their discovery, they stored the documents in a safe place, but it wasn't until recently that they were able to verify that the manuscripts were authentic.

For more than a century, the Holst works were thought to be lost for good. "These manuscripts are a remarkable find, particularly the ‘Folk Songs from Somerset’ which don’t exist elsewhere in this form," Colin Matthews of London's Holst Foundation said in a statement from the symphony.

How, exactly, the documents ended up in New Zealand remains a mystery. The BOP Symphonia suspects that the sheets were brought there by Stanley Farnsworth, a flutist who performed with an early version of the symphony in the 1960s. “We have clues that suggest the scores were used by Farnsworth,” orchestra member Bronya Dean said, “but we have no idea how Farnsworth came to have them, or what his connection was with Holst.”

The symphony plans to mark the discovery with a live show, including what will likely be the first performance of "Folk Songs from Somerset" in 100 years. Beyond that, BOP is considering finding a place for the artifacts in Holst’s home in England.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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