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

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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Police Recover Nearly 100 Artifacts Stolen From John Lennon’s Estate
Keystone Features / Stringer / Getty Images
Keystone Features / Stringer / Getty Images

A collection of artifacts stolen from John Lennon’s estate, including diaries, glasses, and handwritten music, has been recovered by German police, the Associated Press reports. After arresting the first suspect, law enforcement is now working to apprehend a second person of interest in the case.

The nearly 100 items went missing from the New York home of the late Beatles star’s widow Yoko Ono in 2006. Years later, German police were tipped off to their whereabouts when a bankruptcy administrator came across the haul in the storage facility of a Berlin auction house. The three leather-bound diaries that were recovered are dated 1975, 1979, and 1980. One entry refers to Lennon’s famous nude photo shoot with Annie Leibovitz, and another was written the morning of December 8, 1980, hours before he was shot and killed. In addition to the journals, police retrieved two pairs of his iconic glasses, a 1965 recording of a Beatles concert, a 1952 school book, contract documents for the copyright of the song “I’m the Greatest”, handwritten scores for "Woman" and "Just Like Starting Over”, and a cigarette case.

German authorities flew to New York to have Ono verify the items' authenticity. "She was very emotional and we noticed clearly how much these things mean to her,” prosecutor Susann Wettley told AP. When the objects will be returned to Ono is still unclear.

The first suspect, a 58-year-old German businessman from Turkey, was arrested Monday, November 21, following a raid of his house and vehicles. The second suspect is one of Ono's former chauffeurs who has a past conviction related to the theft. Police officers are hoping to extradite him from his current home in Turkey before moving forward with the case.

[h/t AP]

Scientists Analyze the Moods of 90,000 Songs Based on Music and Lyrics

Based on the first few seconds of a song, the part before the vocalist starts singing, you can judge whether the lyrics are more likely to detail a night of partying or a devastating breakup. The fact that musical structures can evoke certain emotions just as strongly as words can isn't a secret. But scientists now have a better idea of which language gets paired with which chords, according to their paper published in Royal Society Open Science.

For their study, researchers from Indiana University downloaded 90,000 songs from Ultimate Guitar, a site that allows users to upload the lyrics and chords from popular songs for musicians to reference. Next, they pulled data from labMT, which crowd-sources the emotional valence (positive and negative connotations) of words. They referred to the music recognition site Gracenote to determine where and when each song was produced.

Their new method for analyzing the relationship between music and lyrics confirmed long-held knowledge: that minor chords are associated with sad feelings and major chords with happy ones. Words with a negative valence, like "pain," "die," and "lost," are all more likely to fall on the minor side of the spectrum.

But outside of major chords, the researchers found that high-valence words tend to show up in a surprising place: seventh chords. These chords contain four notes at a time and can be played in both the major and minor keys. The lyrics associated with these chords are positive all around, but their mood varies slightly depending on the type of seventh. Dominant seventh chords, for example, are often paired with terms of endearment, like "baby", or "sweet." With minor seventh chords, the words "life" and "god" are overrepresented.

Using their data, the researchers also looked at how lyric and chord valence differs between genres, regions, and eras. Sixties rock ranks highest in terms of positivity while punk and metal occupy the bottom slots. As for geography, Scandinavia (think Norwegian death metal) produces the dreariest music while songs from Asia (like K-Pop) are the happiest. So if you're looking for a song to boost your mood, we suggest digging up some Asian rock music from the 1960s, and make sure it's heavy on the seventh chords.


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