Wednesday, December 4, 2013

TMFW 13 - Number 1, Then a Bullet

The Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1963 went to a recording that was, at that time, the fastest selling record in history.  It had sold 1.2 million copies in its first two weeks after release, and 7.5 million albums overall, which was astonishing for its time. Time magazine opened up a profile on the record (content for subscribers only - boo) with the following anecdotes: 
A leading Chicago store reported sales as "phenomenal"—the hottest selling item in 14 years. In Atlanta a distributor was going out to greet plane shipments at 2:30 in the morning. A Dallas distributor was biting his nails waiting for his order of 30,000 copies. In Washington another distributor crowed: "It's beyond our entire experience, and we've been in business 15 years!" Said a Miamian: "Like people are going crazy, man! The demand exceeds our supply by the thousands—I don't mean hundreds. I mean thousands!" Said a Boston record man: "I'm not even answering my phone any more."
The record was so ubiquitous that a copy is sitting in our basement now, having come over when we inherited my wife's grandparents' very limited record collection. 
The performer on the record was in his mid-20s when it came out, and he went, in the span of only a couple of months, from an unknown nightclub act in Greenwich Village to an international star.  He was regularly featured on national radio and television (including performances on the Ed Sullivan Show and on the Andy Williams Show), and in addition to the writeup in Time he was profiled in Life magazine.  The record was so well-known that a co-performer appeared on the game show To Tell the Truth, where a panel of celebrities sought to ferret out which of three women had the distinctive voice of the "real" performer.     
Then, instantly, it was all over.
If you've clicked any of those links above, or if GMail showed you a preview of the linked videos, you've already figured out that the performer in question was Vaughn Meader, who became an overnight sensation with his impression of President Kennedy.  His record-setting (pun intended) record was The First Family (RdioSpotify), which is a (pretty tame, to modern ears) satire of the Kennedys' life.  Meader allegedly had made $500,000 from the record and associated appearances.  JFK bought 100 copies for his staff.  Kennedy opened an appearance to great effect by saying "Vaughn Meader is busy tonight, so I came myself."  RFK (who Meader also voiced) reported that he once had trouble scheduling a meeting over the telephone because the person on the other end of the line thought it was Meader rather than Kennedy himself.     
After Kennedy was assassinated, Meader's record was almost instantly pulled from shelves and existing inventory was destroyed.  Meader had become so closely associated with the president that no one wanted to even see him - his scheduled appearances were cancelled and his attempts to move to more broad, non-political humor flopped.  After some obligatory dark times, in which Meader experimented with drugs, spent or gave away his money, and suffered various failed relationships, he moved back to Maine and started answering only to his given name of Abbott Meader.  When he died in 2004, his obituaries naturally focused on his very brief period of stardom, and each took an almost pitying notice his sudden fall.  
Meader's whole story is well-told in writeups herehere, and here, by better writers than me.  But a couple of parts are too good to leave at the links:
**  When Kennedy was shot, Meader had just gotten off of an airplane in Milwaukee, and got in a cab to go to his scheduled appearance.  The taxi driver apparently recognized him, and asked "did you hear about Kennedy getting shot in Dallas?"  Meader, who was used to getting pitched with joke ideas, answered "no, how does it go?"
**  There are several different versions of the punchline, but Meader was so well-known that allegedly Lenny Bruce opened his first post-assassination show by coming out, pausing for effect, and then saying "Boy, is Vaughn Meader fucked."  The joke is said to have brought the house down  (A different version of the punchline has Bruce saying "I guess they'll need two graves at Arlington - one for Kennedy and one for Vaughn Meader.")
**  Meader's impersonation was so well-known that modern day JFKs - think Mayor Quimby, or just imagine JFK in your own head - sound well closer to Meader's impersonation than they do to the president himself.
BONUS FACT:  Meader attempted a comeback in the early-70s with a satire album about the return of Jesus to modern-day America called The Second Coming.  As you might imagine, it did not go over very well.  Thanks to the wonder of YouTube, you can hear the record, in five parts, here: 12345.

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