Elva Miller, better known as Mrs. Miller, was a ’60s novelty act of the highest caliber. Which means, of course, she was strictly novelty but very, very entertaining. Though marketed ironically and cynically as a singer who was so terrible she was good, Mrs. Miller was her own woman, and, for better or worse, what you hear in her recordings is her through and through.
Mrs. Miller came to the attention of Capitol Records executives after a string of self-produced gospel and children’s albums. She started tackling contemporary music, and it was then that Capitol decided to give her a mainstream boost, releasing 1966’s Mrs. Miller’s Greatest Hits. Hardly a sensation, she was still popular in her niche market, and by the end of the year had broken the Billboard Top 100 with a cover of Petula Clark’s “Downtown”.
Mrs. Miller released two subsequent albums (Will Success Spoil Mrs. Miller?! and The Country Soul Of Mrs. Miller) and even traveled to Vietnam to entertain US troops. But by the end of 1968, Capitol had tired of milking her as a gimmick and, refusing to let her tackle songs in a more sober manner, dropped her from its roster. She continued to release independent singles, but by the mid-’70s had retired from show biz.
Still a staple among oddity obscurantists, Mrs. Miller’s music is durably entertaining, if not technically brilliant. Her legacy is one of a singular voice singing out loud and unashamed. Her story was told in a 2008 play by award-winning playwright James Lapine and Eels frontman Mark Oliver Everett, titled Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing.
I’m sharing three notable songs from 1999’s Wild, Cool & Swingin’, a Mrs. Miller compilation released on the Ultra Lounge label. Here Mrs. Miller swings the wild piñata stick that is her voice at songs by The Four Seasons, The Toys and Frank Sinatra, among others.