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Mrs.Miller is re-released on Capitol Records 33 years after her last Capitol album. The album has inspired a Mrs.Miller renaissance across the world, as this hidden talent emerges from obscurity to once again bask in the lime light of the pop world.
The Banshees got a bad rap. In a world too short on song all these mythic harridans wanted to do was give the gift of music until it hurt, and for that people blamed them for death, disease, apocalypse. The Banshees needed a spin meister, but all they got was grief. A war is on, has been for centuries, a low-intensity conflict targeting the very cornerstone of the Banshees' tender craft. Since the beginnings of time, philsophes and music critics have blasted the vibrato. In the twelth century, some cat named Bishop Aeldred thought he was standing up for community standards when he attacked signers who put a quiver in their throat. "The voyce," the cleric protested, "is enforced into a horse's neighings... writhed, and retorted with a certain artificial circumvolution." Five centuries later, the scholar, Caccini embraced the rhetorican's technique of slamming a subject while merely seeming to describe it. The basis of the vibrato, explained Caccini, was "upon one Note only... the beat... with the throat." Okay, fine. But where are these guys today? Let's put one of their CDs on, and we'll gladly critique their circumvolutions. There is one very good reason why you are holding Mrs. Miller's ululations in your palm, and not Caccini Goes Country. It is because deep down something in us likes a crazy vibrato. The modern musicologist Nicholas Slonimsky suggested that an acceptable vibrato was made by "letting the stream of air out of the lungs abbout 8 times per second through the rigid vocal chords: ideally the pitch should remain the same to avoid an irrelevant trill." He has his point, but so does Mrs. Miller, and her point is to ask, How, exactly, do you define irrelevant? We would guess Mrs. Miller goes way past the 8 puffs per second rule, and think that maybe her vocal chords aren't always rigid. We're not sure what the oscilloscope imaging of her voice would look like, but we do know the pitch does not remain the same. And for this we sing her praise.
Mrs.Miller came along when American culture was anything but a rigid vocal chord, and when all kinds of eldritch emissions were escaping. Tiny Tim was making his way, and Michael J. Pollard and Norman O.Brown and similar uncoutable, inexplicable phenomena. Mrs.Miller clearly saw a moment, and she burst through it as a '60s version of earlier all-American gal, Kate Smith. Like Smith, she was a doughty, untrained soprano, and kind of like Kate, Mrs.Miller also made her mark singing while America was at war. Mrs.Miller even traveled to Vietnam to serenade our boys in 1967. These were the voices which seemed to reflect a nation's sense of itself during moments of crisis. Both helped us get though.
Few knew her full name: Elva Connes Miller. She was born in Joplin, Missouri, and came to Southern California before the end of the Depression. She studied at Pomona College, married, and spent the rest of her life socially active. Like the harpies she gave back to the community. Mrs.Miller was active in the Girl Scouts of America, a member of Mayor Sam Yorty's Commission for Senior Citizens, and was executive secretary of the Foothill Drama and Choral Society. We imagine it's this latter act of civic involvement that somehow connected Mrs.Miller with the world of Top Forty radio. In our minds, we see her taking a passion for the arts from her suburban home in Claremont to a Los Angeles clearly in need of polish. We see her zealously carrying the torch for culture, and inspiring those who ran nightclubs, studios, and record companies. For this music is nothing if not zealous, and it fueled a recording career that for a few years in the late 60s landed her on the radio coast to coast, on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, and in a few impossible to find cult movies.
Understand, this music was a phenomenon. Mrs.Miller was ready for anything - listen to her voice waft over the bossa nova breeze of "The Girl From Ipanema"; suddenly, a trade wind becomes El Nino. We like it when she speaks French to us, and she does in the recitative to "Moon River," an innovation Henry Mancini inexplicably failed to put into his own recordings of this song. Shocking vibrations set off by her multi-tracked voice, quivering in country harmony on the honky-tonk classic "There Goes My Everything," whch knocked toothpicks out of mouths all over Nashville. The Chuck Berry classic "Memphis" has been recorded in many fine versions, but nobody, not Berry, not Elvis, nobody takes it where Mrs.Miller goes - she daringly modifies her vibrato, and as if that's not wonderfully disconcerting enough, tosses off a series of expert birdcalls when the mood strikes. On the liner notes to Mrs. Miller's Greatest Hits, Gary Owens says she once described her whistling technique, which involved putting ice in her mouth. "The skin expands and contracts depending on heat and cold," she told him, "therefore the pitch can be better controlled in this manner!" In birdcalls, at least, pitch control was paramount. But elsewhere, as shocking and wonderful lack of control prevails. In our mind's eye, here in the Ultra-Lounge observatory, we imagine Mrs.Miller coming most alive while making this music, made when she was well into her senior years. And that's why we scoff at Miles Davis. For the trumpeter, himself a wild, oh-so-cool and swinging guy, once blasted the idea of the vibrato. "Stop shaking all those notes and trembling them, because you're gonna be shaking them enough when you get old," he muttered. We dig Miles, but we celebrate Mrs.Miller. Republican, Presbyterian, member of Mayor Yorty's pannel on senior citizens, she never sounded younger than when she cut loose with her electrifying quiverations.
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