Saturday, January 2, 2010

Vaughn Meader (comedy)

Some people reach stardom and stay there for the rest of their lives.  Others find their stardom slowly fading away. It's rare, though, that you can find the exact moment when a star became a has-been. Sadly, Vaughn Meader's career -- one that made him the most famous comic in the US, and led to a number 1 album* -- ended in a single day, and it was impossible for him to recover.

Meader was born in 1936 and gravitated toward show business as he reached adulthood.  After having little success as a singer, he switched to standup comedy and discovered around 1960 that he had a talent for mimicking one person in particular:  John F. Kennedy.

This was unusual.  People didn't do impressions of the president up to that point; the office was considered too important to make fun of.  But in 1962, Meader collaborated with writers Bob Booker and Earl Doud (and a large cast) to record the album The First Family.

The First Family

The album was a hit.  A massive hit.  It sold a million and a half copies in its first seven weeks -- still a record -- and chalked up sales of over 7.5 million copies overall.  I remember walking by record stores who attracted customers by playing it.  People quoted its dialog all the time** and it went on to win a Grammy for album of the year. It was a phenomenon.  Even JFK was reported as having loved it.  Meader recorded a second volume, The First Family, Volume II. 

Then came Dallas.

The moment Meader heard the news,*** he knew is career was over.  He had been typecast as a Kennedy impersonator, and his name brought up unpleasant memories.  Both albums were pulled from record store shelves immediately after the assassination, and a Christmas single -- released just before the assassination -- was also removed.

Meader vowed never to imitated JFK again, and kept to his vow his entire life.

But his career was over.  He tried recording other comedy albums, but his name typecast him as the guy who imitated JFK.  He even tried to use different names, but nothing worked.  He turned to drugs to combat depression and eventually found a niche doing folk music along with an occasional comedy gig, sometimes given to him by people who felt sorry for his situation.

Though forgotten, the album still is a milestone.  It did give comics the ability to mimic the president and joke about him directly**** and thus opened a new path for comedy.  Much of this recognition came a bit late for Meader, however, who died in 2004, reduced to being a trivia question that no one wanted to talk about.


*Comedy albums often were number one in the early 60s; others to gain this distinction are Bob Newhart, and Allan Sherman.

**The album was funny, and works fine today, except for the various topical references that may confuse audiences nowadays.

**Various anecdotes indicates that he first thought the news was some sort of joke.

***The First Family was never vicious toward JFK, but rather joked about his foibles and accent.  It was quite apolitical for a record about a political figure.


KN said...

Those albums are terrific. So sad Vaughn Meader's career ended so soon. He was very talented.

Good post!

Tbone Mankini said...

I remember THE SECOND COMING being played on WABX in Detroit....the DJ Dave Dixon also said a bit about FIRST FAMILY as a lead up....they were always good about putting things into context for us younger listeners... which is why we heard comedy, blues and jazz, folk, old time radio,etc... not just the latest Zep album...