In 2008 Rolling Stone published their list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All-Time. At #1 was Aretha Franklin. No argument here. She has a voice and she knows how to use it effectively. Her range, her passion, her vocal variety, her phrasing, her confidence and her power are what other artists should aspire to replicate. When you hear Aretha Franklin, you know it’s her, even if you’ve never heard that particular recording before.
The rest of the top ten included Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, John Lennon, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder, James Brown and Bob Dylan. I’ve heard people argue against that last one. They’re wrong. Dylan may not possess a stereotypically beautiful voice, but he is a great singer. Nobody else sounds like him. When you hear Bob Dylan, you know it’s him, even if you’ve never heard that particular recording before.
Missing from this 100 Greatest list is Mrs. Miller. Born Elva Connes in 1907, she became Mrs. Miller in 1934 when she married a Mr. Miller. In 1966, Capitol Records released her major label debut, Mrs. Miller’s Greatest Hits. Like Aretha, Mrs. displayed passion, power and confidence in her material. When you hear Mrs. Miller, you know it’s her, even if you’ve never heard that particular recording before, which chances are you haven’t.
All the qualities that make Mrs. Miller unique can be heard on her first charting single, a cover of Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” which reached #82 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Her vibrato, her soaring soprano, the way she sings “always” in the song’s first line, the way she sings ahead of the beat on the line “no finer place for sure” in the first go-round of the chorus, the way she sings ahead of the beat on the first line of the second verse, the way she sings ahead of the beat on the bridge after the third verse, when she laughs while singing “waiting for you tonight” in the second go-round of the chorus. And then there’s her whistling solo. In a word, wow!
As was often the case with The Beatles, Elvis Presley and Creedence Clearwater Revival, the b-side of the “Downtown” single, Mrs.’ version of The Toys’ “A Lover’s Concerto,” also made Billboard’s Hot 100, peaking at #95. Again we’re transfixed by her vibrato, her hitting notes that had never been written and the way she sings ahead of the beat on the final verse. And then there’s her scatting like Ella Fitzgerald. Well, maybe not like Ella Fitzgerald. In a word, wow!
Her voice leant itself equally well to rock and roll, pop, country, and show tunes. She probably would have mastered rap as well. On her cover of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis,” she ditches her usual soprano to speak the words in a lower register. Her whistling solo is in its usual range, however.
Mrs. Miller’s Greatest Hits sold 250,000 copies in its first three weeks of release. She made television appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Ed Sullivan. She sang at The Hollywood Bowl. She performed alongside Bob Hope for US troops in Vietnam. That she is all but forgotten today is a shonda.
Rolling Stone’s list of The 100 Greatest Singers Of All-Time is terrific, but someone should be bumped (cough cough Mariah Carey cough cough) to make room for Mrs. Miller. Her distinctive sound, her enthusiasm and her ability to transform any song into a Mrs. Miller song make her one of the greats. The fact that she didn’t have her first chart single until age 58 inspires me.
If Mrs. Miller were still alive she’d be celebrating her 107th birthday today. She isn’t so she won’t be, but Tunes du Jour celebrates her craft with ten of her finest.
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