How much longer will there be a demand for Elvis impersonators? It was 1977 when the original Elvis Presley died (or disappeared, as conspiracy theorists assert), but almost 40 years later, he’s still the subject of these “tributes”. There are people who weren’t even alive in 1977 who go to Las Vegas and have their marriage solemnized by a guy with a greasy pompadour and a sneer.
Elvis is probably the most impersonated celebrity, but the most successful impersonator in recent history didn’t “do” Elvis. Even if you were listening to comedy several decades ago, you probably remember this entertainer only dimly. Does the name Vaughn Meader ring any bells?
Meader was a piano player who became a standup comic. He worked into his act some bits as the newly elected president John F. Kennedy. A native of Maine, Meader’s natural accent only had to be tweaked slightly to become an excellent simulation of JFK’s speech patterns.
In 1962, He and several other performers recorded an album called “The First Family”. Meader did Jack Kennedy, and an actress named Naomi Brossart voiced Jackie Kennedy; if you listen to the album now, you’ll be struck by how relatively tame the humor was.
The theme was basically that the family in the White House was pretty much like every family, so there were jokes about the children’s bath toys and relatives dropping in and why the President wasn’t eating his salad.
“Well, let me say this about that,” Meader, as Kennedy, intones. “Now, number one, in my opinion the fault does not lie as much in the salad as it does with the, uh, dressing being used on the salad. Now let me say that I have nothing against the dairy industry…” And so on.
For some reason, Americans could not get enough of “The First Family”. The album was released in November, 1962; in the first two weeks, it sold — get this — a reported 1.2 million copies. In two weeks! The album ultimately sold over 7 million, and went on to win the Grammy for Album of the Year. (For historical context: Song of the Year was “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”.)
The album’s phenomenal success swept Vaughn Meader to stardom; he was booked on the Ed Sullivan Show and other variety shows and became a headliner in Las Vegas, raking in over $20 grand a week, back when that was serious money. Another album, “The First Family Volume Two”, was released in the spring of 1963. Vaughn Meader was in his mid-twenties and had reached the pinnacle of show-business success.
Then, on November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
The “First Family” albums were pulled from store shelves. Gigs that had been booked were canceled — suddenly, no one wanted Vaughn Meader. Apparently in the collective consciousness, he was a reminder of the tragedy.
Meader released a couple of more albums that did not have any Kennedy-related material, but they didn’t sell. Within a few years, he was grinding out a living playing piano in small venues — taverns and such. His fame had lasted almost exactly one year, and then Vaughn Meader plummeted into obscurity.
He died in 2004, but the New York Times obituary noted, “Mr. Meader often referred to November 22, 1963, as ‘the day I died’.”