The career of Vaughn Meader (Abbott Vaughn Meader, 1936-2004) describes one of the most drastic spikes in show business history. Meader enjoyed monster success for just over one year before being abruptly stopped in his tracks by a national tragedy.
The Maine native started out playing country music while in the army. After his service he continued playing in clubs and cafes in New York, gradually evolving into a comedy act that incorporated impressions. His knack for imitating President John F. Kennedy was discovered by writer/producers Bob Booker and Earle Doud, who cast him in their comedy album The First Family (1962), which parodied Kennedy, Jackie and the JFK administration in general. It was wildly popular; it’s been called the fastest selling record in the U.S. prior to the advent of The Beatles. It sold well over a million copies during its first two weeks of release, ultimately topping out at 7.5 million copies, and winning a Grammy.
Demand for Meader as a performer in his JFK character rose concurrently. He was featured in Time and Life, and made appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jack Paar Program, The Andy Williams Show, To Tell the Truth, Hootenanny, and others. A follow up album, The First Family Volume Two came out in Spring 1963. He had just released a new single (St. Nick Visits The White House” b/w “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas 1963” in November, when JFK was assassinated, causing an abrupt crash in his career. Lenny Bruce’s quip, delivered onstage that very day, is legend: “Boy, is Vaughn Meader fucked!”
It was true, but not as immediately as you might think. All of his immediate bookings were cancelled and all of his records were indeed recalled off the shelves. But he did release two new comedy records in 1964 with no JFK material: Have Some Nuts!!! and If the Shoe Fits…In support of these albums he continued to make appearances on the above mentioned TV shows, as well as others, like The Mike Douglas Show and ABC’s NIghtlife. But the demand for Meader as himself was not there. In 1971 he teamed up with Doud again for yet another comedy album The Second Coming. After this, he appeared in two films, Lepke and Linda Lovelace for President, both in 1975, returned to performing as a musician.
But there was a very real legacy. Don’t forget that, though all of The First Family records were pulled from store shelves in late 1963…7.5 million of them had already been sold. When I was a kid in the 1970s, they were still in everybody’s houses. To be a kid my age was largely to LEARN about JFK through these comedy albums. And they were highly influential on later comedians. Before Vaughn Meader, comedians did not dare do this. There were no contemporary Truman or Eisenhower impressionists, for example, in the 1950s. But after Meader, countless comedians imitated every subsequent President.
To learn more about the variety arts, including television variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.
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