AKA: Abbott Vaughn Meader
Born: March 20, 1936
Death: October 29, 2004
Blue Meter: Tame
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|1966||Take That! You No Good...|
|1964||If The Shoe Fits||Buy: Amazon | iTunes|
|1963||Have Some Nuts|
|1963||The First Family (Volume 2)
(Now sold as "The Complete First Family" paired with Volume 1)
|Buy: Amazon | iTunes|
|1962||The First Family
(Now sold as "The Complete First Family" paired with Volume 2)
|Buy: Amazon | iTunes|
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“A living reminder of a tragedy” is how Vaughn Meader described himself in 1979. He was doing then what he did for over a decade before and after—trying for a comeback in comedy, touring with his country music and hoping for some acting assignments.
Abbot Vaughn Meader did not have an easy life from the start. His father died when he was 18 months old. The bright spots in his struggling school years were talent shows; winning applause for imitating country singers. After attending Brooklyn High in his native Boston, he was stationed in Germany for Army service. It was there that he joined a G.I. band and married his German-born wife.
Back home, Meader tried to find a niche in show business. He got into stand-up, and with his pleasant looks and natural Boston accent put together a routine impersonating President Kennedy. Others did Kennedy, but Meader looked the part—and got a break, a chance to star on a comedy album called “The First Family.” There was no reason to expect more than modest success. The jokes were very mild. The biggest gag was President Kennedy’s complaint that his kids were playing with his bath toy (“the rubber swan…is mine!”)
“The First Family” became a “fad” success. People didn’t dislike Kennedy—they didn’t want to hear harsh satire of him—they seemed to buy it as a way to get close to the Kennedy magic. They wanted to have fun with Kennedy and his clan and “join” the first family. Kennedy himself was noted for his humor and this was the first time in recent memory that there were children in the White House. As if leafing through the Kennedy family album and chuckling along with John, Jackie and the kids, listeners enjoyed amusing “audio snapshots” of the lively family at play—the relatives playing touch football, Jackie conducting a White House tour, the little kids acting cute, the President joking optimistically about the day’s problems.
Recorded on October 22, 1962, by November 19th the New York Times was reporting over 200,000 copies sold and factories working overtime to make more. By Christmas, it was a million seller, astonishing for any record at the time, much less a comedy disc. On March 18, 1963 Meader and company put out Volume Two. But already there were disturbing warning signs that told Meader his luck was beginning to run out.
A nightclub tour doing “First Family” routines radio-style in front of a live audience with a full cast failed miserably. Meader tried to get solo bookings and was finding himself typed as just a Kennedy mimic. He searched for a way out. He signed with Verve Records and put together an album of sketches on everything from the high cost of funerals to a satire of the Ku Klux Klan. He wanted to prove that he could be funny without using any Kennedy jokes. He finished recording in early November of 1963.
One day in late November of 1963, church bells suddenly began tolling in the afternoon and school children were dismissed early and told to go home. All the TV channels were broadcasting the same numbing news. The greatest national trauma since World War II had begun. The youngest President ever elected, John F. Kennedy, was gunned down in Dallas.
That night, Lenny Bruce took the stage. He paused and shook his head: “Poor Vaughn Meader!”
He got laughs. Vaughn Meader didn’t. Meader became an “un-person.” The hot-selling comic had taped material for the December 4th “Grammy Awards” show. It was cut. Shelley Berman was called to take his place, but Berman refused, declaring that Meader was a fine stand-up with plenty of apolitical material. The Grammy committee booked Diahann Carroll instead. Meader’s December 16th week as a guest on “To Tell the Truth” was cancelled. “The Joey Bishop Show” cancelled him. Nightclubs cancelled him. And the album that he had hoped would brighten his future was ignored. Frankly, the sight of a man who looked like Kennedy and had a Boston accent was too painful for a nation that had not experienced an assasination for many generations.
On January 4th, 1964, The Blue Angel, a club that gave him his start years earlier, booked him for some shows. They supported him. The audience didn’t. Meader kept trying. Staging “The Populace” revue at Cafe Au Go Go in October of 1964 he changed his hair style and even worked on a neutral New York acent. Critics praised him, but nobody was buying. The second album on his Verve contract went unnoticed, even though its humor was far sharper than “The First Family.” In one sketch he played a speaker nominating a candidate at a political convention: “a man who is in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln—he too is tall and ugly. I would like to nominate a man who is honest and courageous. I’d like to, but this party doesn’t have one of them kind of people. My candidate does not know the meaning of the word compromise, does not know the meaning of the word appeasement, does not know the meaning of the word cowardice—and has done quite well despite his lousy vocabulary.”
Meader faded into obscurity. Now and then someone wondered “whatever became of Vaughn Meader” and hunted him out. In the 60’s, his money gone, he drifted to the Bronx, then a commune in Los Angeles, and a cabin in Maine. He led a drug-filled hippie lifestyle in the 70’s when his old friend, comedy album producer Earle Doud starred him as Jesus Christ on “The Second Coming,” an LP that tried to score a topical hit after the success of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” It was not very funny and Meader, unable to do more than any other sitcom actor could with the dull jokes, did not win further jobs from it. Occasionally his name and notoriety were exploited, as in 1974 when he turned up in the film “Linda Lovelace for President,” but mostly he found work outside the world of show business.
Periodically Meader was interviewed and he recited a list of his current projects, ranging from a serious play about John F. Kennedy to albums of country tunes. His last comedy appearance was a cameo on “The First Family Rides Again,” a Rich Little album about Ronald Reagan. Ironically, “The First Family” has remained a very influential disc—it’s memorable fad success spawning presidential parody albums every four years. The best Meader could do was find some way of getting before the public every few years—to at least answer the perennial question: “whatever became of Vaughn Meader?”