On 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, a look back at Vaughn Meader, a JFK impressionist who never again performed his act after Nov. 22, 1963.
|Vaughn Meader holds a copy of his smash comedy LP, "The First Family."|
By Tom Hawthorn
The Globe and Mail
February 10, 1989
The Globe and Mail
February 10, 1989
Vaughn Meader was an overnight success whose rise was made the more memorable by his rapid return to obscurity.
An unheralded singing comic from Lowell, Mass., he was performing a nightly monologue at a Greenwich Village club in the summer of 1962 when his uncanny impersonation of fellow New Englander John F. Kennedy caught the attention of a talent scout.
The scout had Mr. Meader and a troupe of actors record a parody album that poked polite fun at the foibles of the popular, young U.S. president and his family.
The album, called The First Family, was rejected by four major record labels before being accepted by Cadence Records. It was the best-selling U.S. recording to that time, more than five million copies being sold within a few months.
Its success was spurred in part by the good-humored response of the target of Mr. Meader's gentle gibes. Mr. Kennedy delighted reporters at a press conference that year when he acknowledged he had played the album.
"I have listened to Mr. Meader's record," he said with a smile. "I thought it sounded more like Teddy than me."
The singer seemed destined for a long career making light of the Kennedys. But on Nov. 22, 1963, his brand of humor went out of style.
Mr. Meader went into seclusion after the assassination. But even after purging his act of Kennedy material, he was seen only as a reminder of tragedy. A fickle public turned an overnight success into an overnight flop.
Like many of his younger compatriots, the singer spent much of the 1960s exploring North America. He lived in teepees, houseboats and log cabins.
A 1971 comedy album about a visit to Harlem by Jesus called The Second Coming proved unprophetic. Mr. Meader could not shake his reputation as an oddity from another time and the record received little attention.
His wandering ended 12 years ago, when he settled in sleepy Hallowell, Me., where he lives with his fourth wife, Sheila.
Mr. Meader, 52, plays the piano with his five-piece bluegrass band Gone Fishin'. They perform weekly at the Speakeasy bar, which he calls "the biggest new-happening joint in central Maine."
"I'm still rockin'," he says today. "Gone Fishin', that's our attitude when we all sit down to play. It's a good time, man."
Mr. Meader is considering moving toward a harder rock sound by adding a horn to his band, but he resolutely refuses to cover modern tunes.
"People request a new one, I give them a quarter and they can go play it on the jukebox," he said.
Still writing songs, he managed to pen just one last year. It's called I'm Still Rockin'.
Mr. Meader is well known among residents of Hallowell, a tourist town about three kilometres south of Augusta, the state capital. Joyce Walters, a bartender and Mr. Meader's former neighbor, said the singer is often asked by visitors about his fall from fame.
"Abbott's pretty well cool about the whole thing," she said. (Vaughn is the singer's middle name, which he used on stage.) "He won't play any Kennedy stuff, though."
For his part, Mr. Meader is content to be a major celebrity in a minor town.
"You can send a letter to me: Abbott, Hallowell, Maine, and I'll get it," he said. "If any Canadians come to Hallowell, they can walk up to the first person they meet on the street and say, 'Where can we find Abbott Meader?' They'll find me."
The barbs of The First Family are tame by today's standards, although Mr. Meader had one brush with Washington officialdom.
A Washington radio station once aired a short promotional blurb in which Mr. Meader told listeners the Kennedy clan listened to station WWDC "with great vigah." The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission was so enraged by the commercial use of a presidential impersonation that he drew it to the attention of the Kennedy White House.
By the time press secretary Pierre Salinger complained, the station's owner had ordered the plug off the air.
Mr. Meader long ago abandoned any wish to return to the big time. "That's like asking Ted Williams to play for the Dodgers," he said during last fall's World Series. "He couldn't hit the ball past first base."