a publicity photo for The First Family
|Born||Abbott Vaughn Meader
March 20, 1936
Waterville, Maine, U.S.
|Died||October 29, 2004
Auburn, Maine, U.S.
|Cause of death||Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease|
|Education||Brookline High School|
|Occupation||Comedian, impersonator, musician, actor|
|Sheila Colbath (1984-2004)|
Abbott Vaughn Meader (March 20, 1936 - October 29, 2004), known professionally as Vaughn Meader, was an American comedian, impersonator, musician, and film actor.
Meader began his career as a musician but later found fame in the early 1960s after the release of the 1962 comedy record The First Family. The album spoofed President John F. Kennedy - who was played by Meader - and went on to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1963. At the peak of his popularity, he performed his Kennedy impersonation on variety shows and in nightclubs around the country and was profiled in several magazines.
Meader's career was forced into an unexpected dramatic shift after President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. He attempted to take his work in a different direction performing non-Kennedy related comedy and releasing a new album in 1964. That and a return to public appearances and television guest spots met with little success. A victim of show business typecast, he eventually returned to his native Maine where he resumed performing music and managed a pub.
Meader was born in Waterville, Maine during one of the worst floods ever to hit New England: he often said he was born on "the night the West Bridge washed out". He was the only child of Charles Vaughn Meader, a millworker, and Mary Ellen Abbott. After his father broke his neck and drowned in a diving accident when Meader was only eighteen months old, his mother moved to Boston to work as a cocktail waitress, leaving Meader behind with relatives. A sometimes unruly and troubled child, Meader was sent to live with his mother in Boston at the age of five but she had become an alcoholic, and placed him in a children's home.
After shuttling among several schools in Massachusetts and Maine, Meader eventually graduated from Brookline High School in 1953. He enlisted in the United States Army, and while stationed in Mannheim, West Germany as a laboratory technician formed a country music band - the Rhine Rangers - with fellow soldiers, later adding impressions of popular singers to his repertoire. Meader married the German-born Vera Heller in 1955.
Meader began his career in entertainment as a singer and piano player. Upon his return from Germany, he began a comedy act in New York City, where he discovered his skill at impersonating Kennedy. With his New England accent naturally close to Kennedy's familiar, and often parodied, Harvard accent, he needed to adjust his voice only slightly to sound like the President. Meader also mastered the facial expressions that allowed him to bear a passable resemblance to Kennedy.
On October 22, 1962, Meader joined writers Bob Booker and Earle Doud and a small cast of entertainers to record The First Family. The album poked fun at Kennedy's PT-109 history; the rocking chairs he used for his back pain; the Kennedy family's well-known athleticism, football games and family togetherness; children in the White House; and Jackie Kennedy's soft-spoken nature and her redecoration of the White House. The First Family became the fastest-selling record in the history of the United States. It sold 1.2 million copies during the first two weeks of its release, and ultimately sold 7.5 million copies.
Kennedy himself was said to have given copies of the album as Christmas gifts, and once greeted a Democratic National Committee group by saying, "Vaughn Meader was busy tonight, so I came myself." At one press conference, Kennedy was asked if the album had produced "annoyment [sic] or enjoyment." He jokingly responded, "I listened to Mr. Meader's record and, frankly, I thought it sounded more like Teddy than it did me. So, now he's annoyed." Kennedy told Benjamin Bradlee that "parts of it were amusing." Other sources, such as Thomas C. Reeves' A Question of Character: A Life of John F. Kennedy, state that Kennedy was upset with the parodies, and that Jacqueline Kennedy was furious, even demanding that the President keep Meader off radio and television.
Still in his 20s, Meader was suddenly famous, rich, and in constant demand. He was profiled in Time and Life magazines, appeared on network television variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jack Paar Program, The Andy Williams Show and Hootenanny. Though a series of tour dates in early 1963 were notably unsuccessful (Billboard reported that he "bombed" in Pittsburgh, and only 742 people showed up in Philadelphia), he still played to packed houses in Las Vegas. The First Family won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1963. That March, Meader recorded a follow-up album, The First Family Volume Two, a combination of spoken comedy and songs performed by actors and comedians portraying members of the President's family and White House staff. The sequel was released in the spring of 1963, and while not as successful as the first volume, still sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
In November 1963, Meader was busy recording a new comedy record, written by a different group of writers and not involving his Kennedy impersonation. On November 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, and Kennedy's death effectively ended Meader's career. Copies of The First Family were pulled from stores and a JFK-related Christmas single by Meader that had been released by MGM's Verve Records shortly before the assassination was quickly withdrawn. Appearances that were already booked were canceled, including one for the Grammy Awards ceremony. An episode of The Joey Bishop Show was also pulled, which Meader filmed one week before the assassination. The episode was never aired and was reportedly destroyed.
Meader reportedly first learned of President Kennedy's assassination after hailing a taxicab in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The driver, recognizing his celebrity passenger, asked "Did you hear about Kennedy?" Meader thought the driver was telling a joke and responded "No, how does it go?" The driver then informed him of the sad news, and from the taxi's radio Meader heard the breaking news bulletins for the first time.
According to several sources, standup comedian Lenny Bruce went on with his November 22 nightclub show as scheduled. Just hours after Kennedy's death, Bruce walked onstage, stood silently for several moments, then said sadly, "Boy, is Vaughn Meader fucked." The joke proved true. Meader discovered that he was so completely typecast as a Kennedy impersonator that he could not find anyone willing to hire him for any of his other talents.
His non-Kennedy album for Verve Records Have Some Nuts!!! came out to minimal attention in early 1964. A similar follow-up If The Shoe Fits... was released in late 1964, and included sketches on almost everything except the Kennedys, but sales were meager at best. Meader's income evaporated, new-found friends and associates stopped calling, and by 1965 Meader was virtually broke. Sinking into depression, he became addicted to alcohol and drugs, and was forced to take whatever work he could find.
He reunited with Earle Doud in 1971 for an album called The Second Coming, a comedic look at what life would be like for Jesus if he had returned to earth around the time of Jesus Christ Superstar, but airplay and sales were virtually nonexistent.
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Meader tried several times to revive his career, but achieved only moderate success, and then mostly outside of show business. He appeared briefly in the 1975 movie Linda Lovelace for President and has a very brief cameo on the 1981 Rich Little comedy album, The First Family Rides Again, which both parodied Ronald Reagan and paid homage to the original The First Family album. Both the Kennedy and Reagan First Family albums were produced by Earle Doud.
Eventually, Meader resumed a career in bluegrass and country music, becoming a popular local performer in his native Maine. During the mid-1970s, he performed in Louisville, Kentucky, mostly at a small tavern known as the Storefront Congregation, under the name "Abbott Meader and the Honky-Tonk Angels." Meader sang and played piano.
Meader was married four times. He married his fourth wife, Sheila Colbath, in 1984. They remained married until his death.
After Meader's death, he has been credited for having broken new ground in the area of political humor, particularly in impersonations of the President of the United States.
In July 2006, nearly two years after Meader's death, the independent documentary First Impersonator premiered at the Maine International Film Festival in Waterville, Maine, Meader's birth town. The film chronicled Meader's life and death, his rise to fame and equally famous fall, and his influence on today's political impersonators.