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|
|Spouse(s)||Shelia Colbath (1984–2004)|
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 came to an abrupt end after President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963. He attempted to take his career in another direction by performing non-Kennedy related comedy but had little success as he was typecast. He eventually returned to playing music in his native Maine where he also managed a pub. Meader died in October 2004.
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 stand-up 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.
The First Family
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." 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 The Ed Sullivan Show, and 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. 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, including one for the Grammy Awards ceremony, were canceled. An episode of The Joey Bishop Show, which Meader filmed one week before the assassination, was also pulled. The episode was never aired and was reportedly erased.
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, "Man, poor Vaughn Meader." 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 of what life would be like for Jesus if he had returned to earth around the time of Jesus Christ Superstar, but again, airplay and sales were virtually nonexistent.
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 1974 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.
Personal life and death
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.
- John A. Drobnicki, Meader, (Abbott) Vaughn," in The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: The 1960s (Scribner's, 2003), Vol. 2, p. 68.
- Fox, Margailt (October 30, 2004). "Vaughn Meader, Star as Kennedy Mimicker, Dies at 68". nytimes.com. Retrieved January 22, 2013.
- "Vaughn Meader, Satirist of Kennedy Family, Dies". The Washington Post. November 1, 2004. Retrieved April 3, 2006.
- Clip from JFK: As It Happened, broadcast on the A&E network November 22, 1988
- "The Joey Bishop Show (1961-62)". ctva.biz. Retrieved January 22, 2013.
- Smith, Jacob (2011). Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures. University of California Press. p. 136. ISBN 0-520-26703-6.
- Lamb, David (April 20, 1997). "A Long Way From Camelot". Los Angeles Times.
- "Cabaret: Jim Morris'S Impressions". New York Times. 1987-02-01. Retrieved 2012-04-16.
- First Impersonator website