Vaughn Meader's 'First Family:' The JFK Comedy Album That Disappeared
Left: cover of 'The First Family," from 1962; right: President Kennedy laughing (at his children, not the comedy album) in the Oval Office. Source: discogs.com; U.s. National Archives
In 1962, comedian Vaughn Meader satirized John F. Kennedy on The First Family, a live comedy album that both lampooned and celebrated the Kennedy family. At the time, the Kennedys were an American obsession -- like a cool and attractive version of the British Royal Family. They shaped national and global events, and their presence was something that inspired awe among even their detractors. The White House during the Kennedy years would later be remembered as "Camelot" (a nickname inspired by the Broadway musical), an idyllic and noble paradise.
The First Family was an absolute phenomenon. People had never heard their political leaders made fun of this way, but within a year of the album’s release, President Kennedy had been assassinated and the record had completely disappeared from existence. After the destruction of every unsold copy the album wasn’t commercially available until 1999. This is the story of American phenomenon.
The First Family Was Recorded In Front Of A Live Theatrical Audience
Recorded on October 22, 1962, The First Family was a live recording by Vaughn Meader, a comic who had a spectacular Kennedy impression. Not only did his northeastern accent match that of the president, but he was adept at writing twists on popular phrases for which JFK was known. To round out the cast Meader brought in mid-century comedy and stage heavyweights like Norma MacMillan and Chuck McCann.
Meader revealed that the album was recorded on the precipice of a new era for Kennedy’s presidency:
A lot of people don't know this, but we recorded The First Family on the night of October 22, 1962, the same night as John F. Kennedy's Cuban Missile Crisis Speech. The audience was in the studio and had no idea of the drama that was taking place. But the cast had heard the speech and our throats almost dropped to our toes, because if the audience had heard the Cuban Missile Speech, we would not have received the reaction we did.
The Album Was A Major Seller
The First Family hit on a cultural zeitgeist that’s never been replicated in a way that’s as popular as it was in late 1962 and early '63. Sketches from the album received heavy radio play, and thanks to the holiday season everyone picked up a copy to give to friends and family. The album sold 2.5 million copies in a few weeks, and ended up selling seven million copies - most of which were purchased between November and January.
The album sold so quickly that it set a Guinness World Record for the way it jumped off record store shelves, something that was completely new for the time in terms of comedy LPs, and a selling sensation that’s never been reproduced.
President Kennedy Was A Fan
It would be completely understandable for JFK to turn his nose up at The First Family, however he was a big fan of the album, and didn’t seem to care about being the butt of multi-million selling joke. (First Lady Jackie Kennedy did not care for the album, and said so publicly.) Supposedly he received a copy of the album for Christmas, and when asked what he thought of Meader’s impression of him the president told reporters:
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.
During a meeting with the Democratic National Committee he once even said, “Vaughn Meader was busy tonight, so I came myself.”
Meader Won A Grammy And Recorded A Follow Up Album
The album proved so popular that it won the Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1963 (as had Bob Newhart's Button-Down Mind Of Bob Newhart in 1961), something that’s unheard of for a comedy album today. Meader was a rock star comedian, performing regularly on TV shows and keeping the audiences in stitches at Carnegie Hall. It's said that Meader was invited to join the famous Rat Pack by Frank Sinatra himself -- but Meader declined.
Following the resounding success of The First Family, the album’s producers decided to release a follow up, but Meader didn’t want to be pigeonholed and declined. It wasn’t until he was hit with a $1 million lawsuit that he decided to record The First Family, Vol. 2, a collection of sketches and songs about the Kennedys. The album was released in the spring of 1963 and it peaked at number four on the Billboard charts.
After The Kennedy Assassination The Album Disappeared
On Nov. 22, 1963, president Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas and that was the end of The First Family’s reign. Albums were pulled from record stores, and all of the unsold copies were destroyed. The producers and distributors didn’t want to look disrespectful, and due to this decorum what had been the most popular comedy album of the early ‘60s became a ghost story.
Comedian Lenny Bruce, for whom no subject was off limits, began his show on the evening of November 22 by telling his audience, "Boy, Vaughn Meader is f***ed." He was right.
Like his rise, Vaughn Meader's fall from fame was sudden. "That was it," he later told the L.A. Times. "One year, November to November. Then boom. It was all over." He tried to continue as a standup comedian and musician, performing as himself without making any reference to the late president in his act. He released comedy albums Have Some Nuts!!! and If The Shoe Fits in 1964; they flopped. Bookings dried up and big-shot celebrity friends stopped calling. Meader, it seems, reminded people of the tragedy and elicited pity from strangers on the street -- not a good look for one who hopes to succeed at comedy. He'd spent the million he made off the album by 1965. He told the L.A. Times:
I didn't know how to handle it. It was a blur. I thought stars were supposed to do certain things, so I'd fly here, fly there, buy anything I liked in a store window. My ego and arrogance were way out of control. Playing the president was easy, but playing God was a bitch.
As the '60s wore on, Meader tried to go with the flow, experimenting with every drug in the book and spending the summer of '67 in San Francisco -- it was the Summer of Love, and he later confessed he couldn't remember much of it. In 1971, he released The Second Coming, a comedy album about Jesus that didn't sell either. Meader returned to Maine and played bluegrass in loval venues. He ended up in Hallowell, a small town not far from his birthplace of Waterville, where he lived out his days as a local character. He died in 2004 from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Tags: Comedy | Jackie Kennedy Onassis | John F. Kennedy | Remember This?... | The First Family | US Presidents | Vaughn Meader
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