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Leona Anderson secured he spot in Space Age Pop history with her aptly-titled 1957 album, Music to Suffer By. Anderson made bad singing a legitimate, if entirely unnecessary, form of entertainment. She reveled in the limitations and deficiencies in her singing voice and her publicity proudly proclaimed her as "the World's Most Horrible Singer." She milked her lack of talent into her own special shtick, and ended up landing spots on The Ernie Kovacs Show and other 50s variety series.
Ironically, Anderson had legitimate showbiz roots. Although born into a midwest Jewish family, her older brother Max became perhaps the world's first cowboy movie star, making one- and two-reelers for the Essanay Studio in Niles, California as early as 1915, billed as "Bronco Billy" Anderson. Leona studied singing, unbelievable though it may seem, and the liner notes of Music to Suffer By claim she had landed a spot in a George M. Cohan show by the time she was 15. Something in that claim is off, since Cohan's first Broadway revue wasn't until 1901, and the only Leona Anderson credited with appearances on Broadway is another lady entirely.
We do know that she wound up in the movies, if only sporadically. Her name shows up in several films made at the Astoria Studios in New York City. She must have moved to California to join her brother, since she shows up again in several films made there in the early 1920s. One was a short satirizing Rudolph Valentino, starring Stan Laurel as "Rhubarb Vaselino," and the other a western directed by her brother.
One assumes she worked in radio and vaudeville after that, for by the early 1950s, she had become known for her awful singing, which was apparently an act she created to mock the pompous style of serious opera singers. "Opera singers just can't kid themselves properly ... they can never let their voices go." Anderson, on the other hand, let hers go anywhere it chose to wander, in a manner rather like a drunk's random walk--up, down, and in between the scale. In comparison with the better-known opera comedienne, Anna Russell, though, Anderson's act wasn't something that could sustain an entire show single-handedly. Unlike Florence Foster Jenkins or Mrs. Miller, to whom she's usually compared, Anderson doesn't appear to have been naive, but rather, dissembling. "I'm not sure whether she knew she was funny--but I have my suspicions," one of her acquaintances, jazz label artist (and comb player) Paul Bacon, has commented.
Somewhere in the mid-1950s, she recorded a single, "Fish," for a small New York City label. Anderson's co-conspirators were two other figures in fringe entertainment: Bill Baird, a pioneering puppeteer best remembered for performing the marionette scene in "The Sound of Music"; and Tony Burrello, who recorded another famous 7" slice of discord, "There's a New Sound (The Sound of Worms Eating Your Brain)," that pops up occasionally on the Dr. Demento radio show. Her catterwauling was accompanied by Baird on tenor tuba and Burrello on calliope, which also makes this perhaps the only known pairing of this instruments.
Inventive television comic Ernie Kovacs heard it and was inspired to build one of his recurring routines around it. Kovacs would stand next to a knight's suit of armour and periodically open the visor. Out would come the discordant tones of Ms. Anderson's singing. Later, Kovacs had her appear live and offer viewers a taste of her act. Kovacs' widow, Edie Adams, later recalled that ""She knew she was camp, but she was very funny, and very sweet." This tidbit of notoriety probably led Unique Records to record and release Music to Suffer By, quite consciously packaged as a joke. It probably also led to her landing a small part in the 1958 Vincent Price horror film, "The House on Haunted Hill."
Her show-biz career appears to have come to a close not longer after that, and she died at the age of 88 in a retirement home not far from where her brother first started making movies.
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