During a trip to Goodwill this past weekend I discovered yet another copy of the early 1960s record “The First Family.”
The copy of "The First Family" I purchased at Goodwill in South Portland, Maine
I’ve been Goodwill hunting for over a decade now and this JFK-era political satire record has popped up in every store at least once, sometimes a few stacks away from a duplicate copy. Its cover shows a mock version of the Kennedy family on the front lawn of the White House. Vaughn Meader, the John Fitzgerald Kennedy look-alike whose name appears prominently under the album title, stands stiffly with one hand in his pocket and the other held tight to his side as he squints at the camera. When I first came across this album 11 years ago I bought it because of its aura of idillic pre-British Invasion yesteryear and for little other reason. It ended up mixed in at the back of my record collection with the other albums I never listen to and was quickly forgotten until I moved and donated it back to Goodwill. But when I saw that same record this past Saturday I decided to give it another try and bought it again with the intention of not only listening to it but also finding out why it was so ubiquitous.
Vaughn Meader holding a copy of "The First Family" (from Wikipedia)
“The First Family” was recorded on October 22, 1962, the night of Kennedy’s address regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis, and was released one month later in November, 1962. Still riding high on the hope Kennedy’s election had brought to the nation, Americans fell in love with Vaughn Meader’s impersonation of the President and turned out in droves to buy the album, making it the fastest selling album up to that point with 4 million copies sold in four weeks. As far as America was concerned, Meader was synonymous with Kennedy to the extent that, according to an interview on NPR, when comedian Rich Little parodied Kennedy he had to do an impression of Vaughn Meader’s character to get any type of reaction from the audience. For one golden year, clips from “The First Family” were played on the radio and were widely quoted, Meader appeared on television doing his impersonation of Kennedy, and a follow-up record was recorded about the further exploits of the Kennedy clan.
By the start of November, 1963, Meader was enjoying a type of success he could never have dreamed of, especially considering his beginnings. He was born in Waterville, Maine in 1936 and spent his youth in a series of children’s homes. After graduating from high school, he joined the army and upon his return to civilian life tried his hand at being a professional musician. As he expanded his act to include bits of stand-up comedy he figured out that his natural Down East inflection could easily be modified to sound like John F. Kennedy’s distinctive Massachusetts accent and soon found that his Kennedy impersonation was more popular than any other part of his act. When “The First Family” was released, Meader was not yet 30 years old and was unprepared for the super stardom that came with the record’s success. “I was walking past Sam Goody’s and there was a big crowd all the way out to the middle of Broadway,” He said later, ”and when I got closer I heard that they were listening to me — it was mind-boggling.”
On November 22, 1963, Vaughn Meader was in a taxi in Milwaukee, Wisconsin when he heard the news that Kennedy had been assassinated. Meader would later refer to this as the day that he died. In the aftermath of the President’s death, “The First Family” albums were pulled from store shelves and Meader turned to drugs and alcohol as the success he had enjoyed disappeared overnight. The man whose work was so well known that Kennedy himself had commented on it in the press now could not even merit a return phone call from the friends he’d gained since the album’s release. After years of substance abuse, Vaughn Meader returned to his home state of Maine and resumed the use of his given first name, Abbott. He spent the last years of his life playing honky tonk music under the name Johnny Sunday in bars around New England. He died from emphysema in 2004 at the age of 68.
A year before his death, Entertainment Weekly published an in depth interview with Meader that detailed not only his successes but also the emotional downward spiral that he’d gone through in the decades after JFK’s death. When asked about his future plans, Meader jokingly responded that he considered running for president since, in his words, “my term was interrupted.” Brief though it was, Meader’s turn as the President remains accessible to anyone with a record player and a dollar to buy the record that made his career. It may not be the most glorious legacy, but in an age when understanding politics through comedy has become the norm, paying a dollar to hear the beginning of our modern reaction to the political system is a good answer to what you can do for your country.
Further information about Vaughn Meader:
In 2006, a movie about political impersonators called First Impersonator was shown at the Maine International Film Festival in Meader’s home town of Waterville, Maine. Here is the trailer for that film:
The Entertainment Weekly interview from 2003 mentioned in this post is here:
A brief clip from NPR broadcast shortly after Meader’s death: