No doubt about it, vocalist Susan Boyle has become an overnight sensation since her Quixotic appearance on Britain’s Got Talent. My historian alter-ego demands a little perspective. For starters, Susan Boyle is literally a lightweight compared to rotund Kate Smith, who reportedly weighed 235 pounds at the age of 30. Smith was one of America’s top female vocalists for five decades, including the golden era of early television. Smith’s bombastic rendition of “God Bless America” is an icon. (Supposedly, she was the inspiration for the phrase, “It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”)Even prior to Smith, a beautiful song from an unexpected source is an old vaudeville trick where children, old folks, the infirm, even animals suddenly break into perfect melody on stage (either in their own voice or lip-sync). Early TV caught the gig. The Jackie Gleason Show featured a weekly skit where Gleason played a bartender, and Frank Fontaine was Crazy Guggenheim, a fall-down slobbering drunk. Each week Fontaine would end the segment with a beautiful baritone ballad. In 1962 Fontaine’s album Songs I Sing on the Jackie Gleason Show topped the Billboard charts. For that matter, catch the earliest appearances of not-yet-made-over Wayne Newton (starting on September 29, 1962) on The Jackie Gleason Show — his early renditions of “Danke Schoen” are on par with Ms. Boyle’s stage presence.Or how about Jim Nabors, who perfected the role of rural dolt, Gomer Pyle, first on The Andy Griffith Show (Griffith reportedly discovered Nabors at a Santa Monica night club) and later on his own self-titled show. Nabors, a serious baritone, broke character to record a string of albums some of which went platinum and gold.We hear that Ms. Boyle has never been kissed. Recall the sudden and major 1963 success of Belgium’s Jeanine Deckers, the “singing nun,” who streaked across the charts and presumably, had never been kissed and at any rate thrived handsomely on her singing talents, not her appeal as a potential bed mate.At least one matronly grandmother “novelty act” has previously topped the charts. In 1966, Mrs. Miller burst upon the scene with a debut album that sold 250,000 copies. She had the “Boyle look,” but not the Boyle voice. Instead Miller’s trademark was screeching, off-key off-beat vocals “so bad they’re good.” In that category you can also add Tiny Tim — one of popular music’s all time novelty acts.Indeed, the entire genre of talent shows currently dominating television owes roots to Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour, which itself was a derivative of Major Bowe’s Amateur Hour which first hit radio in 1934. In 1948, Mack’s talent contest debuted on television and ran all the way to 1970. Decades before the “interactive” internet, viewers would call in or mail in to vote the week’s winning act. It was corny. It was dumb. It also discovered Frank Sinatra and Pat Boone, among others. (It also gave contestants dignity and respect as opposed to the current epidemic of humiliation that seems core to today’s talent contests.)By my reckoning, if Ms. Boyle is news, she is old news — yet another chapter in a long line of music novelty acts that became household words.
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