Fifty years ago, the lives of a U.S. president and a rising young stage performer from Maine were deeply intertwined.
Born in Waterville, Abbott Vaughn Meader was the Guinness World Record-holder for the fastest-selling album of all time. His album of John F. Kennedy satire, “The First Family,” amazingly sold a million copies during its first two weeks of release in 1962.
Meader’s performance earned him accolades — his album won a Grammy Award for Album of the Year in 1963 — and his name on marquees across the country and featured spots on national television, like the Ed Sullivan Show.
Yet Meader’s rise to fame ended just as quickly as it happened, 50 years ago today.
Tim Carvell interviewed Meader for a March 2003 article in “Entertainment Weekly,” and Meader made it clear that he wasn’t a fan of talking about his past — back when he was what even he referred to as “a somebody.”
According to Carvell’s story, Meader heard the news of Kennedy’s death while riding in a cab in Milwaukee. He had flown to the city to do his Kennedy act for the state Democratic Party.
“The driver turned and said, ‘Did you hear about Kennedy in Dallas?’ Meader had grown accustomed to being recognized by strangers and hearing Kennedy jokes, so he figured it was a setup line. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘How does it go?’ Before the cabbie could answer, Meader heard the news on the radio,” wrote Carvell.
Meader, then in his late 20s, likely knew at that moment that his short-lived fame was about to disappear.
In a recent CBS Sunday Morning report on Meader’s life and his ties to JFK, the performer is quoted as frequently describing Nov. 22, 1963, as, “The day I died.”
With the market for Kennedy satire gone and his career derailed, Meader eventually returned to Maine, where he worked as a part-time musician and local pub manager.
Known for his fondness of rum and cokes and cigarettes, Meader is said to have frequented horse racing tracks and casinos. When in Maine, he often could be found in Hallowell, most often at downtown landmarks like Slates or the Wharf.
At his request, Meader’s memorial service was far from traditional. His widow, Sheila Colbath, set fire to a mock funeral pyre in the Kennebec River.
He died Oct. 29, 2004, and the celebration of his life reportedly was attended by more than 200 people from across the country and Canada.
After standing along the riverbank to watch a blue basket, piled with notes and photos, trinkets and a cardboard model of a piano, blow upriver against the current — just as he would have wanted — attendees gathered inside The Wharf to share tales of the once very famous Abbott Vaughn Meader.