Leona Anderson’s “Music To Suffer By”

A human being, while undoubtedly a wonderful construction, lacks a certain structural element: a built-in music-playing system with unlimited playlists. Back in the 1950s and 60s, far-sighted producers tried very hard to provide a solution to this inconvenience.

Anyone who has ever been interested in record collecting and the wondrous world of obscure vinyl is surely familiar with precisely targeted vintage music made for practical purposes: Music to Lure Pigeons By, Music to Massage Your Mate By (exceptional cover and booklet!), Music for Cooking With Gas, Music for Morticians or Songs for Pizza Lovers. Among these many treasures of the Space Age, there’s a very special gem: Leona Anderson’s 1957 Music To Suffer By.

A former silent movie actress (who appeared in a number of films alongside Stan Laurel, Charlie Chaplin and her brother, “Bronco Billy” Anderson), Leona Anderson (1885-1973) did everything in her power to prove that her sobriquet, “The World’s Most Horrible Singer”, was absolutely well-deserved.

After years spent on desperate and futile attempts to learn proper opera techniques, Leona decided to make her apparent lack of talent her greatest selling point. Combining her vast knowledge of the opera –a lifelong passion– with her undisputed charm and a knack for comedy, “The Worst Opera Singer” shared her talents with viewers of the Ernie Kovacs television show, and eventually released the one-of-a-kind Music To Suffer By. The record consisted not only of delightfully slaughtered standards like “Habanera” from Carmen, but also original compositions, such as the haunting “Rats In My Room”, and “Limburger Lover”… quite possibly the only Limburger cheese-themed love song ever made.

The record’s presentation reveals Leona’s high musical literacy and a sense of humor and class, elevating her mock-opera collection above mere parody. Rather too sophisticated for outsider music, Music To Suffer By is oddly enchanting largely because of Leona’s self-awareness. She knew she wasn’t capable of ever learning how to sing properly, hence she put all of her efforts in creating this wonderfully bizarre gem of a record. It’s a perverse pleasure to suffer by.

The legendary collectible, previously available only on vinyl, has since been remastered and re-released in CD format by the infallible Trunk Records. An assortment of Leona’s mp3s can also be found on WFMU.

Other poised, yet off-kilter singers worth enduring: