Leona Anderson's mock-pompous operatic voice can provoke amusement and nauseous grimacing. Music To Suffer By is as beguiling as a jar of pickled walnuts: nectar for a few people, odd and repulsive to others. Either way, this re-mastered album shouldn't be swallowed in one sitting.
Leona Anderson probably would not be allowed to exist for long in our current saturation-style media. Rather, she would be hounded to reveal the intent behind her intense caterwauling until any mystery and subtlety had been stripped from her work. Luckily she performed in a time of less viral exposure and more innocence. Thus, acquaintances such as comb player Paul Bacon and Edie Adams can only say they suspect Anderson knew she was being funny. Anderson was born in St Louis and her brother Max featured in some of the earliest known cowboy films, as Bronco Billy Anderson. She apparently attempted opera singing before landing screen roles in movies such as In The Park and a short spoof of Rudolph Valentino's Blood and Sand called Mud and Sand (with Stan Laurel as "Rhubarb Valentino"). After hearing her sing, the oft-repeated joke is to wish that she had stayed in silent cinema.
In the mid-1950s Anderson recorded a tune called "Fish" accompanied by Bill Baird (the puppeteer from The Sound of Music) on tenor tuba and Tony Burrello, who recorded his own single "There's A New Sound (The Sound of Worms Eating Your Brain)" on calliope, an instrument associated with steamboats. It's a pity that "Fish" isn't included here since it did lead to the making of Music To Suffer By. "Fish" caught the ear of Ernie Kovacs who featured it in a running TV gag with him standing beside a suit of armor and opening the visor for Anderson's voice to come bellowing out. She also appeared on his show and that led to the recording and original release of the album by Unique Records.
Trunk Records do their usual valuable service to collectors with this remastering by Jon Brooks at NewyattSounds. Anderson's phrasing and the choice of instruments to accompany her come over very well. The other obvious joke is that she has never sounded better (and worse). Her gently-strangled-to-death versions of standards such as "I Love Paris" are fine but the truly worthwhile pieces are original compositions which use sincere logic and gusto to create something not just funny but quite bizarre. Perhaps that is why the mesmerizing "Rats in My Room" makes me think of Kafka and the cheese-themed "Limburger Lover" brings to mind the notorious butter scene from Last Tango in Paris.
Leona Anderson is in the pantheon of skillful badness along with such cracked cultural pleasures as Les Dawson's piano playing, the cathartic wildness of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and the musical bicycle antics of the young Frank Zappa. The single bang just after the end of "Indian Love Call" suggests that someone finally couldn't take it anymore and shot her, although she actually lived to the age of 88 and passed away in California on Christmas day, 1973. Whether she is described as demented, hilarious, or torturous, Anderson will be remembered long after the majority of all the ubiquitous auto-tuned dullard singers are buried (dead or alive) and forgotten.