Before there was YouTube, there were still venues for really bad singers. One of the most famous of all times was Flora Foster Jenkins (1868-1944), a woman who ended up playing Carnegie Hall, much to the delight of her fan, amongst whom was Enrico Caruso. Wikipedia has a nice summary of her career:
From her recordings, it is apparent that Jenkins had little sense of pitch and rhythm and was barely capable of sustaining a note. Her accompanist can be heard making adjustments to compensate for her tempo variations and rhythmic mistakes. Her dubious diction, especially in foreign language songs, is also noteworthy. Nonetheless, she became tremendously popular in her unconventional way. Her audiences apparently loved her for the amusement she provided rather than her musical ability. Critics often described her work in a backhanded way that may have served to pique public curiosity.
Despite her patent lack of ability, Jenkins was firmly convinced of her greatness. She compared herself favorably to the renowned sopranos Frieda Hempel and Luisa Tetrazzini, and dismissed the laughter which often came from the audience during her performances as coming from her rivals consumed by “professional jealousy.” She was aware of her critics, however, saying “People may say I can’t sing, but no one can ever say I didn’t sing.”
The music Jenkins tackled in her recitals was a mixture of the standard operatic repertoire by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Giuseppe Verdi and Johann Strauss (all of them well beyond her technical ability), Lieder (including works by Johannes Brahms and Joaquín Valverde‘s Clavelitos [Carnations], a favorite encore), and songs composed by herself or her accompanist, Mr. Cosmé McMoon, who reportedly made faces at Jenkins behind her back to get laughs.
Jenkins often wore elaborate costumes that she designed herself, sometimes appearing in wings and tinsel, and, for Clavelitos, throwing flowers into the audience while fluttering a fan and sporting more flowers in her hair. After each performance Cosmé McMoon would collect these flowers from the auditorium in readiness for redistribution at the next one.
After a taxicab crash in 1943 she found she could sing “a higher F than ever before.” Instead of a lawsuit against the taxicab company, she sent the driver a box of expensive cigars.
In spite of public demand for more appearances, Jenkins restricted her rare performances to a few favorite venues, and her annual recital at the Ritz-Carlton ballroom in New York City. Attendance at her recitals was always limited to her loyal clubwomen and a select few others — she handled distribution of the coveted tickets herself. At the age of 76, Jenkins finally yielded to public demand and performed at Carnegie Hall on October 25, 1944. So anticipated was the performance that tickets for the event sold out weeks in advance. Jenkins died a month later.
I’ve known about Jenkins for years, but what I didn’t know was that there are recordings of her singing. You can listen to one here, a venue that will also direct you to myriad other fascinating recordings, including the last castrato (whose singing is almost as bad as Jenkins’), the soprano who could hit the highest notes, the first Pope to be recorded, etc. Check out it.