ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY
Exactly 40 years ago, for a brief shining moment, Vaughn Meader was
THE SECOND MOST FAMOUS MAN IN AMERICA.
His comedy was thrilling audiences from coast to coast, and his debut album was the fastest-selling record in history. His act, a pitch-perfect impersonation of JFK, ended forever on Nov. 22,1963.
Meader has been struggling to recover ever since.
March 28, 2003
By Tim Carvell


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It's 4:30 in the afternoon, and Abbott Meader is sitting in a beachfront bar in Gulfport, Fla., working on a rum and Coke -neither his first nor his last of the day. He strikes up a conversation with a fellow mid-afternoon drinker. Their talk slowly works around to the question of why, exactly, a reporter and photographer are following Meader around.

"They're doing a 'Whatever Happened To...?' story," Meader says, adding grandly, "Whatever happened to me?"

"Are you somebody famous?" his new drinking buddy asks, staring a little more intently now, as if to peer past Meader’s toothless smile, his bushy beard, and his thick glasses in the search for a familiar face.

"I used to be somebody. Now I'm a nobody."

"Aw, c'mon, " the guy says amiably. "Everybody's got to be somebody."

"Not me. I'm happy being a nobody."

Now there is an awkward pause. The guy's still searching Meader's face for clues. I try feeding Meader a line. "Do you want to tell him what you did?"

"No.”

Here is what Meader did: in October 1962, under the name Vaughn Meader, he recorded an LP that sold more than a million copies in two weeks, earning it a place in the Guinness World Records as the fastest-selling album of all time. It went on to sell a total of 7.5 million and to win the Grammy for Album of the Year. Overnight, Meader became a star: He was profiled in TIME and LIFE. He appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jack Paar Show, The Joey Bishop Show, What's My Line? and To Tell the Truth. He was arguably the second-most-famous man in America. He played the Blue Angel in New York City; he filled the big room at the Sahara in Las Vegas. His exploits studded Walter Winchell's column. He kissed Judy Garland and was asked to open for Harry Belafonte. At the peak of Meader's fame, Frank Sinatra offered him a chance to join the Rat Pack. He said no.

The album that had made him a star was called The First Family, and Meader's skill -his gift- was doing a very funny, spot-on impersonation of the most famous man in America, President John F. Kennedy. On the morning of Nov. 22, 1963, Meader flew to Milwaukee to do his Kennedy act for the state Democratic Party. At the airport he stepped into a cab. 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.

So on that day Vaughn Meader -then all of 27 years old- woke up famous and went to sleep a has-been.

A grim punchline of sorts arrived 10 days later, when Lenny Bruce took the stage at the Village Theater in the East Village for his first appearance since the assassination. He paced back and forth, letting the anticipation build: What could the ultimate dark comedian possibly have to say about this national tragedy? Finally, he stopped pacing, stepped up to the mike, sighed loudly and announced: "Whew! Vaughn Meader is screwed." The crowd gasped. And then it roared with laughter.

Fame is a tricky subject for study: It divides and changes the world into those who have it and those who don't. Those who are famous can't quite grasp its dimensions; those who aren't can see fame clearly, but can't understand what it means to have it. Usually, celebrities transition from one state to the other gradually, their fame ebbing away like the tide. Meader's blew up like a grenade. This makes him a rare and special case: It's possible, through him, to take the measure of fame precisely, by surveying the size and the shape of the hole it left in his life when it went away.

One of the small, cruel ironies of show business is that, for a business that consists of rejection 99 percent of the time, it tends to attract people with outsize needs for approval. There are exceptions to this rule. Meader is not among them. Asked what he enjoys about performing, he says bluntly, "It fulfills -I don't know, an empty place? Maybe it's an empty place -but it fulfills a need. It's like water: It quenches the thirst. I have to be recognized."

Family lore has it that Meader was born an entertainer -he was singing and playing the piano practically from the time he could talk and walk. But the need, the hunger, to be loved by a crowd may possibly be traced to this: When Meader was a year old, his father died after a diving accident. His mother moved to Boston to work as a cocktail waitress; he describes her as loving, but mentally unstable. "Other than love," he says, "we didn't have much going." She left Meader in her hometown of Waterville, Maine, with her husband's family; he spent his youth shuttling between their home, his mother's, and a charitable society he describes as a "children's concentration camp. On the outside, it was lovely. But one of the women who [worked there] was a sadist." It was there that he began to put his musical talents to practical use. "One of the ways to escape abuse," he says, "was to entertain."


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Family album. Meader at home in Gulfport, FL.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Meader's stories of his early years are marked by a distrust of authority and a desire to be in control; he was kicked out of one boarding school for organizing his schoolmates into an army -appointing himself general- and conducting marching formations. When he joined the real Army upon graduation from Boston's Brookline High, he shirked his assigned duties and formed a band, touring around Germany in the early 1950s and playing rock & roll. "I was making more money than a major," he says gleefully, "and I was a private."

The idea that made Meader famous came a few years after his discharge from the service, when he was living in New York City with Vera, the bride he'd brought back from Germany. He couldn't abide working for people, so she supported him while he worked up a nightclub act, singing ribald versions of popular standards. (A sense of the act may be gleaned from the opening line of his parody of Duke Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore": "Missed the toilet last night/Went all over the floor...") Goofing around one night, he started riffing on the subject of President Kennedy, throwing in a quick impersonation -not much of a stretch for Meader, since his accent wasn't far off from Kennedy's. The audience loved it, and while he considered himself primarily a songwriter and musician, he couldn't ignore the response. He began shifting his act toward comedy, expanding the Kennedy material until it became his big finale: At the end of every performance, he'd play Kennedy and conduct a mock press conference, fielding questions from the audience and answering them off the top of his head.

"That press-conference routine was one of the greatest inventions I can remember," says Jerry Stiller, who worked the same New York comedy clubs as Meader in the early '60s. "You'd say, My God, how'd he learn to do that? It was like someone morphing into another human being, without it being an impersonation. There were no tricks or funny mannerisms or anything. It was all done with his brain." The conference killed nightly. To some extent, the act's popularity stemmed from the fact that Kennedy was the first president to use TV as a pulpit, and the audience's familiarity with his mannerisms bred a desire to see them tweaked. But there were other Kennedy impersonators around at the time, and none had the success that Meader did. It was the perfect match of man and material, and not just because Meader -a young, handsome New Englander- could easily make himself look and sound like Kennedy. The improvisatory nature of the routine appealed to Meader's quick wit and his ability to thrive on chaos; the fact that he was picking questions from the audience appealed to his desire for control; and the response from the crowd -well, for a man with such a strong desire to be liked, it was like a narcotic. Sure, the affection was, to some extent, secondhand: The response was as much to the idea of Kennedy as it was to him, and he would rather have been known and adored as Vaughn Meader. But that, he was sure, would come with time.

Meader started picking up bookings in New York comedy clubs, but despite his growing success, The First Family almost didn't come to pass. The record was conceived by a pair of enterprising young producers, Bob Booker and Earle Doud, who wrote the material and began looking for a Kennedy impersonator. They saw Meader on a TV program, Celebrity Talent Scouts, recruited him as their president, and hired a cast of actors to play the supporting roles of Jackie, the children, and the White House staff. But they couldn't find a distributor -this was, remember, before Watergate, before Whitewater, before Monica Lewinsky and Dana Carvey. The material on the album is tame almost to the point of being affectionate. It's not subversive so much as it is silly, and its targets -Jackie's penchant for speaking French, John Kennedy's large family- are broad. Nevertheless, it was seen as a high-risk project: An exec at Capitol Records informed Booker that he wouldn't touch the record with a 10-foot pole.

Finally, the duo found backing from a tiny label, Cadence Records, which underwrote a recording session before a live audience, setting the date for Oct. 22, 1962. That turned out to be the night Kennedy went before the country with his famed address about the Cuban missile crisis, a comedy mood killer if ever there was one. As it happened, the audience members were enjoying a free buffet -far from a television set- and didn't find out about the crisis until after the recording.

Cadence started small with the record printing 40,000 copies. Booker and Doud begged for radio play, but the story was the same as when they'd been trying to sell the album: Nobody wanted to be the first to take a jab, however gentle, at the president of the United States. Stan Z. Burns, an afternoon DJ in New York, took a gamble and played a few tracks. Listener response was immediate and fierce: People weren't just ready to laugh at Kennedy, they were eager to. The record sold 1.2 million in two weeks. Cadence found itself unable to keep pace with demand.

Records had to be shipped without covers. By Christmastime, it had sold 6.5 million copies. Booker dropped off a gift at Capitol Records: a copy of the album, glued to the end of a 10-foot pole. Kennedy felt compelled to speak out on the matter, and -overruling his advisors, who urged him to at least attempt to limit the record's radio play- decided to laugh it off, telling the press corps, "I thought it sounded more like Teddy than it did me." (Teddy, for his part, said it sounded more like Bobby; Bobby said it sounded more hike their brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver. Shriver's thoughts on the subject are not a matter of record.)

With his name on everyone's lips -even the president's- Meader was now rich and famous. Take the rich part first: He'd signed a deal that garnered him seven cents for every album sold. And while he grumbles that "everybody took pieces of the pie, and I was left with some crumbs," he acknowledges that "the crumbs I was left with were more than some people see in a lifetime." To be slightly more precise, he estimates that he cleared around $300,000, in 1963 dollars, from album sales alone -equivalent to $1.8 million today. On top of that, he was cleaning up on bookings; his fee for appearing in Las Vegas, for instance, was $22,500 a week, from which he estimates he took home around $10,000- although, he adds, "I was gambling eight of that."

The fame part is somewhat trickier to quantify. Externally, the trappings are clear: the magazine stories, the TV appearances, the sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. But the internal effects are somewhat hazier. Meader knows this much: He doesn't especially care for the person he became during that year. "I didn't handle it all that well," he says. "I tended to play the big shot, or to lord it over people, because I thought I was the star. But I was faking it -I really didn't know what a star was."

There will always be people who will forgive stars for indiscretions that they would never excuse in a common stranger, and Meader took full advantage of this, attending wild parties and attracting hangers-on. "That year," he says, "I was surrounded by takers. People willing to jump on when you're hot and jump off when you cool off. No deep relationships were formed during those years."


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Marrying man. With fourth wife, Sheila.

Some women wanted to sleep with him as a way of seducing JFK by proxy. "I gave them no credit for that," he says. In fact, the thing that may have rankled him most at the time was the fact that all that anyone wanted to see from him was Kennedy. When Booker and Doud exercised their option to have him record a second First Family album, Meader refused. He went into the studio for the sequel only after the producers slapped him with a million-dollar lawsuit. Booker hired a stagehand to watch Meader when The First Family hit the road. When Meader tried to inject some of his own material into the show -as Booker knew he would- the stagehand dropped the curtain. Meader didn't depart from the script again.

But except for fulfilling his contractual obligations, he was planning on getting out from under the Kennedy name. "I'm Vaughn Meader, and that's how I want to be known, he told The Dude, a men's magazine, in its July 1963 issue. "Before I recorded this album, I might well have gone through life only as the impersonator of John F. Kennedy. I hadn't reached the point where I could assert myself about being anything else. The album, on the other hand, has given me an acceptance that I never had before. I'm in a better position now, because people will listen to what I want to do and allow me to do it. It's a matter of taking one step at a time."

In early November 1963, Meader walked into a recording studio and cut a new album, Have Some Nuts!!!, as part of a two-record deal he'd signed with MGM/Verve. He didn't do the Kennedy voice once. Instead, while he played a variety of characters -a salesman, an advertising agency client, a man looking to buy a grave for his turtle- he took care to give each character the same name: Vaughn Meader.

Meader is reclining on the hospital bed that's been set up in his living room. He's fighting late stage chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, a form of emphysema. He can only walk a few steps before becoming winded, and takes frequent drags from an oxygen tank -when, that is, he isn't sneaking puffs from cigarettes.

His manner shifts between ingratiating and gruff. Asked whether he minds being known primarily a Kennedy impersonator, he says blithely, "No. It isn't hard."

Sheila, his fourth wife, who he says has been married to him for either 19 or 20 years (neither can remember; in fact it's 18) has been bustling quietly around in the background, but at this, she can't resist interjecting "Its been a thorn in your side since I've known you."

After Meader, and the nation, recovered from the initial shock and trauma of the Kennedy assassination, it took him a while to realize that Lenny Bruce was right. His career was over. One day, he was walking down the street when a construction worker put down his jackhammer, took Meader's hand, and expressed his sympathy, tears streaming down his face. It may have been a kind gesture, but Meader now recognizes that that impulse effectively marked the end of his career. "There's one thing a comedian does not need, and that's pity," he says. "Anger and hatred beat pity. You can't make a crowd laugh when they're feeling sorry for you."

In a reversal of his fight with Booker and Doud the year before, Meader now had to browbeat MGM/Verve just to release Have Some Nuts!!! It was no use: The album sank without a bubble. "Nobody paid attention to it," Meader says. "It didn't have the sound they expected from me"-that sound being the voice of a dead man. Meader's record was wiped out of the Guinness book, surpassed by a tribute album of Kennedy's speeches.

Meader's bookings began to dry up. In Going Too Far, a history of dark comedy, Tony Hendra repeats the possibly apocryphal response of one club owner to an agent pitching Meader: ' I need this act like I need a hole in the head." Pablo Ferro, a film-title designer who befriended Meader around this time, refers to him as a "dead man walking," adding, "There was no way he could change his face. He probably should have had plastic surgery right away and changed his name."

Meader made a handful of TV appearances to promote his new album -calling in favors from the hosts who'd jockeyed to put him on the air a year before- but something was wrong. To watch Meader's pre- and post-assassination appearances is to witness an entertainer diminishing in his abilities. The television appearances Meader made as Kennedy still feel fresh and funny today -they are small gems of tone and comic timing. As Kennedy, he has poise and grace; he knows when to let a laugh go, and when to cut it off. In his handful of post-assassination appearances as Vaughn Meader, that's all gone- his eyes dart, he rushes his punchlines, he smiles at his own jokes. Maybe, in addition to mimicking Kennedy's voice, he was also mimicking Kennedy's ease and charm, shrugging it on like a borrowed coat. Now Kennedy's charms deserted him.

By his own account, success exaggerated Meader's innate neediness, but failure amplified it even farther. Meader's drinking and carousing increased; his wife Vera left him. "At one time, I had sex with nine women," he says, his voice betraying no fondness for the memory. "Not satisfying any of them. Or myself, either. But I just pigged out, you know." He did some work at the Improv in New York City, but mainly, he says, in the years following the assassination, "I was pretty much just a fall-down drunk."

What broke Meader out of that rut -if only to place him, eventually, into a new and deeper one- was drugs. Meader tried acid at the first "be-in" in Central Park on Easter Sunday, 1967. Users claim that LSD can offer insights into who they truly are. The first time he took acid, Meader decided that he was the second coming of Jesus Christ. "He was pretty insufferable during that period," says Reni Santoni, a comedian and actor who was friends with Meader at the time, and who had to put up with endless "Why do you say that my son?" interrogations from Jesus/Vaughn for weeks afterward. On Memorial Day weekend of that year, two women invited Meader to get in a van and go to San Francisco with them. He gave away all the possessions he'd accumulated during his time of fame -the gold record, the Grammy, his suits, his furniture- and took a ride. "I left my old life behind," he says.

At first, the drugs seemed to make things better. And then they started to make them worse. As Meader experimented more with acid, another vision of himself emerged. He began to see himself as a blue rabbit, gentle and defenseless. One might have expected this to make Meader kinder or more easygoing, but, if anything, it made him more volatile and intractable. "After Kennedy," he says, "I think I hardened. I wouldn't let anybody break in. I wanted to protect the bunny. So I put a wolf around it. I put Vaughn Meader-hard, calloused, wiseass, schmuck, bigmouth, loudmouth, asshole-out there, just to keep people away from the bunny."

The personality of an entertainer rests upon a paradox: He needs the confidence to go before a crowd of strangers and the insecurity to seek their approval. As the years passed after the Kennedy assassination, Meader lost his ability to balance those qualities; his instinct of self-preservation trumped the generosity required to perform, and he lost one of the crucial skills for any performer: the willingness to ingratiate himself to an audience.

In February 1968, he was booked for two weeks at Mr. Kelly's, a club in Chicago. At the time, part of his act consisted of making up songs based on the audience's suggestions. On the first night, when he asked for some words from the crowd, a pair of audience members shouted out "Booze!" and "Broads!" "I lost it," he says. "I stood and I said, 'Don't you flicking people know what's going on? I mean, there's Vietnam! Haven't you ever heard of it?"' The club owner took Meader aside and aid, "Here's your two-week pay. Don't come back."

That night, Meader left the club and called a cab for the airport, falling fast asleep. When he woke up, he says, the car was moving slowly through a bad neighborhood. Then the cabbie stopped the car, turned, and stabbed him in the heart. Or so it seemed to Meader -who acknowledges that, at the time, "I guess I was on some drugs." In any case, the vision of the stabbing soon evaporated. "It was like, edit frame, and [the stab wound] was gone," Meader says, still sounding mystified today. "I died in Chicago. I have no link to that past life. It's just a memory chain. I guess I remember doing The First Family, but it's not relevant... It's possible I was hallucinating the driver, but it's as true and real to me as any other episode in my life."

The stabbing may not have been real, but its effect on Meader was: His interest in spiritual matters became even more pronounced. In the immediate aftermath of his vision, he says, he spent a week reading the Bible, staring at a mandala, and running with his eyes closed, chanting "Blind faith, blind faith, blind faith." He immersed himself in the I Ching. ("I probably have as much insight into the Book of Changes as anybody you could happen to be talking to lately," he says.) But his turn toward spirituality didn't abate his drug consumption; instead, he expanded his appetites to include cocaine and PCP. He moved around -San Francisco to L.A. to Maine- finding a second wife, Susan, a Playboy model, in the process.

His interest in religion found its outlet in a pair of recordings. The first was an album of music, called The Whatever Happened to Vaughn Meader Album, which he self-produced. Deeply autobiographical and personal to the point of being obscure, it failed to find a distributor. But Meader still had enough name recognition as a comedian to find backing for The Second Coming, a comedy album produced by his former partner Earle Doud. The album neatly encapsulated all of Meader's obsessions: On it, he plays Jesus Christ, who comes to Earth in the present day, leads a band, is betrayed by his agent, and winds up a has-been on line at a soup kitchen. "I thought it was beneath me to play the president," he says, sounding as if he's only half-kidding. "I wanted to play God." The album garnered some respectful reviews, but it failed to make an impact in the marketplace. It was Meader's last album to see a wide release.

In the early 1970s, he moved with Susan to her hometown of Louisville, Ky. There, he set a pattern for his life that would continue for the next 30 years: He would alternate between playing gigs at local bars and making stabs at returning to the big time. To find work in bars, he'd often walk in, sit down, and start pounding out songs on the piano. Often enough, he'd be offered a paying gig. "Throw me in the middle of a jungle," he says, "and if it has a shack with a piano in it, chances are I can put the hat out and eat this weekend... It's all I ever did."

Meader wasn't your typical barroom piano player. By all accounts -and all recorded evidence- he's a gifted pianist, and his songs, largely autobiographical, are witty and catchy, a combination of roadhouse and church house, sung in a voice one reviewer aptly described as "Johnny Cash on acid." In any bar where he played, he would attract a sizable and devoted following. But he had his idiosyncrasies: He would only perform his own compositions, and he refused to take requests. When patrons would talk during his act, he would shout at them to "shut the fuck up!" Or stop playing entirely. In a bad mood, he would pick fights with patrons or (worse still) the bar's management.

Through his performances in bars, he formed a wide and extremely devoted circle of friends, especially in Louisville and Hallowell, Maine, where he moved in the early 1980s. To a one, they speak of him with extraordinary warmth, and no small amount of exasperation. The picture they paint is of a man of exceptional kindness and charm ("he has changed my life immeasurably," one friend says; "he knows me better than anyone" adds another) but, at the same time, a man with a need to test the limits of his friends' affections with extreme demands -for favors, for money, for attention- and verbal abuse. His third wife, Christine, describes his MO thusly: "It was an interesting concept. He wanted to see how far he could push people and see if they could still be his friends." He was no gentler with his spouses. His current wife, Sheila, has written an unpublished biography of Meader, which he has declined to read. In it, she writes with great affection and tenderness of her husband, alternating with hurt and resentment. She writes of their early courtship, "I was brainwashed and mentally and emotionally tormented, but I was never bored." At another point, she writes, "I had made a solemn vow to stay married to Abbott forever, but I was at the point of killing him or me or both of us to get out of it." Their friend Noel Mount says, 'We refer to Sheila as St. Sheila. She'll be beatified one day for living with him. There have been saucepans thrown, dishes broken, Abbott pawning her stuff. But at the end of the day, I think that she really cares for him an awful lot... It's a strange relationship. They are attached together by their irreconcilable differences."


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Rabbit interest. On an acid trip, Meader once identified himself as a blue bunny; now he collects them.

Meader's habit of exerting control by causing chaos may also have been the reason his efforts to relaunch his career fizzled out. He would embark on a project, often funded by friends or sympathetic investors, and then walk away just when it was getting going. He would record albums and neglect to seek distribution for them, write songs that went no further than the barrooms where he performed. There was the flirtation with acting in movies (he nabbed a pair of supporting roles, in Lepke -a Godfather rip-off starring Tony Curtis- and the self-explanatory Linda Lovelace for President); the band called the Honky-Tonk Angels, with a tuba player providing the bass line; the starring role in a play about a man obsessed with JFK, which closed in Los Angeles after 20 performances; the musical centered on a preacher character Meader created named Johnny Sunday; and the novelty songs ("CB Santa" and "I'm Getting Ready for Teddy," which he wrote as part of his support for Teddy Kennedy's 1980 presidential bid), among other projects. Some of these may have been doomed from the outset, but others were doomed only when Meader decided, often on the spur of the moment, to walk away from them. The drug habit didn't help: His ex-wife Christine recalls the time when a multimillionaire friend, a fan of Meader's music, tried to bankroll an album. After Meader ran through a great deal of money, the friend gave him one last investment of $2,500. Christine says she was determined to put the money behind the album, but "Vaughn was going to break my neck for the money. I had to give him $300 for blow." She left him not long after.

But it wasn't just the drugs. At times, he'd simply sabotage a project: In the early 1990s, he worked up a two-person show at New York's Improv. He played Uncle Sam, in conversation with the Statue of Liberty. Silver Friedman, who ran the club, recalls Meader being excited, at first, over the part. "They won't be able to take this away from me," she remembers him saying, "Nobody's going to kill Uncle Sam." But despite interest from a team of investors in taking the show on a 10-city tour, his initial enthusiasm gave way to erratic, careless behavior-failing to memorize his lines, fighting with those who'd been brought in to direct the show-and the deal fell apart.

(Meader maintains that he didn't want to do the show on moral grounds, because it would be partially funded by Philip Morris; Friedman terms this "absolutely nonsense.")

When pressed about why he never followed through on his efforts to return to the limelight, Meader shrugs off the question. "I don't get off on numbers anymore," he says. "I'm just as successful singing to four or five people who like my songs as I would be singing to 4,000." But in less guarded moments he allows, "I'd like to come out with something, just one song, and be a hit." At another point, he elaborates: "To hear my words and music on the radio, to me, would be a bigger thrill than just about anything." But the way he'd like that to happen, he says, is if he were to get a call from someone who'd say, "We'd love to produce an album of yours.' To have a producer take me into the studio, supply me with the musicians." He is, he freely acknowledges, unwilling to do anything to bring that scenario about-to put himself out there and ask for it- because, of course, they might say no. "I'm in a lousy business," he sighs, "for someone who can't handle rejection." It's an understandable fear for any entertainer -for any person, really- but especially for one who was so resoundingly rejected by so many people, all at once.

Meader is working the phone, making arrangements for his birthday concert. He is surrounded by blue rabbits -he owns more than 200 depictions, in figurines, paintings, stuffed animals, and the like- and the memorabilia of his career, except, of course, for the things he burned. (He used to have bonfires before he'd move from town to town -in order, he says, to travel light.)

Meader isn't well. "I'd think I was already dead and in heaven if I didn't hurt so much," he says. "The only reason I know I'm alive is the pain." There is a signed yellow "Do Not Resuscitate" order on his fridge, and Sheila says she's already been told twice by emergency-room doctors to brace herself for his death. Still, illness has done nothing to diminish his eagerness to perform. His friend Bob Watson recalls watching him play a concert last summer. "The day before," Watson says, "he could hardly breathe. And all of a sudden he comes to life and does that show. I talked to him about it a couple days later. He said, 'It comes from somewhere; it's like magic."

Until last year, he had a regular gig at a local bar, but he's had to give it up. He talks eagerly about the fact that Tom Hanks' production company, Playtone, has optioned his life story for the movies, and 'ruminates about the possibility of running for president. ("My term," he says, "was interrupted.") But the only booking currently on his schedule is the concert he's holding to celebrate his birthday ("It's March 20," he says. "I'll be 67, if I make it"). He's reserved Gulfport, Fla.'s big dance hall, and many of his friends are planning to fly down for it. He's hired some of his favorite bands to perform, and, of course, he plans to sing plenty of his own songs. "They'll just have to put me in a wheelchair and push me up to the piano," he says. "I'll be all set. Just push me up to the piano. I can sing, and I can play.".

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