By Richie Unterberger
Hated by many, but nonetheless elected president of this great nation of ours twice, Richard Nixon was the target of many comedians and satirists during his terms in office. No comic, however, made as much hay from lampooning the chief executive as David Frye did. The ascendance of Nixon to the presidency in 1969 may not have been the greatest thing for the United States as a whole, but certainly caused impressionist Frye's career to skyrocket in the late 1960s and early 1970s. There were articles on the comedian in Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times; numerous appearances on network television; and, of course, record albums. I Am the President and Radio Free Nixon were the first pair of these, both issued on Elektra Records, and here combined onto one CD.
Born in Brooklyn in 1934, Frye began to do impressions in campus shows at the University of Michigan, where, as he told the New York Times in 1969, "I discovered I had an ear for those stock people everyone does -- Cagney, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Ed Sullivan, Jerry Lewis, and so forth." In the early 1960s, however, Frye remained far from the national eye, performing in Greenwich Village clubs at night while working as an office cleaning service salesman during the day. The turning point came in 1965 when he began to put an impression of Robert Kennedy into his act at the Village Gate, the positive feedback sparking him to incorporate mimicry of several other politicians and commentators into his repertoire, including then-president Lyndon Johnson, then-vice-president Hubert Humphrey, William F. Buckley, Jr. -- and Richard Nixon. By the late 1960s he was guesting on the shows of Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Ed Sullivan, the Smothers Brothers, and the short-lived CBS variety series of African-American woman all-around entertainer Leslie Uggams, becoming something of a regular on the latter program. By this time, his cast of characters had widened to include Nelson Rockefeller, Billy Graham, controversial New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Alabaman governor George Wallace.
The Nixon routines were the ones that really brought down the house, however, especially as the nation settled in for four long years under the dour statesman's administration. As Frye explained to Esquire in a February 1970 feature, "I do Nixon not by copying his real actions but by feeling his attitude, which is that he cannot believe that he really is president. He's trying to convince himself when he says, 'I am the president!' and the moving eyes and tongue merely symbolize the way his mind is working."
Admitted the comedian in the same piece, "Nixon was hard. It took me a long time to get Nixon -- but it took the country a long time to get Nixon...Nixon has these brooding eyes that look like my eyes. That helped a lot. But the voice is still the main thing. He has a radio announcer's evenness of speech, very well modulated, and you can't pick out any highs and lows. If I hadn't had to do him, I wouldn't have tried." He also insisted that "I don't want to show what Nixon is doing wrong, but what he is doing that is funny." Yet, as he conceded to the New York Times, "Of course, Nixon and LBJ do make it easy. And Spiro's [Nixon's vice-president Spiro Agnew] been an immense help."
All of which made a David Frye album, as Elektra Records founder and president Jac Holzman says today, seem "like a good idea at the time, so we assembled a bunch of people in the studio as an audience. We went to work on the substance of the album, and went and recorded it. David Frye was a pleasure to work with, the albums were easy to record. The editing was complex, but we would do two or three sessions, and cut back and forth."
The albums did "fairly well," Holzman adds, particularly as so much promotion was ensured by Frye's high media profile: "David was one of those guys who could get on the Johnny Carson show [or] whatever it was back in the early '70s." The first of the albums, I Am the President, in fact did better than fairly well, getting all the way up to #19 in the album charts in early 1970. Some of the novelty may have worn off, however, by the time of Radio Free Nixon, which peaked at a relatively lowly #123. Incidentally that album, constructed as an imaginary radio show, included radio jingles that, according to the discography in Holzman's autobiography Follow the Music (co-written with Gavan Daws), "come authentically from the Dallas heartland of radio jingledom."
It should be noted that Frye did not restrict himself solely to Nixon impressions, in performance or on these albums. On I Am the President, he also did the voices of Johnson, Rockefeller, Buckley, Agnew, Graham, Humphrey, Henry Fonda, and talk show host David Susskind, with five other performers taking voices of minor supporting characters. Most of those impressions were reprised on Radio Free Nixon, Frye also mimicking voices of a few celebrities who are no longer automatically familiar to today's generation, such as cartoonist Al Capp, actor George C. Scott, author Truman Capote, Senator William Fulbright, and sports announcer Howard Cosell.
"The people I pick, I use them because they're good for my act," elaborated Frye in Esquire. "I figure that everybody is trying to sell something, has some angle, and I figure out what the person's angle is, and set my mind the way his is set, and right away I'm automatically thinking that way. My interest in this is to make them look funny, to kid them, not really downgrade them. Political figures are in a way extensions of the people in an audience, and people identify with their leaders." He added that he didn't want to meet the figures on which he modeled his impressions, as "they might be charming people, and I might decide I didn't want to use them anymore." At least one of his targets, however, didn't take offense, Hubert Humphrey telling a reporter, "I think Frye is terrific. We had a wonderful time playing his record. I don't think I talk that way, but I guess a man can't judge these things himself. My friends and family tell me that he sounds exactly like me. Political satire is healthy. David Frye is extremely talented at it."
The problem Frye came up with in terms of career longevity, of course, was predictable: Nixon would not be in office forever, and in fact resigned in August 1974 after the Watergate scandal broke. The phenomenally popular John Kennedy impersonator Vaughn Meader had run up against the same problem, though his stardom came to a far more inglorious end with Kennedy's November 1963 assassination. Frye had a longer run than Meader, but was realistic enough to tell Time in early 1970, "I'm going to concentrate on these people I'm doing. I'd like to squeeze the lemon now."
While he had a projected annual income of $250,000 in 1970, Frye had already peaked when he finished his brief stint with Elektra. The Watergate scandal had the ironic effect of both spiking interest in Frye's career and endangering his bread and butter as Nixon was inexorably dragged toward the White House exit. That wasn't the only thing he had to worry about. In early 1974, as the Watergate mess dominated headlines, it was reported that New York's three major network-affiliated TV stations had refused to accept commercials for one of his albums for the Buddah label, with a major New York radio station also refusing, and the Woolworth chain refusing to stock the record. Buddah canceled a projected $75,000 television advertising campaign for the controversial album.
"Frankly, I would prefer him to remain in office," Frye told Newsweek at the time. "He's the most effective impression I've ever had. There's no one as funny as he is...He's as neurotic a president as we can imagine." As for Gerald Ford, the vice president waiting in the wings to take over the oval office, Frye conceded, "I don't even know if I can imitate him." And as Frye did not write his own material, there was no guarantee that whatever else he could put his focus upon would be as naturally funny, or come as naturally to him, as making fun of Tricky Dick.
Of course, the
did come for Nixon, and Frye never again attained the celebrity he'd
during the Nixon administration. He didn't totally vanish from the
and as recently as the late 1990s, he'd turned his attentions to Bill
on the album Clinton: An Oral History. "Vaughn Meader had a
schtick," observes Jac Holzman. "Frye was best known for Nixon, but he
could do other people as well. He did a great Jimmy Stewart. But
always a lot of polarization around presidents, and there's not a lot
polarization around Jimmy Stewart. Once Nixon was out, he was out of
-- Richie Unterberger
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