GULFPORT, Fla. -- Like most Americans who were alive at the time, Vaughn Meader remembers the exact moment when he heard that President John F. Kennedy had been killed.
Meader, who got rich quick impersonating the president on a wildly successful comedy album, was climbing into a cab in Milwaukee to go do his Kennedy spoof at a Democratic Party event on Nov. 22, 1963.
"Did you hear what happened to Kennedy in Dallas?" Meader recalls the cab driver asked. Meader, figuring he was about to hear yet another Kennedy joke, replied, "No, how does it go?" An instant later, he heard on the radio the president was dead.
Inextricably linked to Kennedy, Meader would never be the same.
Suddenly, poking fun at the much-beloved president wasn't funny anymore. His record -- and a just-finished sequel -- was pulled from the shelves. Bookings evaporated and his show biz friends quit calling. He was 27.
"It was character assassination," the 67-year-old Meader quips today. "My character was assassinated. I got a bum rap."
For 40 years, Meader has walked an uneasy line between distancing himself from "the Kennedy stuff" and using his one-hit-wonder status to revive his original music and comedy. The musician-songwriter has a small following of loyal fans, but to most people he'll never be more than an answer to a trivia question.
These days, Abbott Vaughn Meader is alive but not very well, living in a small, two-bedroom clapboard house with his fourth wife, Sheila. Slowed by chronic emphysema and other ailments, he sheds his oxygen tubes just long enough to puff a Kool out on the back porch or have a few rum and Cokes down at his favorite beach bar.
The bar regulars know who he is -- or who he once was -- but he isn't apt to volunteer much information about it. Gray, bearded and toothless, Abbott Meader -- as he is known now -- doesn't look anything like that handsome pop culture phenomenon who appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and was once kissed by Judy Garland.
Sometimes, when he's got enough breath, he still sits down at the piano to play and sing for friends. But that isn't too often anymore.
"I'd like to turn on the radio and hear one of my original songs," Meader said wistfully. "I'd always fantasized about being the singing cowboy, like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. That's how I saw myself, but nobody else saw me that way."
Born in Maine and reared in Boston, Meader was honing his musical comedy in the clubs of New York City's Greenwich Village in the early '60s when he threw in the Kennedy impression one night at the end of his gig. People loved it immediately.
Gifted at improvisation, Meader started doing mock news conferences as Kennedy, taking questions from the audience. He had to tweak his own New England accent only slightly to sound just like the Massachusetts-bred president.
After appearing on the "Celebrity Talent Scouts" TV show, Meader was recruited to play the president on a comedy album called "The First Family," poking gentle fun at JFK's wealth, large family and "vigah." Compared with today's bare-knuckled political humor, the satire was downright tame.
"The First Family" sold 1.2 million copies in two weeks in late 1962, on its way to selling 7.5 million. Radio stations across the land played the segments constantly. The fastest-selling record of its time, it won a Grammy for album of the year.
"I couldn't believe what it meant to people," Meader said. "I was just doing my act. I'm a singer and piano player. I just stumbled onto a voice."
He became rich and famous so fast it boggled his mind. Time and Life magazines profiled him, and he was a guest on every TV variety program that could get him on. He packed rooms in Las Vegas. Frank Sinatra tried to recruit him for the Rat Pack.
"The First Family" got so popular that Kennedy's inner circle advised the president to try to limit its radio airplay, fearing listeners would mistake Meader's almost indistinguishable impression for the real thing. Jacqueline Kennedy hated it because it made fun of her children.
The president, though, was said to be amused, even picking up 100 copies of the album to give as Christmas gifts. He once opened a Democratic National Committee dinner by telling delegates: "Vaughn Meader was busy tonight, so I came myself."
When Kennedy was killed, Meader was already trying to diversify his material. Afterward, he dropped all references to JFK from the standup act, but his new stuff never caught on.
Entertainment journalist Gerald Nachman chronicled Meader's meteoric rise and fall in his book, "Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s."
"One twist to the single-bullet theory that didn't make it into the Warren Report: the same bullet that killed JFK also murdered Vaughn Meader's career," Nachman wrote.
The money was soon all gone. Meader got heavily into alcohol and drugs, faded away and drifted from place to place. He lived in Louisville and then back in Maine before his poor health brought him to Florida five years ago.
Various comeback attempts over the years went mostly unnoticed. He made some comedy recordings that were critically acclaimed but didn't sell. He even popped up in a couple of B movies in the '70s.
The rights to Meader's life story have been optioned by Tom Hanks's production company, Playtone, but there's no word yet on when -- or if -- the movie will be made.
He has steadfastly declined periodic offers to do JFK again onstage, saying that he's closed that chapter for good. He refuses to do the voice though plenty of people still ask.
"People would say, 'Do some of that Kennedy stuff,' and he would get [angry]," said longtime friend Billy Blinkhorn. "Vaughn Meader was dead, he would say. He's Abbott. Abbott is a singer and songwriter. Those are the laurels he wants to rest on."