Mitch Miller, Maestro of the Singalong, Died at 99 in 2010

December 26, 2010


While surfing and listening to oldies from YouTube  I came across mention of Mitch Miller’s  passing this year.  I never heard mention of this in my local news and was quite saddened to read this  to end my Christmas Day.
I grew up on the “Sing-Along With Mitch” Television show. It was one of my grandmother’s favorite television shows and she raised me so it became mine too ;-).  We never missed an episode.
I always credit my Dad for much of my musical taste here on OSML,  but while Dad formed my Rock and Roll, Doo Wop, Soul and Gospel sensibilities  I realize that my grandmothers’ pop tastes of Mitch Miller, Lawrence Welk, Tennesse Ernie Ford and the like also had a great impact on my eclectic musical tastes.  Thank you Grandma. I guess you are the reason I love the Great American Songbook so much.    I hope you and Daddy get together on occasion to trade  musical  notes up in heaven.  I miss and love you both especially on this Christmas Day.

Well here is the Associated Press  Obituary I retrieved published in the NY Times for  Mitch Miller.  He passed on July 31, 2010.

NEW YORK (AP) – Mitch Miller, the goateed orchestra leader who asked Americans to “Sing Along With Mitch” on television and records, has died at age 99.

His daughter, Margaret Miller Reuther, said Monday that Miller died Saturday in Lenox Hill Hospital after a short illness.

Miller was a key record executive at Columbia Records in the pre-rock ‘n’ roll era, making hits with singers Rosemary Clooney, Patti Page, Johnny Mathis and Tony Bennett.

“Sing Along With Mitch” started as a series of records, then became a popular NBC show starting in early 1961. Miller’s stiff-armed conducting style and signature goatee became famous.

As a producer and arranger, Miller had misses along with his hits, famously striking out on projects with Frank Sinatra and a young Aretha Franklin.

The TV show ranked in the top 20 for the 1961-62 season, and soon children everywhere were parodying Miller’s stiff-armed conducting. An all-male chorus sang old standards, joined by a few female singers, most prominently Leslie Uggams. Viewers were invited to join in with lyrics superimposed on the screen and followed with a bouncing ball.

“He is an odd-looking man,” New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote in 1962. “His sharp beard, twinkling eyes, wrinkled forehead and mechanical beat make him look like a little puppet as he peers hopefully into the camera. By now most of us are more familiar with his tonsils than with those of our families.”

Atkinson went on to say that as a musician, Miller was “first rate,” praising “the clean tone of the singing, the clarity of the lyrics, the aptness of the tempos, the variety and the occasional delicacy of the instrumental accompaniment.”

An accomplished oboist, Miller played in a number of orchestras early in his career, including one put together in 1934 by George Gershwin. “Gershwin was an unassuming guy,” Miller told The New York Times in 1989. “I never heard him raise his voice.”

Miller began in the recording business with Mercury Records in the late ’40s, first on the classical side, later with popular music. He then went over to Columbia Records as head of its popular records division.

Among the stars whose hits he worked on were Clooney, Page, Bennett, Frankie Laine and Jo Stafford. His decision to have Mathis switch from jazz to lushly romantic ballads launched the singer as a superstar.

He had a less rewarding collaboration with Sinatra, whose recording of the novelty song “Mama Will Bark,” featuring a barking dog, was considered the nadir of the singer’s career. Still, Miller became known for his distinctive arrangements, such as the use of a harpsichord on Clooney’s megahit version of “Come On-a My House.” He used dubbing of vocal tracks back when that was considered exotic.

“To me, the art of singing a pop song has always been to sing it very quietly,” Miller said in the book “Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music.”

“The microphone and the amplifier made the popular song what it is – an intimate one-on-one experience through electronics. It’s not like opera or classical singing. The whole idea is to take a very small thing and make it big.”

Miller and a chorus had a No. 1 hit in 1955 with “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” and that led to his sing-along records a few years later.

The years of Miller’s biggest successes were also the early years of rock ‘n’ roll, and many fans saw his old-fashioned arrangements of standards and folk favorites as an antidote to the noisy stuff the teens adored. As an executive at Columbia, Miller would be widely ridiculed for trying to turn a young Aretha Franklin into a showbiz diva in the tradition of Sophie Tucker.

But Miller was not entirely unsympathetic to rock ‘n’ roll. In a 1955 essay in The New York Times magazine, he said the popularity of rhythm and blues, as he called it, with white teens was part of young people’s “natural desire not to conform, a need to be rebellious.”

He added: “There is a steady – and healthy – breaking down of color barriers in the United States; perhaps the rhythm-and-blues rage – I am only theorizing – is another expression of it.”

“Miller has often been maligned as a maestro of 1950s schlock … Yet Miller injected elements of rhythm and blues and country music, however diluted, into mainstream pop,” Ken Emerson wrote in his book “Always Magic in the Air.”

In the Martin Scorsese documentary on Bob Dylan, “No Direction Home,” Miller acknowledged that he was dubious when famed producer John Hammond brought the nearly unknown Dylan to the staid Columbia label in the early ’60s. “He was singing in, you know, this rough-edged voice,” Miller said. “I will admit I didn’t see the greatness of it.” But he said he respected Hammond’s track record in finding talent.

In recent years, Miller returned to his classical roots, appearing frequently as a guest conductor with symphony orchestras.

In 2000, he won a special Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.

Reuther said her father died of “just old age.”

“He was absolutely himself up until the minute he got sick,” she said. “He was truly blessed with a long and wonderful life.”

Miller was born in 1911, in Rochester, N.Y., son of a Russian Jewish immigrant wrought-iron worker and a seamstress. He graduated from the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester.

Reuther said there will be a memorial service for her father in the fall.

Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press


This is an article by published in the NY Times by Richard Sevreo on 8/2/10 in memoriam of Mitch Miller.

August 2, 2010

Mitch Miller, Maestro of the Singalong, Dies at 99
By RICHARD SEVERO

Mitch Miller, an influential record producer who became a hugely popular recording artist and an unlikely television star a half century ago by leading a choral group in familiar old songs and inviting people to sing along, died on Saturday in Manhattan. He was 99.

His daughter Margaret Miller Reuther confirmed the death Monday morning, saying her father had died after a short illness at Lenox Hill Hospital. Mr. Miller lived in Manhattan.

Mr. Miller, a Rochester native who was born on the Fourth of July, had been an accomplished oboist and was still a force in the recording industry when he came up with the idea of recording old standards with a chorus of some two dozen male voices and printing the lyrics on album covers.

The “Sing Along With Mitch” album series, which began in 1958, was an immense success, finding an eager audience among older listeners looking for an alternative to rock ’n’ roll. Mitch Miller and the Gang serenaded them with chestnuts like “Home on the Range,” “That Old Gang of Mine,” “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” and “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”

When the concept was adapted for television in 1961, with the lyrics appearing at the bottom of the screen, Mr. Miller, with his beaming smile and neatly trimmed mustache and goatee, became a national celebrity.

By then he had established himself as a hit maker for Columbia Records and a career shaper for singers like Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Patti Page and Frankie Laine. First at Mercury Records and then at Columbia, he helped define American popular music in the postwar, pre-rock era, carefully matching singers with songs and choosing often unorthodox but almost always catchy instrumental accompaniment.

Mr. Bennett’s career took off after Mr. Miller persuaded him to record the ballad “Because of You,” backing him with a lush orchestral arrangement by Percy Faith. It reached No. 1 on the pop charts in 1951.

Ms. Clooney was making a mere $50 a recording session when Mr. Miller asked her to record “Come On-a My House,” an oddity based on an Armenian folk melody written by the playwright and novelist William Saroyan and his cousin Ross Bagdasarian, who later went on to create Alvin and the Chipmunks. Ms. Clooney was dubious. “I damn near fell on the floor,” she recalled.

They had a heated argument. But in the end Ms. Clooney agreed to record the song, and it became a giant hit, establishing her as a major artist.

“Nothing happened to me until I met Mitch,” she later said.

By the end of the 1950s Mr. Miller’s eye and ear for talent and songs had been critical in making Columbia the top-selling record company in the nation.

Mr. Miller was the Midas of novelty music, storming the charts with records like Jimmy Boyd’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and providing singers with unusual instrumental backing: a harpsichord for Ms. Clooney, French horns for Guy Mitchell. One of his earliest hits, “Mule Train,” was recorded by the muscular-voiced Frankie Laine with three electric guitars, and Mr. Miller himself using a wood block to simulate the snapping of a whip.

Mr. Miller was a studio innovator. Along with the guitarist Les Paul and a few others, he helped pioneer overdubbing, the technique by which different tracks are laid over one another to produce a richer effect; he employed it memorably with Ms. Page, whose close-harmony “duets” with herself became her signature. He also achieved what he called a sonic “halo” on numerous recordings by the use of what came to be called an echo chamber — actually an effect an engineer produced by placing a speaker and a microphone in a tiled restroom.

One Miller specialty was developing crossovers from country to pop. He had particular success with Hank Williams’s songs: he transformed “Hey, Good Lookin’ ” into a hit for Mr. Laine and Jo Stafford and did the same for Mr. Bennett (“Cold, Cold Heart”), Ms. Clooney (“Half as Much”) and Ms. Stafford on her own (“Jambalaya”).

His touch was not always sure. When he had bagpipes accompany Dinah Shore on a song called “Scottish Samba” the result was, in Mr. Miller’s own words, “a dog.” And probably the nadir of Frank Sinatra’s recording career came after Mr. Miller left Mercury and took over pop production at Columbia in 1950.

Sinatra complained that Mr. Miller forced him to record inferior material like “Bim Bam Baby,” “Tennessee Newsboy” and, perhaps most notoriously, “Mama Will Bark,” a 1951 novelty duet with the television personality Dagmar that included dog imitations. Sinatra even sent a telegram to a Congressional subcommittee complaining that Mr. Miller had denied him “freedom of selection.” (Sinatra did sometimes veto Mr. Miller’s song choices. When he refused to record “The Roving Kind” and “My Heart Cries for You,” Mr. Miller replaced him in the studio with a young singer named Guy Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell’s versions of both those songs became hits and made him a star.)

Interviewed by Time magazine in 1951, Mr. Miller was less than enthusiastic about the kind of gimmicky pop records that had become his specialty. “I wouldn’t buy that stuff for myself,” he said. “There’s no real artistic satisfaction in this job. I satisfy my musical ego elsewhere.”

Mr. Miller came up with the idea for his singalong albums in 1958, drawing on a repertory that ordinary people had sung in churches and parlors for decades. By the time he recorded the first “Sing Along With Mitch” album, he had already had success with this approach on the singles chart, scoring a No. 1 hit in 1955 with an arrangement of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

Mitch Miller and the Gang eventually recorded more than 20 long-playing discs, many of which made the Top 40. By 1966 they had sold about 17 million copies.

In 1960 his singalong concept was given a one-time television test on NBC. The response was so favorable that “Sing Along With Mitch” became a mainstay of family television, running — every other week at first, then weekly — from 1961 to 1964, then returning in reruns in the summer of 1966. Viewers were encouraged to sing along and instructed to “follow the bouncing ball” — a large dot that bounced from word to word as the lyrics were superimposed on the screen. Among the singers featured, in addition to the male chorus, was a young Leslie Uggams.

The ratings were good, but the critics were mostly unimpressed. Brooks Atkinson, writing in The New York Times, suggested in 1962 that “Sing Along With Mitch” might best be viewed with the sound turned off.

Even at the singalongs’ height, many Americans considered them hopelessly corny. That sense only intensified as a younger generation came of age in the 1960s and musical tastes changed. There were news reports that shopping malls had begun piping Mitch Miller music on their sound systems as a way to discourage teenagers from congregating. Years later, in 1993, when David Koresh and members of his Branch Davidian cult were holed up in their compound in Waco, Tex., F.B.I. agents tried to flush them out by blasting “Sing Along With Mitch” Christmas carols.

By the time Mr. Miller’s television show left the air, his era of popular music had largely ended with the emergence of rock. He was sympathetic to blues and folk music and had one of his biggest hits in 1951 with Johnnie Ray’s “Cry,” a histrionic performance often cited as a rock ’n’ roll precursor. He had also tried to sign Elvis Presley for Columbia before being outbid by RCA. But he turned down an opportunity to sign Buddy Holly, and he was outspoken in his dislike of rock ’n’ roll in general. “It’s not music,” he was quoted as saying, “it’s a disease.” When Bob Dylan, soon to become one of rock’s most influential artists, joined the Columbia roster in 1961, it was not Mr. Miller but another label executive, John Hammond, who signed him.

Mr. Miller told Audio magazine in 1985 that his opposition to rock ’n’ roll had been based more on principle than on taste. The so-called payola scandal, in which record companies were found to have paid disc jockeys to play rock ’n’ roll records, had dismayed him, he said. He also complained about “British-accented youths ripping off black American artists and, because they’re white, being accepted by the American audience” — although that hardly explained his opposition to rock ’n’ roll in the ’50s, a decade before the advent of the Beatles and other British bands.

His wife of 65 years, the former Frances Alexander, died in 2000.

In addition to his daughter Ms. Miller Reuther, Mr. Miller is survived by another daughter, Andrea Miller; a son, Mitchell; two brothers, Leon and Joseph; two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Mitchell William Miller was born on July 4, 1911, in Rochester, one of five children of Abram Calmen Miller, an immigrant from Russia and a wrought-iron worker, and Hinda Rosenblum Miller, a former seamstress.

Mr. Miller’s own musical career began with the oboe. The composer Virgil Thomson called him “an absolutely first-rate oboist — one of the two or three great ones at that time in the world.”

He took up the oboe almost by chance. Seeking to join the orchestra at Washington Junior High School in Rochester, he showed up late for the tryouts and found it was the only one of the instruments, offered free to students, that had not been claimed.

By the age of 15 Mr. Miller was playing with the Syracuse Symphony. After high school he went to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, graduating cum laude in 1932.

He played with the Rochester Philharmonic and then made his way to New York City, where he played oboe for a season under David Mannes in concerts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He later got a job with the CBS Symphony, performing with it during the notorious Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast in 1938.

He also played in orchestras under Andre Kostelanetz and Percy Faith and performed in another that accompanied George Gershwin on a concert tour as a pianist. When Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” opened on Broadway in 1935, Mr. Miller was in the pit orchestra. He continued to play the oboe after he became a record producer, most notably on the recordings the great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker made with a string orchestra.

Mr. Miller went to work for Mercury Records in the late ’40s, initially as a producer of classical music and then as head of artists and repertory in the pop division. In 1950, at the invitation of a former Eastman classmate, Goddard Lieberson, executive vice president of Columbia Records, he took the equivalent position there. In the early 1950s he was also musical director of Little Golden Records, which made widely popular recordings for children.

After rock came to dominate the record business and the singalong craze ran its course, Mr. Miller left Columbia and ventured into the Broadway theater, with limited success. He produced “Here’s Where I Belong,” a 1968 musical based on John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” which closed after one performance. He was later involved in the production of several other Broadway shows, few of them hits. In the 1980s and ’90s he was a frequent guest conductor of symphony orchestras.

“What pleased me the most,” he said in an interview with The Times in 1981, “was a fellow who came up to me after a concert in Chicago and said, ‘You know, there’s nobody in this whole country who hasn’t been touched by your music in some way.’

“That really made me feel good.”

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 2, 2010

An earlier version of this obituary misstated the number of years Mr. Miller was married to his wife. It was 65 years, not 74.

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