Tuesday, August 3, 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.”