|Birth name||Mitchell William Miller|
|Born||July 4, 1911
|Genres||Choral, Traditional Pop|
|Occupations||Record company executive|
|Instruments||Oboe, English horn, vocals|
|Associated acts||Mitch Miller and The Gang
Sing Along With Mitch
|Bob McGrath, Leslie Uggams|
Mitch Miller (born Mitchell William Miller, July 4, 1911) is an American musician, singer, conductor, record producer, A&R man and record company executive. He was one of the most influential figures in American popular music during the 1950s and early 1960s, both as the head of Artists & Repertoire at Columbia Records and as a best-selling recording artist. Some regard Miller as the creator of what would become karaoke with his NBC-TV series, Sing Along with Mitch. A graduate of the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester in the early 1930s, Miller began his musical career as an accomplished player of the oboe and English horn, and has recorded several highly regarded classical albums featuring his instrumental work over the years. But he is best known as a conductor, choral director, television performer and recording executive.
Miller served as the head of A&R (Artists and Repertoire) at Mercury Records in the late forties, and then joined Columbia Records in the same capacity in 1950. This was a pivotal position in a recording company, because the A&R executive decided which musicians and songs would be recorded and promoted by that particular record label.
He defined the Columbia style through the early 1960s, signing and producing many important pop standards artists for Columbia, including Patti Page, Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray, Ray Conniff, Percy Faith, Jimmy Boyd, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, and Guy Mitchell (whose pseudonym actually was based on Miller’s first name), and helped direct the careers of artists who were already signed to the label, like Doris Day, Dinah Shore and Jo Stafford, to just name a few. Miller also discovered Aretha Franklin and signed her to her first major recording contract. She left Columbia after a few years when Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records promised her artistic freedom to create records outside the pop mainstream in a more rhythm-and-blues-driven direction.
Miller also was responsible for not pursuing certain artists and tunes: he disapproved of rock 'n' roll, and passed on Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, who became stars on other labels. (He had offered Presley a contract, but balked at the amount Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, was asking.) Despite his distaste for rock 'n' roll, Miller often produced records for Columbia artists that were rockish in nature. Songs like "A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation)" by Marty Robbins, and "Rock-a-Billy" by Guy Mitchell are just two examples. In 1961, Miller was instrumental in getting Bob Dylan signed to the label, working on the recommendation of colleague John Hammond.
As a record producer, Miller gained a reputation for both innovation and gimmickry. Although he oversaw dozens of chart hits, his relentlessly cheery arrangements and his penchant for novelty material (e.g. "Come on-a My House", "Mama Will Bark") has drawn heavy criticism from some admirers of traditional pop music. Music historian Will Friedwald wrote in his book Jazz Singing (Da Capo Press, 1996) that "Miller exemplified the worst in American pop. He first aroused the ire of intelligent listeners by trying to turn — and darn near succeeding in turning — great artists like Sinatra, Clooney, and Tony Bennett into hacks. Miller chose the worst songs and put together the worst backings imaginable — not with the hit-or-miss attitude that bad musicians... traditionally used, but with insight, forethought, careful planning, and perverted brilliance." (221)
At the same time, Friedwald acknowledges Miller's seminal influence on later popular music production:
|“||Miller established the primacy of the producer, proving that even more than the artist, the accompaniment, or the material, it was the responsibility of the man in the recording booth whether a record flew or flopped. Miller also conceived of the idea of the pop record "sound" per se: not so much an arrangement or a tune, but an aural texture (usually replete with extramusical gimmicks) that could be created in the studio and then replicated in live performance, instead of the other way around. Miller was hardly a rock 'n' roller, yet without these ideas there could never have been rock 'n' roll. "Mule Train", Miller's first major hit (for Frankie Laine) and the foundation of his career, set the pattern for virtually the entire first decade of rock. The similarities between it and, say, "Leader of the Pack", need hardly be outlined here.||”|
— Friedwald, Will. Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer's Art (New York:Da Capo Press, 1997), 174.
While Miller's methods were resented by some of Columbia's performers, including Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney, the label maintained a high hit-to-release ratio during the 1950s. Sinatra, in particular, would speak harshly of Miller and blame him for his (Sinatra's) temporary fall from popularity while at Columbia, having been forced to record material like "Mama Will Bark" and "The Hucklebuck." Miller countered that Sinatra's contract gave him the right to refuse any song.
In the early '50s Miller recorded with Columbia's house band as "Mitchell Miller and His Orchestra". He also recorded a string of successful albums and singles, featuring a male chorale and his own distinctive arrangements, under the name "Mitch Miller and the Gang" starting in 1950. The ensemble's hits included "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena", "The Yellow Rose of Texas", and the two marches from The Bridge on the River Kwai: "The River Kwai March and Colonel Bogey March". In 1961 Miller also provided two choral tracks set to Dimitri Tiomkin's title music on the soundtrack to The Guns of Navarone. In 1962 they sang the theme of The Longest Day over the end credits. In 1965 they sang the "Major Dundee March", the theme song to Sam Peckinpah's Major Dundee. Though the film was a box-office bomb, paradoxically the song remained popular for years. In 1987, Miller conducted the London Symphony Orchestra with pianist David Golub in a well-received recording of Gershwin's "An American in Paris," "Rhapsody in Blue," and "Concerto in F."
In the 1960s, Miller became a household name with his 1961–1966 NBC television show Sing Along with Mitch, a community-sing program featuring him and a male chorale (an extension of his highly successful series of Columbia record albums of the same name). During the second season of Sing Along with Mitch, Miller himself coined the catchphrase "all smiles." These were preceded by the instructions to "sing along; just follow the bouncing ball" (a large dot that "bounced" above the words that were superimposed on the screen of the song that Mitch and the chorale were performing. However, the show was sponsored by Ballantine beer and sometimes the Ballantine logo of three circles connected as a triangle would do the bouncing). People in the karaoke profession regard Mitch Miller as the "inventor" of what would become modern day karaoke, and many KJs even tell some singers to just "follow the bouncing ball" if they're new to karaoke. Steve Allen once performed a pointed satire of the show that spoofed the show's production values, including cameras panning among the vocalists, going out of control and knocking them over, then chasing Allen, made up as Miller, out of the studio.
Singer Leslie Uggams, pianist Dick Hyman, and the singing Quinto Sisters were featured on the program. One of the singers in Miller’s chorale, Bob McGrath, went on to a long career as one of the hosts of the PBS children’s television show Sesame Street.
Sing Along with Mitch ran on television from 1961 until it was cancelled in 1964, a victim of ever-changing musical tastes (selected repeats aired briefly on NBC during the spring of 1966). The demographics of the show's audience ran too much toward mature viewers to attract advertisers more interested in targeting the youth market. (The show's format remained popular in England, where comedian Max Bygraves emceed his own version, "Sing Along with Max.")
In later years, Miller would carry on the sing-along tradition, leading crowds in song in personal appearances. For several years, Miller was featured in a popular series of Christmas festivities in New Bedford, Massachusetts, leading large crowds singing carols.
Miller has guest-conducted many of the top American orchestras.
Miller received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.
In the mid-1960s, Miller and his male chorus performed the original song "Help, Neighbor" on a televised public-service announcement for the American Red Cross.
Miller, now 98 years old (as of 2009), currently resides in New York City and continues to be a guest-conductor for many renowned orchestras.