Mitchell William Miller
(born July 4
) is an American musician
, record producer
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.
Education and early career
Miller was born to a Jewish
family in Rochester, New York
. A graduate of the Eastman School of Music
, Miller is an accomplished oboe
and English horn
player. He supported himself in the 1930s and 1940s as a session musician
, and had known George Gershwin
and toured in his orchestra. Among his more celebrated studio dates in the non-classical
field were for The Voice of Frank Sinatra
pioneer Charlie Parker
’s famous Bird with Strings
albums. He was a member of the Alec Wilder
octet of the late '30s (his acquaintance with Wilder dating back to Rochester days), and played in the CBS house orchestra for the 1938 Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast
. He later recorded Sibelius
’s Swan of Tuonela
with Leopold Stokowski
, and the Mozart
Oboe Concerto for Columbia Records.
Miller as an A&R man
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 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 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.
Miller as a record producer
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:
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.
Miller as a recording artist
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 1965 they sang the "Major Dundee March", the theme song to Sam Peckinpah's infamous 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."
Sing Along with Mitch
In the 1960s Miller became a household name with his television show Sing Along with Mitch
, a community-sing program featuring him and a male chorale. 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 television of the song that Mitch and the chorale were performing). 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 for four years (1961–1964) before being cancelled, despite the fact that it was at the height of its popularity at the end of its run. 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.")
Miller and rock music
Miller is frequently referred to by rock music
historians as an “enemy” of early rock and roll
. He did back John Hammond’s
signing of Bob Dylan
to capitalize on the folk music
craze. He ultimately lost his job at Columbia for not signing the types of acts teenagers
Awards and recognitions
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.
Mitch Miller today
Miller, now 97, currently resides in New York City and continues to be a guest-conductor for many renowned orchestras.