Monday, August 2, 2010

Mitch Miller Passes On

Mitch Miller, musician, music producer, and host of the TV series Sing Along with Mitch, passed Saturday at the age of 99. He had a short illness.

Mitch Miller was born on July 4, 1911 in Rochester, New York. As a young child Mr. Miller took piano lessons. It was in junior high that he discovered the oboe, which would become his instrument of choice for the rest of his life. He was only 14 years old when he was taking oboe lessons at Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. At age 15 he played his first professional performance as a musician, with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. Mr. Miler also played the English horn and sang as well. Following his graduation from high school, he attended Eastman School of Music full time on a scholarship.

From 1930 to 1933 Mitch Miller was a member of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra. He graduated from the Eastman School of Music in 1932. For a single season he played at the Metropolitan Museum of Art concerts in New York City. In 1935 he toured as part of the orchestra for Porgy and Bess. It was in 1935 that he was offered the position of soloist oboist with the CBS Symphony Orchestra, then directed by Bernard Hermann. He remained with the CBS Symphony Orchestra until 1947, at which point Mercury Records hired Mitch Miller as an A&R man for classical recordings at the company. It was while he was at Mercury that Mitch Miller made the shift from classical music to popular music. It was while at Mercury that Mitch Miller sought to recreate the sound a singer has in a ballroom. This spurred engineer Robert Fine to develop the echo chamber. It was also during this period that Mitch Miller also acted as musical director of Simon and Schuster's children's recording branch, Little Golden Records. While at Mercury Mr. Miller produced Frankie Laine (who would follow him when he left Mercury) and Patti Page.

Mitch Miller left Mercury Records for Columbia Records in 1950. At Columbia he worked with such artists as Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Ray, Tony Bennett, and Guy Mitchell all early in their careers. While an A&R man with Columbia, Mr. Miller produced several hits, including "Come On-a My House" by Rosemary Clooney, "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" by Jimmy Boyd, "Que Sera Era (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)" by Doris Day,and others. Despite producing a string of hits at Columbia, Mr. Miller would be a source of controversy among some artists at the label. While artists such as Frankie Laine and Tony Bennett credited Mitch Miler with much of their success, others resented him. Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra were two artists who did not care for Mr. Miller. In fact, Frank Sinatra even blamed him for a brief decline in his popularity while at Columbia. Ultimately the singer would leave the label because of his disagreement with the producer. Many pop music purists would criticise Mitch Miller for his love of novelty tunes. Mr. Miller would also resist the rise of rock 'n' roll, passing up chances to sign both Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. Despite this, his techniques would have a heavy influence on rock music, as well as some of the singers he produced (particularly Frankie Ray).

Mitch Miller would not simply have success as a producer at Columbia Records, but also as a recording artist. Starting in the early Fifties he made albums with Columbia resident band as "Mitch Miller and His Orchestra." He also produced albums with singers under the name "Mitch Miller and the Gang." It was in 1958 that he recorded his first "Sing Along with Mitch" album, which contained such old standards as "That Old Gang of Mine," "You Are My Sunshine," and "Don't Fence Me In," to which listeners were expected to sing along. The album proved so successful that Mr. Miller would produce several more "Sing Along..." albums.

The "Sing Along with.." albums would also lead to a TV series.Sing Along with Mitch debuted in 1961 on NBC. Its format was simple. Mitch Miller led a chorus of singers in the same old fashioned songs that had appeared on the albums. Before the songs was always encouragement from Mr. Miller to "sing along." The songs themselves would be accompanied by their lyrics superimposed on the screen and a bouncing ball to guide the viewer along (a technique first used by the Fleischer Brothers in their animated "Song Car-Tunes" series in the Twenties). Even in 1961 critics regarded Sing Along with Mitch as corny and old fashioned. In fact, Steve Allen brutally brutally  parodied Sing Along with Mitch on his show and Stan Freberg offered an even more savage parody of the show on on a February 1962 special on ABC, The Chow King Chow Mein Hour. Despite the many critics of Sing Along with Mitch, the show proved to be a huge success in the ratings. Mr. Miller would also be one of the first to break the colour barrier on American television by featuring young singer Leslie Uggams as a regular on the show. Today many regard Mitch Miller as the inventor of karaoke, even though it was the Fleischer Brothers who introduced the whole idea of singing along to words projected on a screen.

Unfortunately for Mitch Miller, the genre of music against which he had so often railed against, rock 'n' roll, would finally catch up with him. In 1964, with the British Invasion upon American shores, Sing Along with Mitch dropped in ratings and NBC cancelled the show. Following the cancellation of the show, Mitch Miller continued to make "Sing Along with..." albums and also conducted "sing along" tours. Eventually he would return to symphony work as a guest conductor of various orchestras.

Arguably Mitch Miller was one of the most influential music producers of all time. He produced a string of hits that made then minor label Mercury a major label and took Columbia from the fourth ranked label to the top ranked label. He also introduced many recording techniques, such as the echo chamber and sound effects (as in Frankie Laine's first hit, "Mule Train") that has had an influence on music ever since then. Even on television he was an innovator. While the idea of singing along to a bouncing ball dated back to the Twenties, Mr. Miller was one of the first television producers to integrate his cast, featuring Leslie Uggams on the show. It is safe to say music would not be the same today without Mitch Miller.

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