In the 1960s--long before MTV and American Idol--the shared musical experience for millions of American TV viewers involved singing along with a chorus of middle-aged men in sweaters. This weekly songfest was presided over by a smiling, goateed conductor named Mitch Miller. Even before the Sing Along With Mitch show, Miller was a powerful force in the record industry, producing records for Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, and many more.
Born on the 4th of July in Rochester New York, Miller got his start in music taking piano lessons as a child, however a piano teacher with possible hygiene problems discouraged him from continuing lessons. In a 1978 interview, Miller recalled a burst of bad breath as a turning point in his young life.
"This teacher was a very good teacher, but every time she leaned over and said, 'Now Mitchell, you must do it this way…', her breath just bowled me over," said Miller.
Miller heard that Eastman-Kodak founder and local philanthropist George Eastman was donating musical instruments to students in the public schools. So, Miller decided to ditch the piano and get in line , taking whatever he could get: an oboe.
He did well by the instrument, studying oboe at the prestigious Eastman School of Music, which led to stints with several orchestras. Miller played under a number of prominent conductors, including Thomas Beecham, Arturo Toscanini, and Igor Stravinsky. Later, as a member of the CBS Symphony, he helped provide the soundtrack to a Martian invasion, on the legendary 1938 "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast.
After a decade playing on the radio and doing session work, famed music executive John Hammond tapped Mitch Miller's pop sensibilities for a job at Mercury Records, where Miller produced a string of hit singles for Frankie Laine. Miller described the whip cracking sounds in Laine's hit "Mule Train" to DJ Bill Randle in a 1978 interview.
"We were hitting leather chairs with rulers, and things like that, and nothing worked," said Miller. "They were remodeling the studio, and there were two slats for flooring and I began to hit them together. So, we dubbed it in and in ten minutes we had it."
Miller's critics derided his use of production gimmicks, but they couldn't deny how his sense of showmanship appealed to the public. Miller helped guide the careers of Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett... and a 20-year-old crooner from California, named Johnny Mathis. The singer recalls some stylistic advice from Miller.
"I remember very clearly that he said he wanted me to sing so that everybody who listened to me thought that they could sing that way, also --- very simply, straight ahead, no embellishments," said Mathis.
Several years later, Miller was in a bind because a new Mathis album was due, but he had no fresh material. Ever the marketer, he assembled a collection of songs that Mathis had previously recorded. Johnny's Greatest Hits stayed on the charts for a record ten years. That was the first album to bear the title, "Greatest Hits," and it’s become a dependable sales engine for the music industry ever since.
Sing Alongs For Everyone
Mitch Miller's biggest impact on American music came in 1958, when he put together a record date with a chorus of male singers who harmonized to nostalgic, popular tunes from half a century earlier.
"The thing was to make them at a tempo that people could sing with," said Miller, "and yet, make them interesting enough that people who didn't sing would want to hear them over and over again."
Miller's first Sing Along With Mitch album shot to the top of the charts. It was followed by 19 more, and it spawned a hit TV show that also broke barriers. Miller's enthusiasm for 17-year-old black singer Leslie Uggams landed her a feature spot on the program, an appearance that helped break color barriers at a time when that kind of spotlight was rare for a national TV show.
Sesame Street's Bob McGrath, also got his start on the Sing Along With Mitch show. He recalls that, in many ways, Mitch Miller was a risk taker and a taboo breaker, but McGrath says he could also be rigid and inflexible.
"He kept Rock and Roll out of Columbia Records for longer than anybody there cared to," said McGrath. "He just felt it was not a very musical style. Those were his convictions, and his convictions were very, very strong."
Mitch Miller spent his later years conducting pops programs with most of the major orchestras in the U.S., ending each performance with an audience sing-along. He died Saturday in New York City after a brief illness. He was 99 years old.