Producer, music director, conductor, oboist
Many associate Mitch Miller with his pop hit “The Yellow Rose of Texas” or his early 1960s “Sing Along” television programs and records. But Miller established his early reputation as an oboist at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He played for noted conductor Leopold Stokowski and made some of the earliest chamber jazz recordings with Alec Wilder.
After playing in the Syracuse and Rochester symphony orchestras, Miller moved to New York City in the 1930s, joining the CBS Symphony Orchestra in 1936. His experience with live recording soon landed him a job as an A&R (Artists & Repertoire) representative at Mercury Records, where his responsibilities included scouting and recruiting talent, matching singers and musicians with suitable material, and making sure their records were produced properly. In this capacity he produced the work of such pop legends as Patti Page and Frankie Laine.
Miller moved to Columbia Records in 1950, taking it from fourth to first place in music industry revenues with singers like Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, and Johnny Mathis. Throughout his early career as a music director, he was known for innovative combinations of singers and songs, in an age when most performers did not write their own material. He was also known for strange—if not downright quirky—orchestrations, using the harpsichord on popular recordings and producing classical recordings without strings for Columbia’s Golden Recordings for children.
Though he signed the great gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to Columbia and had great success with jazz musicians like Erroll Garner and Charlie Parker, for whom he produced a record with string accompaniment, as the 1950s progressed, Miller was increasingly viewed as an obstacle to change—he reviled rock and roll. After producing his popular Sing Alongs, he turned to guest conducting, leading various symphonies around the world, including the London Symphony Orchestra.
Much about Miller remained a mystery to the public at large until Ted Fox’s two-part interview with him for Audio magazine appeared in 1985. Aptly titled “Mitch Miller: A Hidden Classic,” it revealed much about Miller’s early musical education. His father, a Russian immigrant who worked as a toolmaker and wrought-iron worker, bought the family a piano when Miller was six; Miller and his two older sisters were given weekly lessons. But living in Rochester may have been the key factor in Miller becoming a musician, for George Eastman,
For the Record…
Born July 4, 1911, in Rochester, NY; son of a tool maker and wrought-iron worker; married Frances Alexander. Education: Graduated (cum-laude ) from Eastman School of Music, early 1930s.
Played oboe with Syracuse and Rochester symphony orchestras; joined CBS Symphony Orchestra, 1936; worked as producer and A&R rep for Mercury Records; joined staff of Columbia Records, 1950; produced television program Sing Along With Mitch, 1960-64; international guest conductor of symphony orchestras.
of the Rochester-based firm Eastman Kodak, had endowed the first public school system music program there, donating instruments to the schools provided that they would supply instruction.
When he was 11, Miller heard about the program and applied for an instrument. His friends all got brass instruments, but he was left with the oboe, a difficult woodwind consisting of a long tapered chamber that employs a double reed. In fact, as he stated in the New Yorker, Miller didn’t even realize at first that the instrument used reeds or that each player must make his or her own. Fortunately, his father made him the tools he needed, though he could not pass on the arcane and jealously guarded secrets of the professional oboist.
At 14 Miller began lessons at the Eastman School of Music, and by 15, he had secured a position with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. When he was 18, he attended the Eastman School on a full-time scholarship and eventually managed to graduate cum-laude despite his reputation for hijinks. He moved to New York City in 1932, and though the nation was struggling with the Great Depression, he was quickly able to find a steady job with the CBS orchestra. In the meantime, he had gotten married. He was soon making a good living doing additional solo work and landing regular spots with the Andre Kostelanetz and Percy Faith orchestras, as well picking up jobs cantering around the city.
The 1930s allowed Miller to hone his playing, as he constantly moved from classical music, to jazz, to soundtracks for radio shows, like the Orson Welles Mercury Theatre “War of the Worlds” broadcast that fooled much of America into believing that a Martian invasion was in progress. But more important to his later career was his exposure and interest in recording technology. In the days before magnetic tape, recordings were made directly to a master print; it was thus crucial to achieve a balanced sound through rehearsal and the careful placement of specialized microphones. In Audio, Miller revealed that the great music directors “Kostelanetz and Stokowski knew more about sound and microphone technique than almost anyone else, and I was able to learn plenty from them.”
Miller didn’t consider the move from classical to popular music unusual, noting that his friends at Eastman were constantly listening to the jazz and pop music of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Bing Crosby. He earned his reputation as a capable producer while still working as a sideman, suggesting that more takes be recorded of rehearsals, so that good performances, particularly by soloists, would not be wasted. It was not long before he was summoned by future Columbia A&R great John Hammond to Keynote Records, which would later become Mercury, to do some classical recordings, one of which won a prize in 1948. Hammond suggested he do some popular records, so Miller went to work with Frankie Laine, Vic Damone, and Patti Page. Miller explained in Audio that the producer’s job is to get the best out of the artist, maintaining, “Many times the artist doesn’t know what his best characteristics are, and you’re there to remind them. You can’t put in what isn’t there, but you can remind them of what they have and they’re not using.”
Frankie Laine’s recorded output is a good example of Miller’s work in the 1950s. Miller had an impression of Laine as a blue-collar singer, and looked for material to fit that image. Songs like “Mule Train” connected Laine’s listeners to the mythical West that went so far in shaping the country’s concept of itself. In fact, Miller made a name for himself by producing pop cover versions of the best country western music of the day; acting on a tip from Atlantic Records co-founder Jerry Wexler, he started listening to country great Hank Williams.
Tony Bennett scored a hit with a Percy Faith arrangement of Williams’s “Cold Cold Heart,” and soon Miller had an exclusive agreement with Fred and Wesley Rose, Williams’s publishers, to place the country star’s songs with pop artists. Miller also reversed the country crossover process, choosing the pop tune “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Carnation” for country singer Marty Robbins. Success in this area continued for several years—until country writers started writing expressly to cross over and the songs lost their verve. Miller’s now-legendary tenure at Mercury also produced novelty songs like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and saw unusual pairings such as pop crooner Dinah Shore backed by bagpipes and singer Burl Ives supported by a Dixieland band.
Miller moved to Columbia Records in 1950, in part because Mercury tried to extract payment from him for shares in the company that he had been promised as condition of his employment there. At Columbia, he continued to nurture pop stars like Johnny Mathis and Rosemary Clooney and made Ray Connif’s career by giving him a chance to produce a new choral sound using voices as instruments.
But perhaps the most important aspect of Miller’s early career at Columbia was in studio technique. Monaural tape became available in 1951; Miller commented on the then-new medium in Audio: “I used the same technique as before, because with monaural tape you could not remix; even with stereo tape there was no remixing. It wasn’t until they had multiple tracks that you could remix. The technique when tape first came in was that you could use a big chunk of something, and you could save some good performances.” Before tape, and, Miller claimed, before the breakthrough work of guitarist Les Paul and singer Mary Ford, he helped pioneer the technique of overdubbing—in which recordings on various “tracks” are laid over each other to produce a richer, more interesting effect—with Patti Page and Jack Rail on “Money, Marbles and Chalk.”
The Columbia years were also famous for Miller’s Monday sessions, in which he opened his doors for anyone with a song to pitch. Though this might have seemed a good way to keep the business fresh and the pipeline filled with material, it also reinforced Miller’s status as an all-powerful arbiter of what the public got to hear, a charge he disputed on the grounds that the market ultimately determined his success and popularity, not the other way around. He recorded bandleader Duke Ellington and blues singer Big Bill Broonzy and contributed to the folk craze of the early 1950s by covering Weavers songs like “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” and “Goodnight Irene,” but he was vocally opposed to rock and roll, calling it “musical illiteracy.” Steadfast in this view, Miller was accused of being unwilling to change.
Indeed, there was a perception that the success of his Sing Along television shows and records depended on a world that no longer existed; writing about a new Sing Along special in the works for 1981, Dick Hyman suggested the “quaintness” of Miller’s specialty in Contemporary Keyboard, reporting, “Miller’s show was built around a 25-voice male chorus with an orchestral combination of accordion, bass, drums, harmonica, and three guitars doubling on ukulele and banjo, a somewhat folksy mix often featured around campfires, country fairs, and other wholesome American venues.”
But Miller told a different story about his opposition to rock and roll in Audio, citing his refusal to pay “payola”—monetary inducement to radio personnel to spin a given record—and his aversion to “British-accented youths ripping off black American artists and, because they’re white, being accepted by the American audience,” valid criticism of the new form echoed by others in the industry. Miller left Columbia in 1961; he continued to work on his weekly NBC television show, Sing Along With Mitch, until it was canceled in 1964 in favor of programming targeted toward the increasingly sought-after youth market, though ratings for the show were high.
Since then Miller has been guest-conducting symphony orchestras in the Americas and Europe. In 1989, he earned good notices for a Gershwin program with the London Symphony Orchestra. And according to Entertainment Weekly, in 1992, at the age of 83, he made five grueling bus tours for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign.
It was perhaps fitting that Miller ultimately returned to classical music, the pop sensations of the ’50s on whom most of his reputation rests having long faded. As a leader of a symphony orchestra, he was able to direct timeless pieces, choosing from the greatest selection of “songs.” Aside from his seeming inability to progress with popular tastes, Miller’s well-documented ego and aggressive personality may also have influenced the way history has treated him. For many a product of the rock age, it is perhaps easier to hold him up to ridicule—his Sing Along version of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance” is included on Rhino Records’s Golden Throats 2 —than it is to recall, as folksinger Pete Seeger did in his book Where Have All the Flowers Gone, the time Miller helped lead thousands in that song during the 1970s at a rally to end the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, Miller’s importance to the history of the music industry, and to the history of popular music itself, is beyond question.
Holiday Sing-Alongs With Mitch, CBS, 1987.
16 Most Requested Albums, Columbia/Legacy, 1989.
Mitch’s Greatest Hits, Columbia, 1989.
Favorite Irish Sing-Alongs, Columbia/Legacy, 1992.
34 All Time Great Sing-Along Selections, Columbia.
Christmas Sing-Along With Mitch, Columbia.
Memories: Sing Along With Mitch Miller, Columbia.
Seeger, Pete, Where Have All the Flowers Gone: A Singer’s Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies, Sing Out Publications, 1993.
Audio, November 1985; December 1985.
Contemporary Keyboard, April 1981.
Entertainment Weekly, November 20, 1992.
Instrumentalist, January 1989.
Musical Opinion, February 1989.
Music Journal, Number 3, 1961.
Music Quarterly, Number 4, 1990.
New Yorker, June 6, 1953.
Ovation, December 1985.
Symphony, Number 6, 1991.
Variety, September 25, 1985.
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