Mitch Miller, the baton-wielding host of the “Sing Along With Mitch” television show who promoted performers such as Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney, has died. He was 99.
He died July 31 in Manhattan after a short illness, the New York Times reported, citing his daughter, Margaret Miller Reuther.
Miller was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys in 2000, when he still worked actively as a guest conductor. Throughout his life, he was noted for the considerable energy and self-confidence that accompanied his musical ability. Even during the Great Depression, he never lacked for work.
After receiving classical training on the oboe, he played in the orchestra for George Gershwin’s road tour of “Porgy and Bess” in 1935, then joined the CBS Orchestra for more than a decade before he became a music record executive to develop popular artists.
Miller selected and produced songs recorded by Patti Page, Vic Damone and Frankie Laine at Mercury Records, then moved to CBS in 1950. There, he steered Bennett, Clooney and Johnny Mathis to their first hits. Within two years, Miller took CBS from fourth to first place in pop-music sales. In addition to his fulltime job at CBS, he simultaneously worked part-time as director of popular recordings for Simon & Schuster’s Little Golden Records.
Miller resisted the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in a fierce and outspoken way. He accused disc jockeys in 1958 of “abandoning adults” in their rush to embrace the new genre.
That same year, he released his first “Sing Along With Mitch” album, on the shrewd bet that many Americans still hankered for enduring melodies such as “Down by the Old Mill Stream” and “You Are My Sunshine.”
The album sold more than 8 million copies and stayed on the record charts for 204 weeks. Miller released almost two dozen more “Sing Along” albums for CBS over the next few years.
He moved to television in early 1961, hosting “Sing Along With Mitch” as a musical variety show on NBC. The program was a huge ratings success and turned Miller into a nationally recognized figure, with his trademark goatee and baton in hand. The host encouraged viewers to sing along as the song’s lyrics scrolled across the bottom of the TV screen. Four years later, NBC canceled the show due to youthful viewers’ scorn.
Mitchell William Miller was born on July 4, 1911, in a Rochester, New York, neighborhood of Jewish and Italian immigrants. His father was a wrought-iron worker, and his mother was a seamstress who once worked in the Russian czar’s summer palace outside Warsaw, according to “Current Biography.”
Although Miller took piano lessons as a child, he didn’t discover the oboe until junior high school, when he decided to sign up for orchestra and found just one instrument left. By the time he was 14, he was taking oboe lessons at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music, and at 15, he made his professional debut with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. Miller also played the English horn, a woodwind instrument similar to the oboe but larger and lower-pitched.
After high school, Miller enrolled in the Eastman school on a full scholarship. There he displayed a touch of flamboyance as he drove a Model T Ford, cut classes and voiced his criticism of school administrators. Caught in a police raid of a craps game, the quick-witted Miller offered a professor’s name when asked to identify himself, the New Yorker magazine recounted in a 1953 profile.
He courted his future wife, Frances Josephine Alexander, with similar aplomb. The two met at Eastman, where Alexander was a student of piano; following his 1932 graduation, Miller wooed her long distance by air mail, special delivery and 1,000-mile auto trips from New York City to her hometown of Quincy, Illinois. The two were wed on Sept. 10, 1935. The marriage produced three children: Andrea, Margaret and Mitchell.
Miller, who played under such esteemed conductors as Sir Thomas Beecham and Leopold Stokowski, surprised many when he made the switch to pop music. Miller thought the move was unremarkable.
“The same rules apply. You know, taste, musicianship, balance, get the best out of the artist,” he told Audio magazine in an interview published in 1985. “The term classical just means something that lasts. So I saw no difference,”
Miller was innovative and tried things that seemed outlandish. One of his first hits at CBS was “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” sung by a 12-year-old Jimmy Boyd. Miller insisted that Clooney record “Come On-a My House,” written in part by playwright William Saroyan and backed by a harpsichord. Her first hit, it sold over a million copies.
‘Could Not Miss’
“There was a time in the early 50s when this man could not miss. His powerful personality got singers to record songs that didn’t seem right, and constantly proved his judgment was near perfect,” longtime record executive Joe Smith wrote in his 1988 book, “Off the Record.”
Miller was said to be the man who put the sound of the cracking whip in “Rawhide,” sung by Frankie Laine, the Mercury artist who soon followed Miller to CBS. Frank Sinatra, however, left CBS in a huff over Miller’s suggestions.
In the 1985 interview, Miller told Audio magazine that he had attacked rock ‘n’ roll “for its utter lack of literacy,” adding that “the thing that bothered me most was the ripping off of the blacks.”
He cited the cases of Pat Boone singing white versions of Little Richard songs and British singers using black singers’ material to score with American audiences. Miller said he also foresaw the rise of payola as record promoters paid stations to promote songs.
By 1985, Miller said, he had come full circle to symphony work. “I conduct all the major orchestras in America, Italy, Canada, some in Mexico,” he said. “It’s live. You strip all the crapola away. No editing, no re-takes. People have to pay to hear you.”