Mitch Miller, 99

Mitch Miller, record executive and 'Sing Along' host, dies at 99

The musician and record-company executive who became one of the 20th century's most influential forces in popular music died July 31 of complications from surgery.
By Matt Schudel
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Mitch Miller, a musician and record-company executive who became one of the 20th century's most influential forces in popular music as the producer who launched the recording careers of singers Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis and Patti Page, died July 31 at a hospital in New York of undisclosed causes. He was 99.

Mr. Miller was a talented conductor and oboist who became a recording star in the 1950s and 1960s with dozens of defiantly backward-looking "sing-along" albums that sold millions of copies. As the host of a popular television show in the early 1960s, "Sing Along With Mitch," he has been credited by some with being the inventor of karaoke.

He made his greatest mark as a behind-the-scenes producer for the Mercury and Columbia record companies from the late 1940s to the 1960s, helping create the sound of popular music between World War II and the Beatles-led British invasion. With a deep antipathy for rock-and-roll -- he turned down Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly for contracts with Columbia -- Mr. Miller preferred an older style of pop music based on jazz and the classics.

For years, it wasn't unusual for half the country's top 10 hits to have come from Mr. Miller's studio, including Page's "Tennessee Waltz," Frankie Laine's "Mule Train," Doris Day's "Secret Love" and Johnnie Ray's "Cry."

He brought country music into the pop mainstream with new recordings of Hank Williams's "Cold, Cold Heart" and "Jambalaya" by Bennett and Jo Stafford, respectively. He refashioned classical music and international folk tunes into pop hits, expanded the studio practice of overdubbing and helped make "novelty" tunes, with nonsensical lyrics and tricky musical effects, a pop-music staple. (His 1952 recording of 13-year-old Jimmy Boyd singing "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," for example, sold 2 million copies.)

"You've got to work out a gimmick that'll get people's attention and hold it," Mr. Miller told Time magazine.

When he became Columbia's head of the popular music in 1950, the label was fourth in record sales. Sales jumped 60 percent within 18 months, and Mr. Miller's golden touch made Columbia the most important pop music label of the era.

He supervised recording sessions at Columbia's studios in New York and Hollywood and coached singers "down to the last breath," as he put it, even though many of them resented what they considered his overbearing manner.

When he brought Clooney to Columbia in 1951, she was a little-known band singer. For weeks, she resisted his entreaties to record "Come on-a My House," based on an Armenian folk song, but when Mr. Miller finally persuaded her, his hitmaking instincts again proved unerring. While listening to the song being replayed in studio, he leapt on a chair and declared, "I'll get them to ship 100,000 of these out in three days." In fact, "Come on-a My House" sold more than 1 million copies and made Clooney an overnight star.

Similarly, Bennett -- who had already scored No. 1 hits with "Because of You" and "Cold, Cold Heart" -- was reluctant to record "Rags to Riches" in 1953, but it, too, soared to No. 1. Finally, they agreed that for every two songs selected by Mr. Miller, Bennett could pick two of his own. Bennett would later call Mr. Miller "perhaps the single most influential producer in the history of recording."

Tiff with Sinatra

Not every performer was as forgiving, however. When Frank Sinatra was with Columbia in the early 1950s, Mr. Miller asked him to record the novelty song "Mama Will Bark" with buxom actress Dagmar. In the background, someone imitates a howling hound, and Sinatra says, "Hot dog, woof!"

Even though the flip side contained one of Sinatra's greatest songs ever, "I'm a Fool to Want You," Sinatra soon left Columbia and never forgot the humiliation of "Mama Will Bark." Years later, when their paths crossed at a Las Vegas hotel, Mr. Miller extended his hand to greet Sinatra.

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