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

By Matt Schudel
Tuesday, August 3, 2010; B06

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.

"[Expletive] you!" the singer snarled. "Keep walking."

To this day, Mr. Miller remains a frequent target of music aficionados who maintain that he lowered the standards of pop music and turned it into a wasteland.

"Miller exemplified the worst in American pop," critic Will Friedwald wrote in the book "Jazz Singing: America's Great Voices From Bessie Smith to Bebop and Beyond." "He first aroused the ire of intelligent listeners by trying to turn . . . great artists like Sinatra, Clooney, and Tony Bennett into hacks. Miller chose the worst songs and put together the worst backings imaginable . . . with insight, forethought, careful planning, and perverted brilliance."

Although he made a fortune for Columbia, Mr. Miller never hid his contempt for the records he made.

"I wouldn't buy that stuff for myself," he said in 1951. "There's no real artistic satisfaction in this job. I satisfy my musical ego elsewhere."

While producing hits for others, he began making music under his own name. In the 1950s, Mr. Miller had top-selling records with rousing choral-orchestral versions of the Israeli folk song "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena," "The Yellow Rose of Texas" and "Colonel Bogey March," the whistled theme of the 1957 David Lean film "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

Beginning in 1958, he made a series of albums with a male chorus ("Mitch Miller and the Gang") that featured familiar songs from decades past. The old-fashioned approach was surprisingly popular, and Mr. Miller registered 19 Top 40 hits in four years.

In 1961, NBC made him a television star with "Sing Along With Mitch." The musical variety show received humbling reviews -- "the Miller ensemble is made to sound as if it were working in an empty warehouse and had to sing to keep warm," a New York Times critic wrote -- but it achieved good ratings as Middle America joined the chorus.

Mitchell William Miller was born July 4, 1911, in Rochester, N.Y. His parents were immigrants from Russia, and throughout his life Mr. Miller called himself a scrappy "street kid" whose father was an ironworker.

When he was about 11, he began playing the oboe because it was the only unclaimed instrument in his school's music program, and he quickly showed a talent for music. By 15, he was performing in a professional orchestra.

He graduated cum laude from Rochester's Eastman School of Music in 1932, joined the CBS Orchestra in New York in 1935, and was one of the finest oboists of his time, with solo recordings of works by Bach and Mozart. He played in jazz settings and appeared in some of Orson Welles's Mercury Theatre productions, including the "War of the Worlds" broadcast in 1938. In 1949, he produced and played oboe on "Charlie Parker With Strings," one of the most renowned recordings of the jazz saxophonist.

His wife of 65 years, Frances Alexander Miller, died in 2000. Survivors include three children, Andrea Miller of New York, Margaret Miller Reuther of Willsboro, N.Y., and Mitchell "Mike" Miller of Boston; two brothers; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

As rock-and-roll came to dominate the recording industry, Mr. Miller was increasingly out of step with the times. He left his executive position at Columbia Records in 1965. Still, many of the performers he signed to the label, including Vic Damone, Jerry Vale, Mahalia Jackson, the Ray Conniff Singers and the New Christy Minstrels, had substantial careers.

He recorded his final "Sing Along With Mitch" episode in 1964 but continued to make his feel-good recordings for years, selling more than 20 million copies altogether. He led sing-along concerts and conducted orchestras around the world. His 1987 recording of several classical works by Gershwin with the London Symphony is considered some of the finest in the Gershwin repertoire.

At a peace rally protesting the Vietnam War in the early 1970s, Mr. Miller led a group of thousands in singing Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"

For many years, Mr. Miller, who was known as "The Beard" during an era when it was unusual for men to have facial hair, lived in an early 19th-century house in Stony Point, N.Y., that inspired Alec Wilder to write the classic song "It's So Peaceful in the Country."

"When the opportunity came to do something, I took it," Mr. Miller said in 1995, looking back at his life in music. "I never had a career plan. It was serendipity. Good luck comes to those who are prepared to receive it."

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