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Mitch Miller, musical innovator and host of 'Sing Along With Mitch,' dies at 99

The musician and producer helped shape musical tastes in the 1950s and '60s. He nurtured the careers of Vic Damone, Patti Page and Leslie Uggams.

August 02, 2010|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times

Mitch Miller, who helped shape musical tastes in the 1950s and early '60s as the head of the popular music division at Columbia Records and hosted the hit "Sing Along With Mitch" TV show in the early '60s while becoming one of the era's most commercially successful recording artists, has died. He was 99.

Miller died Saturday after a short illness at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said his daughter, Margaret Miller Reuther.

A top oboist and English horn player who joined the CBS Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s and later recorded with legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski, Miller wound up his more than seven-decade musical career guest conducting symphony orchestras around the world.

A show business icon with his trademark goatee and baton, Miller is considered one of the most influential producers in the history of recording.

He made a career switch from playing to producing in the late 1940s by becoming A&R (artists and repertoire) director at Mercury Records, a small label that he turned into a major force in the industry.

At Mercury, Miller nurtured the careers of such singers as Vic Damone, Patti Page and Frankie Laine.

He also played on and produced the legendary " Charlie Parker With Strings" sessions and, as a technical innovator in the studio, he was a pioneer of overdubbing in the days before tape, recording from acetate to acetate on a 1949 Page recording of "Money, Marbles and Chalk" on which Page sings to herself.

But it was at Columbia Records from 1950 to the early 1960s that Miller became a recording industry legend.

As Columbia's high-profile A&R head responsible for single popular records, Miller produced a string of hits for Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, Jo Stafford, Johnnie Ray, Jerry Vale, Johnny Mathis, the Four Lads, Laine, Damone and many other artists.

Within two years of his arrival at Columbia, Miller had moved the fourth-place label to first place in industry revenues.

In the world of pop music during the Truman and Eisenhower eras, Miller was the man song publishers besieged with new material.

By mid-1953, Columbia's popular records "artistic czar," as Miller was dubbed in a New Yorker profile, had overseen 51 hits in three years.

In a Billboard listing of the 30 most profitable records of 1952, 11 were released by Columbia — compared to five from archrival RCA-Victor, according to the New Yorker profile in June 1953.

In the previous 18 months, the only two records that had sold 2 million copies were produced by Miller: Johnnie Ray's "Cry" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," sung by 12-year-old Jimmy Boyd.

As Columbia's A&R man for popular records, Miller chose which songs would be recorded, how they would be treated musically, and which singers and musicians would perform them. He then supervised the recording sessions.

Miller was well known for producing novelty tunes with sometimes quirky orchestrations (French horns, bagpipes and, most famously, the sound of a snapping whip on Laine's 1949 million-plus seller for Mercury Records, "Mule Train").

For Rosemary Clooney's 1951 novelty song for Columbia "Come On-a My House," a quasi-Armenian folk song, Miller used an amplified harpsichord.

He had to threaten to fire Clooney before she would record the gimmicky, fast-paced song, which he insisted she sing with a fake Armenian accent. But within weeks of its release, "Come On-a My House" was one of the biggest-selling records in the country and went on to sell more than a million copies.

"My secret," Miller once said of his flair for producing hits, "was that I was a trained musician; I knew whether something was good or a crock."

Not every singer in Columbia's stable of artists agreed with Miller's instincts.

In 1951, he convinced Frank Sinatra to record "Mama Will Bark," a duet with TV's busty blond actress-comedian Dagmar, on which barking and growling noises are heard.

The song, which reached No. 21 on the Billboard chart, is often cited as the worst song Sinatra ever recorded. The singer is said to have never forgiven Miller for "Mama Will Bark," and he and Miller argued constantly over material.

Sinatra, in fact, blamed Miller for the downward spiral of his singing career and in 1953 he left Columbia for Capitol Records.

Miller strongly disagreed with Sinatra's accusations then — and continued to do so decades later.

"When I came to Columbia, he was already at the nadir of his career," Miller told the Chicago Tribune in 1987. "He had lost his television show, he had lost his movie contract, he was chasing after Ava [Gardner], he was behind in his income taxes. In short, his records would not sell, his voice was gone."

Other singers, including Tony Bennett, who, while praising Miller for believing in his talent and boosting his career while at Columbia, also battled Miller over material.

In his 1998 autobiography, "The Good Life," Bennett mentioned how Miller always tried to push novelty tunes on him.

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