Producer, composer and conductor had a major impact on American popular music, writes Spencer Leigh
Published 08/08/2010 | 05:00
AS a recording manager and record producer, Mitch Miller nurtured the talents of some of the biggest names in American music -- Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray, Doris Day and Rosemary Clooney -- and he made the US Columbia label the biggest in the country. For several years in the Fifties, he was the most important figure in the record industry and many younger talents followed his example and learnt how to produce records.
Mitch Miller was born in Rochester, New York, on July 4, 1911, one of five children to Abram Calmen Miller, a Russian immigrant and foundry worker, and his wife, Hinda Rosenblum, a dressmaker.
As a child, Miller was recognised as a gifted pianist, but he switched to oboe and at the age of 15 he was playing with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra.
He won a scholarship to the Eastman School of Music and graduated in 1932. Years later, when the school wished to create the Miller Atrium in his honour, he insisted it was named after his parents.
Moving to New York City, Miller was in the pit orchestra for the Broadway premiere of Porgy and Bess (1935), later touring with its composer, George Gershwin. He was with the CBS Symphony Orchestra when they performed for Orson Welles' controversial broadcast of The War of the Worlds (1938).
Miller became a record producer in the Forties, first with Mercury Records and then, in 1950, with Columbia. He still played the oboe from time to time, notably on some of Charlie Parker's recordings for Mercury in 1949 including April in Paris and Summertime.
Although big-band singing was the order of the day, he wanted to make records with small groups of musicians if that suited the song. In 1949, he took Mule Train from a little-known Western, Singing Guns, and gave it to Frankie Laine. Laine's bellowing performance was accompanied by Miller himself adding the whip-cracks.
Two years later, Miller paired Laine with some throbbing guitars for Jezebel. "I liked working with Mitch very much," Laine once told me. "He liked to arm wrestle before we started recording."
Miller knew Frank Sinatra well, sometimes being the conductor on his radio programme, Your Hit Parade. He made some excellent records with Sinatra, including American Beauty Rose and I've Got a Crush on You, but in 1950 Miller wanted Sinatra to record The Roving Kind and My Heart Cries for You (which had been written by Miller's orchestrator, Percy Faith). "I don't sing this crap," said Sinatra, leaving Miller with two problems: what would satisfy Sinatra and who would sing the songs.
Rather than cancel the session, Miller asked the up-and-coming Guy Mitchell to step in, and both songs made the US Top 10.
Sinatra found success by reviving Nevertheless (I'm in Love with You), but the following year he made his worst record, Mama Will Bark, with the TV personality Dogmar, and he resolved to get away from Miller as quickly as he could.
Frank Sinatra notwithstanding, Miller had an exceptional talent for matching the singer with the song. The UK record charts started in November 1952 and eight of the first 25 No 1s were produced by Miller: Comes A-Long-A-Love (a song Kay Starr had no time for), She Wears Red Feathers (a cheerful novelty about a London banker from Mitchell), I Believe (the ultimate religious power-ballad from Laine), Look At That Girl (for Mitchell, who had just married a Miss USA), Hey Joe (one of several examples of Miller turning a country song into a pop hit, this time for Laine), Answer Me (another religious song for Laine), Such a Night (Johnnie Ray's recording was banned by the BBC for its suggestiveness) and This Ole House (a novelty hit for Rosemary Clooney, later revived by Shakin' Stevens). He also found and produced Patti Page's (How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window, a UK No 1 for Lita Roza.
Although Miller could spot strong ballads like Rags to Riches and Stranger in Paradise for Tony Bennett, he was adept at finding novelty songs and he encouraged his friend Bob Merrill to write distinctive material for his acts.
Merrill wrote many of Mitchell's hits as well as Clooney's No 1 Mambo Italiano (1955). One of Miller's biggest successes was with I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus by the 12-year-old Jimmy Boyd in 1953. He also produced Too Old to Cut the Mustard (Marlene Dietrich and Rosemary Clooney), Singing the Blues (Mitchell) and Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Doris Day). He also produced Shirley Bassey in New York in 1957.
Johnnie Ray's highly emotional Cry (1952) caused a sensation. It was a huge influence on Elvis Presley and Ray's lack of inhibition paved the way for rock 'n' roll.
However, Miller himself frowned upon rock 'n' roll and is now often cast as the villain of the story -- the industry man who held out against it. He told Melody Maker in 1957: "Rock 'n' roll is the glorification of monotony. A certain element of juveniles accepts almost any form of it, even the lowest and the most distasteful, because everybody else in their group does."
However, Miller's most bitter complaint about rock 'n' roll was over payola -- that is, bribing disc-jockeys to play records.
In 1955, Miller had had his own million-selling record with The Yellow Rose of Texas and he started making sing-along albums by Mitch Miller and the Gang, at first a 20-voice male chorus.
The first album, Sing-Along with Mitch (1958), topped the US album charts for eight weeks and was followed by Christmas Sing-Along with Mitch (1958) and 15 further albums.
In 1961, Miller put the format on US TV and the audience was encouraged to sing-along as the lyrics of California Here I Come or You Are My Sunshine came on the screen. Even at the time they were corny and kitsch, but this was the start of karaoke and Miller, with his Buffalo Bill beard and easy-going nature, became a popular TV personality. Miller's response to the advent of rock 'n' roll was to make an international star from a new ballad singer, Johnny Mathis.
Although he is often seen as a right-wing figure, he stood alongside Pete Seeger and sang Give Peace a Chance at a peace rally.
In later years, Miller worked less successfully on Broadway productions but he often appeared as a guest conductor of symphony orchestras, including the LSO and the Boston Pops.
He spent his later years in a nursing home, but he still had his faculties and he would organise sing-along afternoons for the residents.
Miller married Frances Alexander. They had one son and two daughters but she died in 2000. Miller himself died on July 31.