MITCH MILLER THE GREAT IMPRESSARIO
by PETER LUCK
For nearly 15 years from 1950, Mitch
Miller was a major figure in the recording industry. In addition
to being one of the most dominant men in that industry, as
the head of A. & R. (artists and repertory) at Columbia
Records in the USA, he was also one of the most popular recording
artists at Columbia Records, responsible for numerous chart
singles and also hosting his own highly rated network television
Mitch Miller was born in Rochester,
New York, on 4 July 1911, was interested in music, from a
very early age began learning the piano, and at 12 he took
up the oboe. He attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester,
where he graduated in 1932, and joined the music department
of the Columbia Broadcasting System network the same year.
He had several engagements with George Gershwin as an oboe
player in the orchestra that accompanied the great composer
on his concert tour as a pianist, and in the pit-band for
Gershwins "Porgy and Bess". He made his reputation
in broadcasting as a solo oboist with the CBS Symphony Orchestra
from 1936 to 1947.
When the network acquired the American
Record Company in 1939, renaming it Columbia Records, Miller
began appearing on records as an oboist, and working on recordings
conducted by Andre Kostelanetz, Percy Faith, and also with
the Budapest String Quartet.
In the late 1940s, Miller left CBS
to join the Mercury Records label, where he initially worked
in classical music, producing the Fine Arts Quartet. In 1948,
he became head of A. & R. for the pop music
division, where he signed Frankie Laine and produced a series
of major hits for the singer, including "Mule
Train" (a million and a half seller), "That Lucky
Old Sun," and "Cry of the Wild Goose," and
also conducted the orchestra for Laines hit "Jezebel."
At Mercury, Miller also signed the singer Patti Page, who
had success with "Tennessee Waltz", a song that
had previously been recorded by Erskine Hawkins.
One notable period of Miller's career found
him as concertmaster (on oboe) of the album "Charlie Parker
With Strings". On and off from 1949 until 1953, Parker and
Miller kept close musical company, resulting in one of the
most unusual pairings of reedmen of all time.
In 1950, Miller came back to CBS as
the head of A. & R. for Columbia Records pop
music division. Columbia was among the most successful record
labels in the United States, one of the big three
along with RCA Victor and Decca. Among the artists already
at Columbia was Frank Sinatra, who had been very successful
there during the middle of the decade. However, Miller and
Sinatra never really got along professionally,
the singer disliking the producers penchant for recording
light pop and novelty tunes which were popular
with the public.
Miller proved to have a skilful marketing
strategy. In 1951, when Sinatra declined to record songs he
had selected, Miller tapped a young singer, Al Cernick, whom
Miller had signed and renamed Guy Mitchell, and
who had two hits "My Heart Cries For You"
and "The Roving Kind," which rode the charts for
months and sold more than two million copies.
Doris Day was already at Columbia when
Miller arrived as head of A. & R. but it was while he
ran the label that she had her biggest pop hits.
In addition to having brought Frankie Laine to the label in
the early 1950s, he also had success with the signing of Tony
Bennett and such new talent as Rosemary Clooney, The Four
Lads, and Johnny Ray. Miller helped to foster the middle/late
1950s folk revival when he contracted the Easy Rider trio.
They only had one major hit, "Marianne,"
in 1957, but they wrote and recorded many songs that became
part of the repertoires of the Kingston Trio and the New Christy
It was in 1950 that Millers own
recording career as a pop artist and conductor
began, with major choral recordings credited to Mitch Miller
and His Gang, and other non-vocal numbers. Their first hit
was a rousing version of the Israeli folk-song "Tzena,
Tzena, Tzena," which had also been recorded by the folk
group The Weavers around this time. Folk and traditional works
such as the Civil War marching song "The Yellow Rose
of Texas" proved to form the basis of Millers success
when he launched his own series of Singalong discs.
With "The Yellow Rose of Texas," the group was at
the Number One spot for six weeks in 1955, and continued to
have other colossal hits with numbers like the
"Colonel Bogey" march from "The Bridge On the
River Kwai" (1957).
In 1958, he began a series of Albums
referred to as "Sing Along With Mitch" in which
he led an all-male chorus in rousing spirited versions of
mostly older tunes. These generated numerous hits
between 1958 and 1962, and led to CBS giving Miller a television
series of his own, "Sing Along With Mitch." Miller
had an almost infallible ear for a hit. In 1951
he produced 11 of the countrys top 30 hits,
had four million-sellers, established the careers of Tony
Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Guy Mitchell, and later, Johnny
Mathis, saw his records occupy the top two spots on the charts
for 14 weeks, and brought Columbia Records from number four
to number one.
It was with the recording of cover
versions that Miller showed his greatest marketing acumen.
In those days, the record business was segmented, with different
records aimed at separate groups of buyers. Additionally,
it was customary for record companies even the same
record company to issue rival versions of singles that
showed promise, and even a difference of a few days could
determine which version of a song became a hit.
Thus, Miller got Frankie Laine to record "High Noon,"
the title song from the Gary Cooper western, and Laines
version succeeded two or three weeks earlier than the recording
by Tex Ritter who had sung it in the film. Initially, his
recording label, Capitol, had been reluctant to get behind
the song, but in the event had a top five hit
with it. Tony Bennett had a huge hit with "Cold
Cold Heart," as indeed did Jo Stafford with "Jumbalaya"
in the same way.
Best-sellers like these in the late
50s and early 60s resulted in more record sales than Sinatra,
Presley, or even any of Millers own artists. "Yellow
Rose of Texas" and "Bridge on the River Kwai"
also scored well as individual singles. The "Singalongs"
resulted in 23 charted albums for Miller and Columbia, a record
unmatched in the industry, and by 1966 the total sales of
these series were estimated at 17 million. In the spring of
1960 "Sing Along With Mitch" had become one of the
only recording acts of the era to score well on television.
When Columbia had a country hit
with "Singin The Blues," by Marty Robbins,
recorded in Nashville under the régime of Don Law,
the labels chief of country A. & R. marketing drive
dictated that Miller should ask Guy Mitchell to provide a
version for the pop market, which sold over a
million copies. Of course, Robbins understandably objected
to this approach by Miller, and a subsequent one with Mitchells
version of "Knee Deep In The Blues," believing that
it could prevent his entry into the pop market.
But that was how the record industry was set up at the time,
although this era was drawing to a close.
As a recording executive, Miller was
perceptive of the tastes of the times, at least among adults.
Columbia Records was an extension of its parent company, CBS,
then known as "The Tiffany Network," with the widest
audience. It had the adult market in popular music, which
was the dominant one; it had top jazz artists, including Duke
Ellington and Dave Brubeck, and it had the two most popular
and prestigious orchestras in the country, the New York Philharmonic
and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Columbia represented dignity,
polish, and depth, as embodied by the philosophy of Goddard
This did not leave much room for rock
n roll music. Columbia did have a foot in rhythm and
blues through its Epic and OKeh labels, and Don Law, in Nashville,
was able to exploit the new music with any signings that he
chose to pursue. But rock n roll never figured large
in Columbias game plan under Miller. He personally disliked
the music, and with Columbias share of the pop
music market in the late 1950s did not take it very seriously.
At one point he turned down Buddy Holly.
Although Millers artists and
his own recordings were earning millions of dollars for Columbia,
the Companys market share was slowly being eroded by
changes in public demand. Steve Sholes at RCA, the man responsible
for signing Elvis Presley and numerous other R. & B. stars
to that label, was catering for teenage listeners. Label chiefs
at Decca and Capitol later had Ricky Nelson and the Beach
Boys respectively, while Millers most youth-oriented
artists were Johnny Mathis and the New Christy Minstrels.
By the early 1960s, the decline in
Columbias fortunes was already clear. Sales of albums
and adult popular music were still healthy, but other companies
were beginning to bring in millions of dollars and the millions
of younger listeners that Columbia wasnt reaching.
Millers television show remained
very popular, however, and he was something of a superstar
during this period. But the most important artist signed to
the label during the early 1960s was not one of his discoveries,
but a young folk-singer and song-writer named Bob Dylan brought
into Columbia by jazz-blues-gospel producer John Hammond.
Hammond was perceived as a hero, but
the company would probably not have accepted Dylans
presence if Columbia hadnt already been selling a substantial
number of folk-style records by the Easy Riders and the New
Christy Minstrels. Columbia was taking rock n roll a
little more seriously by 1964 with the signing of Paul Revere
and the Raiders.
By the early 1960s, Miller (who had
successfully masterminded the sensationally popular Little
Golden Records for children) was able, gradually, to retire
from producing other artists and concentrate on his "Singalong"
By 1965 it was clear that Millers
influence had waned. That year, he left the Company, and "Sing
Along With Mitch" was discontinued in 1966. Columbia
was taken over by a younger régime under a new president,
who was determined to take it in a new direction.
After retiring from the TV show, he
arranged a wide range of non-commercial projects,
done strictly for the benefit of his artistic temperament.
For instance, in 1968 he produced Heres Where I Belong,
a Broadway musical based on John Steinbecks East
of Eden. At that time he said "I dont mind
putting my taste on the line for the public. Ive found
that you cannot underestimate their taste. Theyre always
ready for something a little better."
Miller occasionally re-emerged as a
conductor of light classical recordings, but otherwise largely
disappeared from the music scene. In the late nineties, he
returned to his first love, classical music, and began conducting
orchestras all over the world.
However, several CDs of his best work
as a recording artist are still currently available, and artists
he signed in the 1950s, including Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney,
and Johnny Mathis, retain loyal and even growing followings
into the new century.
© COPYRIGHT Peter Luck, 2005