Singing Along with Mitch
- 2010/08/04 23:58:30
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Despite his distaste for all that we treasure, Miller nonetheless remains an important musical figure. He was extremely influential behind the scenes as head of Artists & Repertoire, first for Mercury and then Columbia Records from the late 1940s into 1960s — he was what we’d derisively call a “suit.” But there was more to him than a desk and an expense account: he shepherded some of the biggest pop hits of the 20th century and signed some of its biggest names. His track record includes Patti Page’s “Tennessee Waltz,” Johnnie Ray’s “Cry,” Frankie Laine’s “Mule Train,” Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-a My House,” and Jimmy Boyd’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.” Upon hearing of Miller’s death, Tony Bennett remarked that the Svengali “put me on the map by producing some my very first million-selling records and he was a great friend and magnificent musician.” That their first big-seller together was 1951’s “Because of You” has certain poignancy now. Miller even had his own string of hits with Mitchell Miller and His Orchestra and Mitch Miller and His Gang. With pride, he later said of his repertoire, “My secret was that I was a trained musician; I knew whether something was good or a crock.”
Well not always. He may have been a wizard in the studio with overdubs and effects, and he could pair singers and tunes like nobody’s business, but he often fell victim to gimmickry. He’d never live down “Mama Will Bark,” an embarrassing 1951 novelty duet between an on-the-ropes Frank Sinatra and the definitely-on-something Dagmar, a television personality more famous for her figure and deadpan comic timing than her golden pipes. If her monotone wasn’t torturous enough, Ol’ Blue Eyes’ desperate-but-game howling, growling, barking, and yipping drove all involved into the cultural doghouse. Fourteen years after that disastrous recording, which nonetheless made the Top 40, Sinatra told Esquire’s Gay Talese, “The only good it did me was with the dogs.” Miller’s vision was also faulty at times; while at Columbia, he was offered Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, but passed on both. And although he discovered Aretha Franklin, he wasn’t quite sure what to do with her. By then the rock ’n’ roll he’d churlishly dismissed had become the dominant form, and the classic pop he’d championed was aging fast.
Unlike most record producers, however, Miller was a well-known public face, Van Dyke and all, thanks to his exposure on NBC’s “Sing Along with Mitch” (1961-1966), a bubbly program based on his million-selling record series. The show featured the maestro himself stiffly conducting an all-male chorus through sentimental standards. With the aid of superimposed lyrics and a “bouncing ball,” the television audience was invited to warble along from the comfort of their own living rooms. Many did.
Although he wasn’t much for the form, I know at least two rock ’n’ roll babies who remember him fondly. In my parents’ record collection, sandwiched between the Beatles, Stones, and Steppenwolf, sits a copy of 1961’s “Holiday Sing Along with Mitch.” It actually spun from the turntable each and every Christmas for years, with frosty gangs of festive vocals leaping through the house with cheer. It was all so frothy and silly, but sometimes that’s just what you need. And for what it’s worth, no one did it better than Miller. “I’ve been very lucky,” he said in 1996. “I worked at what I love, and very few people get that in life. For me, music is still a turn-on.” Whether you’re a rock fan or a pop square, that’s a sentiment we can all sing in harmony.
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