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 show.
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 Gershwin’s "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 Laine’s 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 producer’s 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 Minstrels.
It was in 1950 that Miller’s 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 Miller’s 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 country’s 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 Laine’s 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 Miller’s 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 label’s 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 Mitchell’s 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 Lieberson.
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 Columbia’s game plan under Miller. He personally disliked the music, and with Columbia’s 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 Miller’s artists and his own recordings were earning millions of dollars for Columbia, the Company’s 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 Miller’s most youth-oriented artists were Johnny Mathis and the New Christy Minstrels.
By the early 1960s, the decline in Columbia’s 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 wasn’t reaching.
Miller’s 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 Dylan’s presence if Columbia hadn’t 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" series.
By 1965 it was clear that Miller’s 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 Here’s Where I Belong,a Broadway musical based on John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. At that time he said "I don’t mind putting my taste on the line for the public. I’ve found that you cannot underestimate their taste. They’re 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