Thursday, August 5, 2010

Mitch Miller, R.I.P.

Perhaps it was the fact that we shared a first name, or maybe it was the fascination a bouncing dot had for a small boy sitting in front of the television. Whatever the reason, I grew up a fan of Mitch Miller. I've been told that I was quite the sight, standing in front of the TV with my legs together, arms stretched out, waving my hands in imitation of Miller's famous conducting pose.  Ah, those were the days.

Mitch Miller was a singularly unlikely television star.  He was a classical oboeist, a studio musician, and head of recording for Columbia Records.  He worked with, and later feuded with, Sinatra.  He certainly had an eye for talent: his discoveries included Tony Bennett, Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney and Johnny Mathis.  He had a knack for marketing: In 1954, the producers of the CBS TV anthology Studio One approached Miller in search of a song for a drama they were doing about payola in the music industry.  He gave them a ballad called "Let Me Go, Devil," and urged them to use an unknown singer rather than an established star.  The show was telecast (with the song now titled "Let Me Go, Lover"); Miller had shrewdly seen to it that store shelves were well-stocked with recordings of the song. It was a smash, and sold 500,000 copies in five days.

He made a few records himself, and had a big choral hit with "The Yellow Rose of Texas."  Yes, Mitch Miller was doing pretty well.  But there was one thing Mitch Miller didn't like: rock music.  It wasn't his kind of music, the music that had been so successful for him for so long.  So he decided to fight back, with what was called the "Sing-along" album, recordings of old favorites with the lyrics printed on the cover so listeners could sing along with Mitch and the gang.

And when Sing Along With Mitch debuted on television in 1961, Mitch Miller became a star.

Sing Along With Mitch was an instant surprise hit, reaching #15 in its first season.  It slaughtered The Untouchables (perhaps the most violent program on television at the time).  It spawned the successful singing career of Leslie Uggams.  It introduced us to Bob McGrath, of Sesame Street fame, who was a longtime singalongers.  Not bad.

The show stayed on the air for three seasons, was seen in reruns through 1966.  The Christmas specials were always a highlight.  The records sold well.  Eventually, of course, the British invasion and the rock movement proved too much.  But Mitch Miller never really faded away entirely.  He was a pretty good, not great, player on Password.  He was a frequent guest conductor for the Boston Pops. (And wouldn't it have been interesting had he, and not John Williams, been chosen to succeed Arthur Fielder?)  A lot of people credit Miller with being the progenitor of karaoke.  OK, we'll give him a pass on that one.

Today I suppose it's hard to imagine a show like that being a hit, but then back in the day, almost anything was possible on television.  It's - well, it's unfortunate that TV, with its astounding technological advances, is in many ways far less advanced than it was when it depended on the incredible creativity of its pioneers.  But, as with so many other things, that's a story for another day.  The story for this day is Mitch Miller, who was born on the 4th of July and died this weekend at 99. 
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