Tidbits: What to Make of Mitch

And so we note the passing of Mitch Miller, the man who almost single-handedly influenced the direction of pop music for a decade.

Miller ruled Columbia Records with an iron hand, and was despised by some of the biggest names in the music business as a result. Yet millions of Americans loved him, following his baton during "sing-a-long" television programs that harkened back to the halcyon days of music. With a kind of Walt Disney elan, Miller maintained the illusion that electric guitars and long hair didn't exist. He installed himself as a bandleader, and with his own bully pulpit at Columbia, his goateed visage was ubiquitous during the 1950s and early 1960s. Mitch managed to avoid rock and roll for about six years, until he was finally swamped by the British Invasion.

Frank Sinatra threatened to punch Mitch Miller in the mouth. Frank Public threatened anybody who interfered when Mitch Miller was on television. How could one man represent both the best and the worst of the music business? Keep in mind that Hank Aaron, all-time homerun leader (we don't count the guy with the asterisk) also struck out over 1300 times in his career.

Lost among the humorous and interesting anecdotes surrounding Miller is the fact that he was one of the most skilled English horn players of 20th century, although more often played oboe, which he did nearly as well. He was featured on a number of important classical recordings during the 1940s, and signed on as orchestra leader and general "artists and repertoire" honcho of classical music at Mercury Records.

Mercury was a relative newcomer to the record business, relying on new pressing equipment running 24/7 to get discs to market -- hence the name. Because popular songs were generally covered by artists at all of the major labels, time-to-market was critical in the 1940s. If the Decca version by Bing Crosby wasn't available in your local record store, you opted for Perry Como's on RCA. With Mercury covering the midwestern states with lightning speed, the label took off. Miller made some incredible moves at Mercury, setting the stage for that label to release some of the all-time benchmark classical recordings after he departed for Columbia.

Miller didn't stay strictly with classical at Mercury. He almost single-handedly launched Mercury as a pop music force. Miller handled Frankie Laine's recordings, including the smash hit "Mule Train" and a number of hits for Patti Page. In a sad touch of irony, if you searched "Mitch Miller" on the Mercury Records website a few days after his passing on July 31, 2010, it returned "NO RESULTS".

Miller moved on to Columbia in the early 1950s, where he would cement his legend. The anecdotes are endless, such as re-naming Albert George Cernik "Guy Mitchell" because he seemed like a nice guy and his own name was Mitchell...forcing Sinatra to sing duets with Dagmar...refusing to sign Elvis Presley...invented karaoke...we could go on and on.

Some of these myths are possibly related to misunderstandings; others boil down to he-said/he-didn't-say. Poor Mitch Miller can't be mentioned these days without dragging Sinatra's famed hatred into the mix. Miller, for his part, claimed that Sinatra was completely within his contractual rights to refuse any song. If that's true, why did Sinatra do "Mama Will Bark" with Dagmar? Frank later said the only good it did him was with the dogs, perhaps implying that he'd hoped to score with the buxom blonde? In retrospect, it's a lot easier to believe that scenario than to believe Miller bullied him into the recording. Remember, in 1951 Miller was still accumulating power at Columbia, and Sinatra was an international superstar who wasn't known for being pushed around.

It is likely that Miller used his musical knowledge to manipulate people; having extensive education and classical skill, he knew far more about the science of music than those with mere talent. Then again, Rosemary Clooney claimed she was "forced" to sing "Come-on-a-My House," stating that she'd be booted from her contract if she refused. So perhaps there is some truth to Miller's alleged bullying; we'll never really know.

continues above, in column at right...

featured performance

Here's a scene that played out millions of times in 1955, Mitch Miller's "Yellow Rose of Texas" spinning at 78 revolutions per minute on a turntable. Please note that you have to click on the little "play" arrow twice to get it to work.

Tidbits special on Mitch Miller, continued from column at left

As for Elvis, Miller admitted to punting that one away, quietly saying in later years that he had the opportunity to sign him but felt Colonel Parker's demands were too extreme. But in the public eye, Mitch Miller passed on Elvis and quite a few other rock and rollers. Add to this his legendary comment that rock and roll lacked substance, and the story has evolved that Miller refused to sign any rockers.

This one is a little harder to sort out, but in the end, it seems that again Miller has been given a bad rap. He did, after all, record Frankie Laine's "Mule Train," which in the late 1940s foreshadowed rock and roll. In 1956 Miller readily signed a rockabilly/country picker named Johnny Horton to Columbia, before anybody really knew what rock and roll was. Horton's first release on Columbia was "Honky Tonk Man," sounding nearly as rock and rollish as anything else on the charts. Horton later scored a number one pop hit with "Battle of New Orleans," which is hard to pin down as specifically country. Early recordings by Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash were also heavily slanted toward an Elvis/Sun Records sound, Cash being a Sun artist prior to Columbia. Miller would also sign a young Minnesotan named Bob Dylan, admittedly a folkie but definitely influenced by rock. So while Miller was certainly slanted toward traditional pop, classical, and oddly enough, country music, he didn't despise rock and roll as much as historians would have us believe.

But it is a fact that while Bobby Darin and Elvis and even Johnny Horton were tearing up the charts with a rock and roll sound, Columbia was more inclined to promote Percy Faith, Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis. Miller was reinforced by their success; Percy Faith's "Theme From a Summer Place" hit #1 in 1960 for nine consecutive weeks. Andy Williams' albums routinely went gold. Even country artist Jimmy Dean put "Big Bad John" on top of the country, easy listening, and pop charts in 1961.

In other words, there was no reason to tamper with Miller's formula. No reason, that is, until rock and roll took over the pop charts for real in 1964. There were occasional glimpses of traditional pop, but the top spot was routinely owned by acts such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Herman's Hermits, The Rolling Stones, and The Four Tops. Columbia was late to the party, finally signing unknowns Paul Revere and the Raiders and The Byrds in 1964. Miller left the label in 1965, unfairly criticized for his refusal to change with the times.

The last Miller myth we'll dispel concerns the claim that he invented karaoke. While Miller was everywhere on television in the early 1960s with his choral groups and baton, smiling and reminding all to "follow the bouncing ball," he didn't actually "invent" the formula. It had been used in cartoon shorts during the 1940s; Miller simply revived it for television.

In retrospect, Miller's "hatred" for rock and roll is greatly overstated. Taken in the context of the forward-looking songs he supervised throughout his career at Mercury and Columbia, it seems that Miller was given a bad rap for this. And while he did have a penchant for mindless, "novelty" songs, very few of those songs were musical duds. Miller recognized a catchy melody, and sold a lot of records for his labels. He forever changed the role of producer in the recording studio. Most importantly, Mitch Miller told America that by singing along, they could make a song their own.

Lots of homeruns, lots of strikeouts. Let's remember the good. Rest in peace, Mitchell.

* * * * * *

To revisit "Tidbits" from last month, which delves into politically incorrect songs from the past, please click here.