Friday, February 8, 2008

Guy Mitchell (1927 - 1999)

Albert (Al) George Cernik was born in 1927 in Detroit, Michigan to Croatian immigrants. The family loved to sing and Al was no exception making his debut aged three, at a wedding reception. In 1938 they moved to Los Angeles where he was spotted by a Warner Bros’ talent scout. Groomed for screen success as a child star he carried on singing on a studio-controlled radio station, KFWB. When Warner Bros released him from his contract the family moved to San Francisco but Al kept up his singing lessons. Initially after leaving school Al worked as an apprentice saddle-maker but sang with Dude Martin (the singing cowboy) and his band on a regular radio spot.

He joined the Navy in 1944 and spent two years serving his country before leaving to eventually become a professional singer with Carmen Cavallaro's (orchestra) big band. This was where he did his first recordings but with no commercial success. Later after winning a radio competition on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, Al recorded for King Records in 1948, under the name Al Grant.

During this period he worked as a demo singer for various music publishers and demoed "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" among many others. Columbia Records signed him in 1950 and Mitch Miller changed his name to Guy Mitchell, the first five singles flopped but when Frank Sinatra declined to sing in a booked studio session, Mitch Miller brought in Guy and they recorded "My Heart Cries for You." In 1951 it sold two million copies.

Guy Mitchell was the first major recording artist whose career was crafted in the studio, by a record company, and sold to the public by way of records and the radio, and not through concerts. He was truly Mitch(ell) Miller’s, Guy but unlike the countless other manufactured singing idols that would follow, Guy could sing and many of his recordings had the added advantage of having crossover appeal. His early live performances were no match for the rich, highly produced sound of his recordings so he had to work hard on his craft. Hard work and intense training paid off and Guy became a polished performer. His early success was followed by My Truly, Truly Fair, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Sparrow in the Treetop, Belle, Belle, My Liberty Belle, She Wears Red Feathers, and Look At That Girl among others with many featuring the French horns from Mitch Miller’s Orchestra.

As pop took over the charts, Guy’s initial success was beginning to falter in an attempt to rekindle public interest Mitch Miller got Guy to record a pop version of Marty Robbins’, Singin' the Blues (backed by the Ray Conniff Orchestra). The song had previously been a big country hit but Guy’s pop version appealed to the kids and went straight to the top of the pop charts.

The follow up was another pop version of a Marty Robbin’s country song, Knee Deep in the Blues; and this was repeated with Rock-a-billy.

Guy again topped the charts in 1961 again with the more country, "Heartaches by the Number."

He left Columbia Records soon after. Although he remained associated with the music of the fifties and early sixties his lost his popular appeal as music fashions changed. Guy decided to go into semi-retirement and concentrate on ranching by the mid seventies but was eventually encouraged to come back to give tours and concerts. Almost until his death in 1999 he continued to work and tour the world but never again enjoyed chart success. During the 50s, Guy had become a firm favourite in the UK and frequently visited on tours and concerts. Guy also appeared in several movies including ‘Those redheads from Seattle’ (1953) with Teresa Brewer; and ‘Red Garters’ (1954) with Rosemary Clooney (1954).

In 1957 he had his own US television show, “The Guy Mitchell Show,’ and has appeared in several TV series including ‘Whispering Smith’ (NBC) with Audie Murphy; and Perry Mason.

He made one other movie ‘The Wild Westerners’ (1962) which also featured Duane Eddy.

In 1990 Guy made a cameo appearance in a BBC Scotland TV series called ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ (written by John ‘Patrick’ Byrne*), starring Tilda Swinton (wife of the writer) and sang with Eddie Reader.

Whilst on tour in Australia, a year, later Guy was seriously injured in a horse riding accident and eventually made a full recovery but died after an operation in 1999.

* John Byrne is an artist who painted under the nome de plume, ‘Patrick’ and was responsible for the Humblebums, and Gerry Rafferty album covers. He also did the Dolls House album cover for the Beatles, which was eventually rejected with preference given to the Double White cover. The illustration eventually showed up on Parlophone's The Beatles Ballads in 1980.

Worth a listen:
My heart cries for you (1951)
Sparrow In The Treetop (1951)
My Truly, Truly Fair (1951)
Feet Up (Pat Him On The Po-po) (1952)
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1952)
She Wears Red Feathers (1952)
Look At That Girl (1953)
Singing the Blues (1956)
Rock-a-Billy (1957)
Heartaches By the Number (1961)

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