Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Mitch Miller (1911 - 2010)

Mitchell William Miller was born in 1911 in Rochester, NY. He was a child with a natural aptitude for music and learned to play at piano aged six by age 12 he had mastered the oboe. A graduate of the prestigious Eastman School of Music he joined CBS Symphony Orchestra at the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) radio network in 1932 as a soloist. From the beginning Mitch moon lighted working as a session soloist with RCA Victor and recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski. Once the American Record Company was acquired and renamed Columbia Records (1939) Mitch appeared on many recordings including the Andre Kostelanetz Orchestra and the Budapest String Quartet. He also featured on the earliest recordings of the music of composer Alec Wilder and later was the soloist on a Columbia Masterworks release of the Mozart Oboe Concerto.

He joined Mercury Records and produced the Fine Art Quartet before becoming the head of (Artists and Repertoire) (A&R) for the label's pop music division. In the early 50s he signed artists like Frankie Laine and Patti Page and produced many hits. Mitch continued his own musical career by recording as a guest soloist on many classical records including the album, Charlie Parker with Strings.

In 1950 Mitch Miller moved back to Columbia as the head of their A&R and had an ear for commercial sounds. Mitch enjoyed light pop tunes and favoured overdubbing on many recordings. He recorded many novelty records usually with well established stars including Rosemary Clooney and Frank Sinatra. Whilst they were not always happy with the exercise many songs went on to become massive hits. Frank Sinatra had been a superstar in the 40s popular with the bobby soxers but by the early 50s his appeal was beginning to fade until Mitch produced the Sing and Dance with (Frank) Sinatra LP.

The album had eight tracks including You do something to me and Lover; the re-issue contained 18 tracks including All of me. Most of the tracks were arranged and conducted by George Siravo and his orchestra and because Frank’s voice was beginning to fail, Mitch enhanced the recording by overdubbing his vocals. The original pressing contained "rhythm numbers," whereas the re-issue contained beat-driven, swinging tracks which were more in tune with contemporary Sinatra. Sing and Dance with (Frank) Sinatra was the last album did with Capitol. The relationship between producer and singer was always tenuous and neither shared the others’ preferred studio protocols i.e. Sinatra liked to record with live musicians whereas Mitch preferred to pre-record and overdub. In 1951, when Frank Sinatra was unwilling to record a couple of songs, Mitch Miller substituted a singer called Al Cernick who recorded "My Heart Cries for You" and "The Roving Kind." He renamed the sign Guy Mitchell and both singles went on to become big hits.

In the same year reluctantly Frank was coerced into single a comedy song with a young actress called Dagmar. The unlikely pairing came when Miller got the impression the two had chemistry after seeing them perform together on a Sinatra TV show. ‘Mama will bark’ with Dagmar who singing out of tune went on to become a big hit but soon after Sinatra left Columbia and signed for Capitol Records.

Doris Day had already established herself as a singer with Columbia but under the wing of Mitch Miller she became a pop music institution. Other acts to benefit from his inspired genius were Frankie Laine and Tony Bennett. He also discovered Mahalia Jackson, Jerry Vale, Rosemary Clooney, the Four Lads, Johnny Mathis, and the nabob of song himself, Johnnie Ray.

At the same time Mitch Miller continued with his own recording career as both a pop artist and conductor. Under the label "Mitch Miller and His Gang" he had a big success with the Israeli folk song "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena."

The group followed this up with hit versions of "The Yellow Rose of Texas," (which knocked Bill Halley and the Comet’s Rock around the clock off the Number position in the US charts) and the "Colonel Bogey March" from movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Mitch Miller and the Gang chalked up 19 Top 40 hits between 1958 and 1962. Mitch was offered a television series by CBS (a subsidiary of Columbia) which was called Sing Along with Mitch and featured popular classics given the Mitch Miller treatment.

Mitch Miller’s greatest forte was as a producer who excelled at pop cover versions and in particular matching these to appropriate singers. He had first shown this innate ability by getting Patti Page to record an R &B song called "Tennessee Waltz," back at Mercury.

At that time in the music business there were clear divisions between genre and race music, crossing over songs was a novelty but fertile ground which proved both popular and lucrative. Frankie Laine recorded a cover version of "High Noon," which was released three weeks before the official version by Tex Ritter (this appears on the movie soundtrack). The Laine rendition produced by Mitch Miller proved the more popular version.

More success came with crossover pop hits such as Tony Bennett’s cover of Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart"; Jo Stafford’s big hit with "Jambalaya" and Guy Mitchell’s version of Marty Robbins’ "Singin' the Blues."

Mitch disliked Rock’n’Roll and preferred American folk music. Terry Gilkyson and the Easy Riders trio were signed to Columbia sang catchy folk-based harmony songs which resulted in the major hit in 1957 with "Marianne."

He later signed the New Christie Minstrels whose repertoire helped cement the old American folk songs made popular by The Weavers and the new emerging folk revival movement of Bob Dylan and co. Throughout the early 60s Mitch continued to be a successful producer working important artists including Ray Conniff, Percy Faith, and Jimmy Boyd. He also helped direct the careers of artists who were already signed to the label such as Dinah Shore among many others. As the decade progressed and music tastes changed Columbia ‘s market share was slowly being undercut. In 1965 Mitch Miller left Columbia and Sing Along with Mitch was cancelled a year later. Mitch disappeared from the music scene but occasionally would briefly return. In 1987, Mitch Miller conducted the London Symphony Orchestra with pianist David Golub in a well-received recording of Gershwin's "An American in Paris," "Rhapsody in Blue," and "Concerto in F." Mitch died in 2010 after a short illness.

Worth a listen
Frankie Laine
Mule Train (1949)
Jezebel (1951)
High Noon (1952)
I believe (1953)

Mitch Miller and the Gang
Tzena, Tzena, Tzena (1950)
The Yellow Rose of Texas (1955)
The River Kwai March (1957)
Colonel Bogey March (1957)
Major Dundee March (1965)

Frank Sinatra
You do something to me (1950)
Lover (1950)

Patti Page
Tennessee Waltz (1950)

Dinah Shore
Dear hearts and gentle people (1950)

Doris Day
Bewitched (1950)
Secret Love (1954)
Que sera sera (1956)

Rosemary Clooney
Come on-a My House (1951)

Johnnie Ray
Cry (1951)
Such a night (1954)
Hey there (1955)
Just a walking in the rain (1956)

Tony Bennett
Because of you (1951)
Stranger in Paradise (1953)

Guy Mitchell
She wears red feathers (1953)
Singing the Blues (1956)
Heartaches by the number (1959)

Marty Robbins
A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation) (1957)

Johnny Mathis
It’s not for me to say (1957)

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