Mitch Miller Biography

Mitchell William Miller, 4 July 1911, Rochester, New York, USA. An oboist, record producer, arranger and one of the most commercially successful recording artists of the 50s and early 60s. Miller learned to play the piano at the age of six, and began studying the oboe when he was 12, and later attended Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. After graduating in 1932, Miller played oboe with symphony orchestras in the area, before joining CBS Radio in 1932. For the next 11 years he was a soloist with the CBS Symphony, and played with André Kostelanetz, Percy Faith, the Saidenburg Little Symphony and the Budapest String Quartet. In the late 40s he became director of Mercury Records’ ‘pop’ division, and then in 1950, was appointed head of A&R at Columbia Records. While at Mercury, Miller was responsible for producing several big hits, including Frankie Laine’s ‘That Lucky Old Sun’, ‘Mule Train’ and ‘The Cry Of The Wild Goose’. Miller also conducted the orchestra on Laine’s ‘Jezebel’ and ‘Rose, Rose, I Love You’. Shortly after he left the label, Patti Page released ‘The Tennessee Waltz’, which became one of the biggest-selling singles ever. The original was by R&B singer Erskine Hawkins, and the Page disc is sometimes credited as being the first really successful example of ‘crossover’ from country to pop, although Miller had already fashioned Hank Williams’ ‘Hey, Good Lookin’’ into a minor hit for Frankie Laine and Jo Stafford. Miller developed this policy when he moved to Columbia, and recorded Guy Mitchell (‘Singing The Blues’ and ‘Knee Deep In The Blues’), Tony Bennett (‘Cold, Cold Heart’), Rosemary Clooney (‘Half As Much’), Jo Stafford (‘Jambalaya’) and the little-known Joan Weber (‘Let Me Go Lover’). Miller’s roster at Columbia also included Johnnie Ray (‘Cry’, ‘The Little White Cloud That Cried’, ‘Just Crying In The Rain’) and Frank Sinatra.

There was little empathy between Miller and Sinatra, and the singer rejected several songs that eventually became successful for Guy Mitchell. After he left Columbia, Sinatra sent telegrams to judiciary and senate committees, accusing Miller of presenting him with inferior songs, and of accepting money from writers whose songs he (Miller) had used. Certainly, Sinatra recorded some unsuitable material under Miller’s auspices during his final years with the label, although ‘American Beauty Rose’ and ‘Goodnight, Irene’, both with Miller’s accompaniment, and ‘Bim Bam Baby’, paled in comparison with perhaps the most bizarre item of all, ‘Mama Will Bark’, on which Sinatra made barking and growling noises, and duetted with Miller’s latest signing, a female named Dagmar.

Miller’s own hit recordings, mostly credited to ‘Mitch Miller And His Gang’, began in 1950 with his adaptation of the Israeli folk song ‘Tzena, Tzena, Tzena’, complete with a happy vocal chorus that would typify his later work. After ‘Meet Mr. Callaghan’, ‘Without My Lover’, ‘Under Paris Skies’ and ‘Napoleon’ in the early 50s, he spent six weeks at number 1 with the million-selling ‘The Yellow Rose Of Texas’, one of the great marching songs from the American Civil War. This was followed by three instrumentals: ‘Lisbon Antigua’, ‘Song For A Summer Night (Parts 1 & 2)’ and ‘March From The River Kwai And Colonel Bogey’. There was also the novelty ‘The Children’s Marching Song’ from the 1959 movie The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness. The previous year, Miller had started his series of Sing Along With Mitch albums, which featured an all-male chorus singing old favourites, many from before the turn of the century. Nineteen variations on the theme made the US Top 40 between 1958 and 1962, of which seven titles achieved million-selling status.

The phenomenally successful Sing Along formula was developed as a popular television series which ran from 1961-66, and featured several solo singers such as Victor Griffin, Leslie Uggams and Louise O’Brien. Despite the obvious financial gain to Columbia from his record sales, Miller was constantly criticized for his negative attitude towards rock ‘n’ roll. He turned down Buddy Holly, among others, and was blamed for his company’s relatively small market share in the rapidly changing music scene during his tenure as an influential executive, yet his promotion of the artists already mentioned, plus Doris Day (‘Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)’), Johnny Mathis, Percy Faith, and many more, substantially aided Columbia. Out of place in the ‘swinging 60s’, he emerged occasionally to conduct the orchestra on various light and classical music recordings.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.