Mitch Miller helped shape musical tastes in the 1950s and early '60s as the head of the popular music division at Columbia Records and hosted the hit "Sing Along With Mitch" TV show in the early '60s while becoming one of the era's most commercially successful recording artists.
No one knew better than Miller that people love to sing. A brilliant classical musician since boyhood, he became a beloved part of the national fabric with his hit TV show “Sing Along With Mitch.”
A top oboist and English horn player who joined the CBS Symphony Orchestra in the 1930s and later recorded with legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski, Miller wound up his more than seven-decade musical career guest conducting symphony orchestras around the world.
Miller was a legendary A&R man with Mercury Records, then Columbia, where he developed such pop singers as Frankie Laine, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney and Johnny Mathis. He drew upon his classical background to bring the French horn and harpsichord into popular records, and pioneered the use of choral groups for background music. But he held a special disdain for rock 'n' roll. "No one listens to it but kids from 8 to 14," said Miller, who called stars such as Fabian and Frankie Avalon "sub-teen freaks."
Miller's fabulously successful series of singalong record albums rolled into the smash TV hit "Sing Along With Mitch," which aired from 1961 to 1966. The musical-variety program featured proven songs that people loved to sing. The show premiered with almost no fanfare. It just sort of sneaked onto the air. But the people found it and responded in the thousands. More than 12,000 letters were written to NBC in praise of the show. Telephone calls swamped station switchboards. There was a resounding cry across the nation for more of Mitch.
In the world of pop music during the Truman and Eisenhower eras, Miller was the man song publishers besieged with new material.
By mid-1953, Columbia's popular records "artistic czar," as Miller was dubbed in a New Yorker profile, had overseen 51 hits in three years.
In a Billboard listing of the 30 most profitable records of 1952, 11 were released by Columbia — compared to five from archrival RCA-Victor, according to the New Yorker profile in June 1953.
In the previous 18 months, the only two records that had sold 2 million copies were produced by Miller: Johnnie Ray's "Cry" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," sung by 12-year-old Jimmy Boyd.
As Columbia's A&R man for popular records, Miller chose which songs would be recorded, how they would be treated musically, and which singers and musicians would perform them. He then supervised the recording sessions.
Miller was well known for producing novelty tunes with sometimes quirky orchestrations (French horns, bagpipes and, most famously, the sound of a snapping whip on Laine's 1949 million-plus seller for Mercury Records, "Mule Train").
For Rosemary Clooney's 1951 novelty song for Columbia "Come On-a My House," a quasi-Armenian folk song, Miller used an amplified harpsichord.
He had to threaten to fire Clooney before she would record the gimmicky, fast-paced song, which he insisted she sing with a fake Armenian accent. But within weeks of its release, "Come On-a My House" was one of the biggest-selling records in the country and went on to sell more than a million copies.
"My secret," Miller once said of his flair for producing hits, "was that I was a trained musician; I knew whether something was good or a crock."