“Mitch Miller Memories”
Wednesday, 4 August 2010
by Tom Wilmeth
Mitch Miller died this week at age 99. He was the Jack LaLanne of song. Just as the exercise guru led workouts by means of early television screens, Mitch Miller led his Glee Club of viewers in exuberant voice. And as with the gymnast’s approach, Miller insisted on an active audience.
News releases said that he had encountered only a brief illness before his death. I’m glad for that report, but I have read the numerous articles about Mr. Miller’s passing with increasing skepticism. For example, I have yet to encounter an obituary that heralds Mitch Miller as probably the finest classical oboist that this country has ever produced. Which he was. I have also read that Miller was responsible for signing Bob Dylan to Columbia Records. Which he wasn’t.
That Mitch Miller was in the record business and that he conducted orchestras at various junctures of his long career is mentioned in passing, but naturally the obituary notices have smilingly focused on the Sing Along With Mitch sensation of the very early 1960s. Certainly these popular sing-along albums and his corresponding network television show put Miller on America’s cultural landscape, and the Sing Along series is why he is remembered today. Still, it saddens me to see the man reduced to a gently mocked, stiff-armed caricature.
I’d like to offer another voice:
I had the opportunity to work briefly with Mitch Miller in St. Paul in the early 1980s. He had agreed to participate in a series programs about his career as a record producer. Minnesota Public Radio’s long-time jazz host Leigh Kamman was conducting the interview, and I was his regular board operator/engineer.
Mitch Miller was an impressive presence. Dressed in flamboyant colors with a cravat and beret, here was a man absolutely confident and extremely comfortable in his skin. His trademark beard was neatly trimmed into the point on his chin that made his visage unmistakable. Friendly, outgoing – so ready to talk about anything that the originally planned afternoon interview sessions stretched into three full days! Smoking was not allowed in studios, but no one ever considered asking Mitch Miller to extinguish his ever-present cigarette in its lengthy, ornate holder.
Here are a few of the things that I recall from those sessions, held nearly 30 years ago:
Miller embraced failure if you could learn from it. He had numerous failures in the recording studio, but his only regret was that he didn’t go back and do the same thing again. He lamented that he saw others succeed with some of his failed studio experiments only because he hadn’t the time to re-tweak some of his unsuccessful ideas. I can’t think that he meant his problematic recordings with Frank Sinatra or Aretha Franklin, and I don’t recall that Miller got specific about these unsuccessful experiments.
He did get specific about his role in convincing Johnny Mathis that he possessed an exceptionally good voice. But it was a voice well suited for ballads, and not for the jazz that Mathis wanted to sing. As Mathis himself has often said, he started to record “Wonderful Wonderful” as a syncopated romp. Miller confirmed to Kamman that he stopped the session and instructed the singer to sing the melody as straight and as unadorned as possible. Mathis reluctantly agreed, knowing that this unhip arrangement was a waste of time. “Wonderful Wonderful” would be Johnny Mathis’ first big single (1957) which began a strong career of hit ballads. Mathis still praises Miller’s insight.
This story about Johnny Mathis led Mitch Miller to indicate in more general terms of how he often had to convince some artists of their own talent. They were frequently unaware of their potential, he insisted. He mentioned Rosemary Clooney in this category, as I recall.
There was not a lot said about rock and roll. It is well documented that Miller, as A&R Man, was responsible for keeping rock acts off Columbia until somewhat late in the day. The Byrds would sell a boatload of records for the label, and this opened the gates for rock onto the label, but this was not until 1965. Thanks to The Beatles, Capitol Records’ profit margin likely had something to do with the Columbia brass taking the plunge, in spite of Miller’s objections – and he had plenty. But he was gone from Columbia by this time.
Mitch Miller and Leigh Kamman were of a mind about the subject. As Miller said, “Rock is dumb music for uneducated listeners. I knew that the kids would get tired of it. I was simply wrong about how long it would take. I thought it would be over in 10 years, but it has held-on a bit longer.” He was very convinced, however, that it was definitely winding down now and that rock music would soon be dead. Remember, this was 1982. Mr. Miller was a true believer in what he saw as refinement and taste.
Years later I again met Mitch Miller, but this time only in passing. In the late 1990s he was the guest conductor for a Christmas concert by The Milwaukee Children’s Choir, to which my daughter belonged. By this time I had spent several years in Texas and had become extremely interested in Country Music. As Mr. Miller was signing album covers and programs after the dress rehearsal, I asked him if it were true that he had been responsible for convincing Tony Bennett to record “Cold Cold Heart” in 1951. This Hank Williams composition would prove to be Bennett’s break-out pop hit, and would simultaneously introduce Hank Williams’ music to an entirely new, non-country audience.
Continuing to autograph various artifacts, Miller laughed and answered, “Oh yes. Bennett wanted nothing to do with that song.” Dropping into a low growl that was clearly supposed to be the singer’s reaction: “I’m not recording that cowboy crap!” Miller laughed again. I asked what gave him the idea to have Tony Bennett record “Cold Cold Heart.” He stopped signing, looked up at me and replied as if the answer were obvious: “It was a good song!”
When Miller concluded the Milwaukee Children’s Christmas Concert he thanked the audience for attending the event and said that he hoped to see them “many, many more times.” This, from a man who was not close to being young, even ten years ago. I was impressed that he clearly embraced what he was doing so thoroughly that the thought of slowing down or (God forbid) of dying was simply not on his radar. I envied his attitude.
I have friends who are rabid in their enmity toward Mitch Miller, calling him one of the great enemies of rock ‘n roll. Perhaps true, but the genre seems to have circumvented his opposition and thrived. Sitting across from him in a recording booth in St. Paul or talking with him at a concert in Milwaukee, it was difficult not to be engrossed by his every response. He was passionate in wanting to deliver quality music to people, whether from the oboe chair, the podium, the recording studio, or the television screen. And from my experience – that depth of commitment is a very rare thing.
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Notes: I believe I still have 10 ½ reel copies of these interviews.
I have a couple of things in quotes here that are based on my memory. As such --
If I were actually to do something with this for publication I would need to do some fact checking – on a couple of items.
I had quite a bit more about Dylan, but cut it back – got in the way of the focus.