Mitch Miller, 1911–2010
The bandleader who got America to sing along
When Mitch Miller, then Columbia Records’ top song-picker, asked Rosemary Clooney to sing an oddball tune adapted from an old Armenian folk melody, “I damn near fell on the floor,” Clooney recalled. She reluctantly agreed to record the song, with backing from an electric harpsichord, and “Come On-a My House” transformed her from a $50-a-session backup singer into an international star. “Nothing happened to me until I met Mitch,” she said.
The same could be said for several of the 20th century’s best-known singers. Miller, who died this week at 99, was “a career shaper for singers like Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Patti Page, and Frankie Laine,” said The New York Times. His singalong albums, which invited listeners to join in on old favorites like “That Old Gang of Mine,” were instant hits, as was the offshoot television show, Sing Along With Mitch, making him one of America’s most popular bandleaders. But he was also a serious musician, working as a classical oboist before signing on with Mercury Records and later Columbia, as the head of artists and repertory, responsible for matching songs with singers.
Born in Rochester, N.Y., the son of Russian immigrants, Miller studied piano from the age of 6. He picked up the oboe more or less by accident, when he joined his high school orchestra so late that all the other instruments had been taken, said the Los Angeles Times. By age 15, he was good enough to join the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. As an adult, though, he switched to popular music, and produced an immensely popular series of singalong albums. The earliest, released in 1958, featured a male chorus singing chestnuts like “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” The albums caught on quickly with older listeners put off by rock ’n’ roll, selling 22 million copies. They led to the popular television program, which ran from 1961 to 1966 on NBC.
At the 2000 Grammy Awards ceremonies, Miller received the Trustees Award for his contributions to popular music. “I have been very lucky,” he said. “I worked at what I love, and very few people get that in life.”