Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Mitchell William Miller, 4 July 1911, Rochester, NY; d 31 July 2010, Manhattan) Oboe and English horn soloist, arranger, conductor, and one of the most successful record producers of all time. He studied at Eastman and played in symphony orchestras from the age of 15; he played with the Budapest String Quartet, Leopold Stokowski, George Gershwin, Igor Stravinsky, André Kostelanetz, etc. When Keynote, a jazz label, decided to expand into classical recordings, John Hammond recommended that Miller be hired to produce them; when Keynote was absorbed by Mercury, Miller joined the A&R staff there in the late 1940s, and began producing pop; then he was pop chief at Columbia from 1950, inveigled there by his college friend Goddard Lieberson.

He had played on an album of Alec Wilder's music in 1945 (conducted by Frank Sinatra), later on Percy Faith LPs It's So Peaceful In The Country and Music Until Midnight (including single 'Elaine'). (Wilder was another pal from college days.) He recorded his own slightly eccentric popular instrumentals ('Oriental Polka' etc), had hits of which the biggest was a cover of the Weavers' 'Tzena, Tzena, Tzena', the strangest a vocal adaptation of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture: 'Napoleon' '54.

But it was as an A&R man that Miller was enormously influential in the period, overseeing the careers of Patti Page and Frankie Laine at Mercury, taking Laine with him to Columbia, where he invented Guy Mitchell and many others, also buying in Hank Williams songs and recording them with Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Jo Stafford and Laine (though Jerry Wexler should get some credit; see Atlantic). Miller took 'Let Me Go, Devil', a dreary anti-alcohol waltz, had new lyrics written, made a record with his discovery 18-year-old Joan Weber (who sang with her husband's band in Paulsboro NJ) and got it into a TV play about a disc jockey accused of murder: 'Let Me Go, Lover' was a no. 1 hit in 1954 and in the charts for 15 weeks (but Weber never had another hit). Miller invented the Greatest Hits album, putting together a Johnny Mathis package which cost the company nothing and is still selling today. It was Miller's idea to start the Vic Damone/Percy Faith record of 'On The Street Where You Live' with the bridge ('Oh, that towering feeling'); it made the record a grabber and a top five hit, the biggest single Damone ever had.

But Miller had too much power and not enough taste. At Mercury he had been involved with the Charlie Parker With Strings album (and played on it), which was let down by Jimmy Carroll's banal arrangements; at Columbia Frank Sinatra had a minor hit with 'Goodnight Irene' '50 accompanied by Miller's male chorus, whose loud stiffness was the antithesis of what the song was about; Harry James said he left Columbia because Miller wanted him to record stuff like 'Ghost Riders In The Sky'. Sinatra blamed Miller unfairly for the slump in his career during those years, but a great many musicians blamed Miller for degrading popular music with his whooping French horns (on Guy Mitchell's pseudo-folksongs) and cheapening Clooney's records with an amplified harpsichord, and mainly for his choice of material. Miller himself admitted that he didn't care much for the stuff, saying that he satisfied his own 'musical ego' elsewhere. 

Miller would do anything to grab the listener's attention. It was his idea to use the harpsichord on Percy Faith's 'Delicado' and on several Clooney records; he once put bagpipes on a Dinah Shore release, and disc jockeys took the record off and broke it over the air. A few years later when Sinatra was making classic albums at Capitol which are still selling today, Miller was having hits with witless junk like 'Yellow Rose Of Texas', a 19th-century campfire song with incessant snare drums, the sort of thing that Stan Freberg gleefully satirized. Miller was one of the first to take advantage of tape recording, dubbing Patti Page so she could sing along with herself, and making vocalists record with previously recorded backing, which a good singer hated to do. On the one occasion he tried to get Jo Stafford to record with a backing tape, he came down from the engineer's booth to dance around in front of her, to get her in the mood, he said; she told him to get back in the booth where he belonged. (At a recording session in London in 1971 the producer tried to put Tony Bennett into a vocalist's booth separated from the orchestra; Bennett said, 'I never sang in a box in my life. Mitch Miller invented that gag and I could never go along with it. Just put me out front next to the piano; that'll feel more like a real performance.')

Double-tracking Patti Page sounded high-tech at the time, and helped to sell the new medium of the 45 single, even though the 78 sounded exactly the same. Such unmusical innovations in favour of the technology were the beginning of a lot of trashy recordings, but it was Miller's job to make money for the label, and Columbia in those years had a higher hits-to-releases ratio than any other; it wasn't Miller but broadcasters who saw to it that the hits of the early '50s were noisy, jolly junk, because they fitted neatly between the advertising jingles. In fact Miller made a speech at a disc jockey convention in 1958 accusing them of abandoning their programming to children; they gave him a standing ovation, but the Storz broadcasting chain, sponsoring the convention, then banned Columbia records just as payola was becoming big business.

It was in Miller's time that albums began to be made for grownups and the singles market was abandoned to children; even the recording sessions were different, and disc jockeys rarely played album tracks. Miller talked Lieberson into putting him in charge of albums as well as singles at Columbia, whereupon he fired Paul Weston, who had been making hit albums on the West Coast. To give Miller credit, he was an honest man; he could make deals with songwriters and publishers because he always kept his word and never took a piece of a song, and he never paid anybody to play a record. As the rock'n'roll era began he passed on Buddy Holly; he bid for Elvis Presley in 1955 but would not meet Tom Parker's price. He did not join the ignorant chorus who wanted to censor rock'n'roll (saying on one occasion 'You can't call any music immoral') but he disliked the direction the business was taking, though he had unwittingly prepared the ground for it: payola was a logical consequence of abandoning musical values to commercial ones.

He effectively abdicated to conduct singalongs on TV: Sing Along With Mitch '58 with his stiff male chorus was a no. 1 album for eight weeks, followed by 20 more in four years, nearly all top ten LPs. This was all very well, but had no influence on anything, while the singles charts were taken over by the trashy likes of Fabian and Frankie Avalon, selling as many records for cynical independents as Miller had done in his prime, while Columbia's market share slipped until the Clive Davis era of the late '60s.