For almost 15 years, beginning in 1950, Mitch Miller was a major force in the recording industry. Not only was he one of the most most powerful men in that industry, as the head of A&R (artists and repertory) at Columbia Records, but he was one of the most popular recording artists at Columbia Records, responsible for dozens of chart singles and also hosting his own top-rated network television show.
Miller was born in Rochester, NewRead more York, and showed his interest in music very early in life. At six he began learning the piano and at 12 he took up the oboe. He attended the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, where he made the acquaintance of a fellow student, Goddard Lieberson, who was to prove a major figure in the music business two decades later. Miller graduated in 1932, and joined the music department at the Columbia Broadcasting System network that same year. At that time, CBS had to recording operation, and Miller made his name in broadcasting, as a soloist with the CBS Symphony. When the network acquired the American Record Company in 1939, which was renamed Columbia Records, Miller began appearing on records as an oboist, and working on recordings conducted by light classical/pop leader Andre Kostelanetz, and also by the Budapest String Quartet.
In the late 1940's, Miller left CBS to join the fledgling Mercury Records label, where he initially worked in classical, producing the Fine Arts Quartet. In 1948, he moved over to become head of A&R for the pop music division, and it was there that he signed Frankie Laine, and produced a series of huge hits for the singer, including "Mule Train" (a million and a half seller), "That Lucky Old Sun," and "Cry of the Wild Goose," and also conducted the orchestra on Laine's hit "Jezebel." One of Miller's other signings at Mercury was singer Patti Page, who had a huge pop hit with "Tennessee Waltz," a song that had previously been recorded by Erskine Hawkins.
In 1950, Miller came back to CBS--where Goddard Lieberson was now president--as the head of A&R for Columbia Records' pop music division. In those days, Columbia was among the most powerful and successful record labels in the United States, one of the "big three" with RCA-Victor and Decca. Among the artists that he inherited at Columbia was Frank Sinatra, who had been very successful at the label during the middle of the decade--Miller and Sinatra never got along professionally, the singer expressing a dislike that occasionally swelled to loathing for the producer's insistence on recording light pop and novelty tunes, which were popular with the public. By 1952, Sinatra was gone from the label, dropped by Miller, but Columbia was the top pop label in the world.
Miller proved a marketing and strategic genius. In 1951, when Sinatra was unwilling to record songs that he selected, Miller tapped a young singer, Al Cernick, whom Miller had signed and renamed Guy Mitchell, who cut the two disputed number, "My Heart Cries For You" and "The Roving Kind," which rode the charts for months and sold more than two million copies. Doris Day was already on Columbia when Miller arrived as head of A&R, but it was during the era in which he ran the label that she had her biggest pop hits. He brought Frankie Laine to the label in the early 1950's, and also saw success with the signing of Tony Bennett, and such discoveries as Mahalia Jackson, Jerry Vale, Rosemary Clooney, the Four Lads, and Johnny Ray. Miller also played an important role in fostering the middle/late-1950's folk revival when he put the Easy Rider trio under contract--they only generated one major hit, "Marianne," in 1957, but they wrote and recorded many songs that became part of the repertories of the Kingston Trio and the New Christy Minstrels.
It was in 1950 that Miller's own recording career as a pop artist and conductor began, big-scale choral recordings credited to "Mitch Miller and His Gang." Their first hit was a bold rendition of the Israeli folk-song "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena," which had also been recorded by the folk group the Weavers around this time. The group later chalked up a six-week run at the Number One spot with "The Yellow Rose of Texas," and immense hits as well with numbers like the "Colonel Bogey March" from The Bridge On the River Kwai. In 1958, he began a series of albums referred to as "Sing Along With Mitch," in which he led an all-male chorus in rousing, spirited versions of mostly older tunes--these he chose with help from Boy Scout and Girl Scout groups, Rotarian clubs, camp organizations, and similar social groups, asking them what songs they enjoyed singing. "Carolina In the Morning," "Be Kind To Our Web-Footed Friends," and "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" were typical fare. These generated 19 top 40 hits between 1958 and 1962, and led to CBS giving Miller a television series of his own, Sing Along With Mitch, whose artists included a young Leslie Uggams.
It was with the recording of cover versions, as he had done by giving Patti Page "Tennessee Waltz," that Miller showed his greatest marketing acumen. In those days, the recording business was completely segmented, with different records aimed at different and separate groups of listeners--a record that was a hit for country audience might well hardly get heard by pop listeners, and visa versa. Additionally, it was customary for record companies--even the same record company--to rush out rival versions of singles that showed promise, and even a difference of a few days determined which version of a song became a hit.
Thus, Miller got Frankie Laine to cover "High Noon," the title song to the Gary Cooper western, and Laine's version made it out two or three weeks earlier than the recording by Tex Ritter--who had cut it in the movie, but initially had trouble getting his label, Capitol, to get behind the song--and had a top five hit with it. Tony Bennett had a huge pop hit with "Cold, Cold Heart," and Jo Stafford hit big with "Jambalaya" in the same way. And when Columbia had a country hit with "Singin' The Blues" by Marty Robbins, which had been recorded in Nashville under the guidance of the label's chief of country A&R, Don Law, good marketing sense dictated that Miller get Guy Mitchell to cut a version for the pop market, which sold over a million copies. Of course, Robbins understandably objected to this effort by Miller, and a subsequent one with Mitchell's version of "Knee Deep In the Blues," believing that it cost him the chance to break into the pop market--but as observers correctly pointed out, that was how the record industry was set up at the time, although that era was drawing to a close.
As a recording executive, Miller was very much in tune with the tastes of the times, at least among adults. Columbia Records at the time was an extension of its parent company, CBS, then known as the "Tiffany Network," with the widest, choicest audience--it had the adult market in popular music, which was the dominant one; it had top jazz artists, including Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, and Miles Davis; and in classical it had the two most popular and prestigious orchestras in the country, the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as the services of a dozen top virtuosi. Columbia represented dignity, polish, and depth, as embodied by the philosophy of Goddard Lieberson.
Unfortunately, none of this left too much room for rock 'n roll music. Columbia had a foot in rhythm-and-blues through its Epic and OKeh labels, and Don Law in Nashville was free, within limits, to exploit the new music with any signings that he chose to pursue. But rock 'n roll never figured large in Columbia's game plan under Miller--he loathed the music personally, and with Columbia's share of the pop music marketplace in the late 1950's saw no reason to take it more seriously. At one point, he turned down Buddy Holly.
Even as Miller's artists and his own recordings were generating millions of dollars for Columbia, the company market share was slowly being undercut by changes in public taste. Steve Sholes at RCA--the man responsible for signing Elvis Presley as well as numerous other R&B stars to that label--was catering to teenaged listeners, and label chiefs at Decca and Capitol later had Ricky Nelson and (later) the Beach Boys, respectively, while Miller's most youth-oriented artists were Johnny Mathis and, later, the New Christy Minstrels.
By the early 1960's, the rot in Columbia's fortunes had already begun to appear. Sales on cast albums and adult popular music were still healthy, but other companies were beginning to draw in millions of dollars and millions of younger listeners that Columbia simply wasn't reaching with many of its records.
Miller's television show remained top-rated, however, and he was something of a media superstar during this period. But the most important artist signed to the label during the early 1960's was not one of his discoveries--rather, it was a young folk singer and songwriter brought into Columbia by jazz-blues-gospel producer John Hammond, named Bob Dylan.
Hammond became something of a hero in the music histories of the period, but In fairness, the company would never have tolerated Dylan's presence for a moment if Columbia hadn't already been selling substantial numbers of folk (or folk-style) records by the Easy Riders and the New Christy Minstrels. And Columbia was already looking at rock 'n roll a little bit more seriously in 1964 with the signing of Paul Revere & the Raiders.
It was clear by 1965, however, that Miller's moment had passed. That year he left the company, and the label signed Paul Revere and the Raiders and, later, the Byrds, a clear break with the past--and Sing Along With Mitch was cancelled in 1966. Columbia was taken over by a new, younger regime under a new president, attorney Clive Davis, who was determined to build its roster in a new direction.
Miller occasionally re-emerged as a conductor of light classical recordings, but otherwise disappeared from the music scene. In the 1990's, however, there exist no less than 10 CDs of his best work as a recording artist, and several of the artists that he signed in the 1950's--including Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, and Johnny Mathis--retain loyal and even (in the case of Bennett) growing followings at the end of the century. Additionally, the classic recordings of Bennett, Doris Day, the Easy Riders, and Mahalia Jackson continue to sell well. Read less
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