Mitch Miller dies at 99; musical innovator and host of ‘Sing Along With Mitch’

Mitch Miller arrives for the NBC's 75th Anniversary celebration at Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center.
Mitch Miller arrives for the NBC’s 75th Anniversary celebration at Studio 8H in Rockefeller Center.
(Frank Micelotta / Getty Images)
Los Angeles Times

Mitch Miller, who 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, has died. He was 99.

Mitch Miller: The obituary of music icon Mitch Miller in Tuesday’s Section A said he produced the legendary “Charlie Parker With Strings” sessions while he was artists and repertoire director at Mercury Records. Jazz impresario Norman Granz, who had Parker under contract, produced the sessions. —

Miller died Saturday after a short illness at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, said his daughter, Margaret Miller Reuther.

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.

A show business icon with his trademark goatee and baton, Miller is considered one of the most influential producers in the history of recording.

He made a career switch from playing to producing in the late 1940s by becoming A&R (artists and repertoire) director at Mercury Records, a small label that he turned into a major force in the industry.

At Mercury, Miller nurtured the careers of such singers as Vic Damone, Patti Page and Frankie Laine.

He also played on and produced the legendary “Charlie Parker With Strings” sessions and, as a technical innovator in the studio, he was a pioneer of overdubbing in the days before tape, recording from acetate to acetate on a 1949 Page recording of “Money, Marbles and Chalk” on which Page sings to herself.

But it was at Columbia Records from 1950 to the early 1960s that Miller became a recording industry legend.

As Columbia’s high-profile A&R head responsible for single popular records, Miller produced a string of hits for Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, Jo Stafford, Johnnie Ray, Jerry Vale, Johnny Mathis, the Four Lads, Laine, Damone and many other artists.

Within two years of his arrival at Columbia, Miller had moved the fourth-place label to first place in industry revenues.

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.”

Not every singer in Columbia’s stable of artists agreed with Miller’s instincts.

In 1951, he convinced Frank Sinatra to record “Mama Will Bark,” a duet with TV’s busty blond actress-comedian Dagmar, on which barking and growling noises are heard.

The song, which reached No. 21 on the Billboard chart, is often cited as the worst song Sinatra ever recorded. The singer is said to have never forgiven Miller for “Mama Will Bark,” and he and Miller argued constantly over material.

Sinatra, in fact, blamed Miller for the downward spiral of his singing career and in 1953 he left Columbia for Capitol Records.

Miller strongly disagreed with Sinatra’s accusations then — and continued to do so decades later.

“When I came to Columbia, he was already at the nadir of his career,” Miller told the Chicago Tribune in 1987. “He had lost his television show, he had lost his movie contract, he was chasing after Ava [Gardner], he was behind in his income taxes. In short, his records would not sell, his voice was gone.”

Other singers, including Tony Bennett, who, while praising Miller for believing in his talent and boosting his career while at Columbia, also battled Miller over material.

In his 1998 autobiography, “The Good Life,” Bennett mentioned how Miller always tried to push novelty tunes on him.

“As much as we liked each other,” the singer wrote, “there was always tension between us. I wanted to sing the great songs, songs that I felt really mattered to people.”

Leslie Uggams, who was discovered by Miller and signed to Columbia Records when she was 16 and later became a regular on his TV show, told The Times in 2002: “For a lot of people it was his way or no way, but I didn’t have that experience, I just adored Mitch; he couldn’t have been better.”

She added, “We’re talking about an era where most of the A&R men had been musicians themselves, so he had an incredible ear for the least note that was wrong: He could hear it. Mitch and I were always on the same page.”

While at Columbia, Miller wasn’t known just for producing mainstream hits.

He signed gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to her first major label contract and worked with top jazz musician Erroll Garner.

Although he became a legendary A&R man, Miller’s musical tastes weren’t in sync with the changing times as rock ‘n’ roll took control of the airwaves.

Miller reportedly turned down Elvis Presley in 1955, telling Presley’s manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, that Presley was asking for too much money. And he told Buddy Holly’s manager that he wasn’t interested in Holly’s “That’ll Be the Day,” which went on to become a hit.

Simply put, Miller didn’t like rock ‘n’ roll, which he referred to as “musical illiteracy.” Time did not alter his opinion.

“I can’t get interested in people who can only sing songs with three chords in them,” he told the Boston Globe in 1996.

In 1958, Miller launched his own counter-assault of sorts on rock ‘n’ roll by recording his first sing-along album in which he led an all-male chorus singing old favorites such as “By the Light of the Silvery Moon.” (The words to the songs were printed on the album cover so listeners could sing along with the chorus).

More than 22 million copies of the series of “Sing Along with Mitch” albums were sold and for nearly a decade Miller reportedly was the best-selling album artist, until the Beatles displaced him in 1974.

The success of Miller’s recordings led to “Sing Along With Mitch,” a top-rated musical-variety show that ran on NBC from 1961 to 1966.

The formula of the show, which overnight turned Miller into a national celebrity, was simplicity itself: The baton-wielding Miller led his Sing Along Gang in singing the old favorites and some current popular tunes, while the lyrics were superimposed on the screen.

The show included occasional guest stars and lavish production numbers and was a showcase for Miller discoveries Uggams, Diana Trask and Sandy Stewart.

“I think we struck a chord for a few reasons,” Miller told the Chicago Tribune in 1987. “The music was good, the sound was good, we didn’t use any canned applause, and, most important, we brought across the idea that you didn’t have to be beautiful to be talented.

“I always made a point of hiring singers who were tall, short, bald, round, fat, whatever — everyday-looking guys, so that the people at home could empathize with the people on the screen.

“Also, we did songs that were part of people’s everyday life, songs that had risen to the top over the years and stayed there.”

The show made Uggams a household name. But some stations in the South refused to air “Sing Along With Mitch” because Uggams, an African American, was on it.

“I wasn’t naive while we were doing the show,” Uggams told The Times. But, she said, she didn’t learn until decades later how much flak Miller received from the network and sponsors for having her on as a regular.

She said Miller first strongly refused requests to not have her be a regular. Having done that, he then refused requests to isolate Uggams from the other performers when she did her numbers, saying “She’s part of the family.”

“He took a lot of heat, to the point where he said, ‘If she’s not on it, no show,’ said Uggams. “I owe him a lot.”

Born July 4, 1911 in Rochester, N.Y., Mitchell William Miller was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants.

When Miller was 6, his father bought a piano, and Miller and his two older sisters took weekly lessons. At 11, he abandoned the piano in favor of the oboe, but only because he joined his junior high school orchestra so late that the oboe was the only instrument left.

He displayed a talent for the difficult instrument and when he was 14 he began taking oboe lessons at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. A year later, he was good enough to join the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra.

In 1929, the 18-year-old Miller began attending the Eastman School on a full-time scholarship. He graduated cum-laude in 1932.

Miller was a member of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra from 1930 to 1933, followed by playing a season at the Metropolitan Museum of Art concerts in New York.

He was on the road playing in the orchestra of “Porgy and Bess” in 1935 when he was offered the job of solo oboist with the CBS Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Bernard Herrmann. Miller stayed with the orchestra until 1947.

During those years, as his fame as an oboist grew, he also appeared locally with groups such as the Saidenberg Little Symphony and the Andre Kostelanetz and Percy Faith orchestras.

In 1947, Mercury Records hired Miller to supervise classical recordings at the small company. The first Miller-produced recording, Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” with the Fine Arts Quartet, won a Grand Prix du Disque in France. But he soon became the head of popular artists and repertoire.

At Mercury, when Miller wanted a “halo” around a singer’s voice, engineer Robert Fine reportedly invented the first echo chamber.

“Everybody sounds great in the bathroom,” Miller recalled in a 1996 interview with the Boston Globe. “So he put a speaker and a mike in a toilet, and that bit of added resonance gave us the halo we wanted. The other record companies went crazy trying to figure out what we’d done.”

At Mercury, he began earning a reputation for what the press called his “fresh approach to popular music.”

For Frankie Laine’s “Mule Train,” Miller dreamed up a musical background that the 1953 New Yorker profile of Miller described as “three guitars, to furnish inarticulate grunts and snarls, and two wood blocks, to furnish whip cracks, and by lavish use of an echo chamber. As a result, Laine sounded as if he were leading a cavalry change down an Arizona gulch.”

“Mule Train” sold more than a million copies and helped put Mercury on the map.

Around the same time, Miller became musical director of Little Golden Records, a new adjunct of Simon & Schuster, which became one of the most successful children’s recording companies.

The success of the records, which sold alongside the popular Golden Books, had much to do with Miller’s theory that, as he told the New Yorker, “only wind and percussion instruments — no strings — should be used on children’s records, and that the rhythm should be relentless.”

After moving over to Columbia Records, Miller had to chose about 400 new songs a year for the label’s artists to record. To do so, he listened to about 40 or 50 songs a day and held an open house in his office every Monday afternoon for song publishers wanting to show him new material.

Before launching his sing-along albums in 1958, Miller already had scored hit choral recordings as “Mitch Miller and His Gang,” beginning in 1950 with his adaptation of the Israeli folk song “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” and including his million-selling “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” which spent six weeks at No. 1 in 1955. He also had a number of hit instrumentals, including the “Colonel Bogey March” from “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”

After his popular TV series ended in 1966, Miller continued to make sing-along records and lead sing-along tours. He also launched a new phase of his career guest conducting symphony orchestras in America and Europe. He averaged 80 concerts a year.

“I’ve been very lucky; I worked at what I love, and very few people get that in life,” he told the Boston Globe in 1996. “For me, music is still a turn-on.”

At the Grammy Awards ceremony in 2000, Miller received a Trustees Award recognizing his “outstanding contribution” to the music industry.

In addition to his daughter Margaret, Miller is survived his other daughter, Andrea Miller; his son, Mitchell Miller; two brothers, Leon and Joseph; two grandchildren and two great grandchildren. Miller’s wife, Frances, died in 2000.