By Pam Teel
Mitchell William Miller, born 1911, was an American choral conductor, record producer, record-industry executive, and professional oboist involved in almost all aspects of the industry. He later focused on being a conductor and A & R man. He was one of the most influential people in American popular music during the 1950s and 1960’s. He was head of A & R at Columbia Records and also a best-selling recording artist. This would lead him to do a weekly sing along series on NBS, that many of us recall, “Sing Along with Mitch.”
He was born to a Jewish family in Rochester, NY. His mother was a former seamstress, and his father was a Russian Jew immigrant wrought iron worker.
At East High School, Miller ended up playing the oboe because it was the only instrument available when he went to audition for his junior high school orchestra. After graduating from East High School, he attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and began his musical career playing the oboe and the English horn.
He was so good that he played with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and then moved to New York City where he was a member of the Alec Wilder Octet, as well as performing with David Mannes, Andre Kostelanetz, Percy Faith, George Gershwin, and Charlie Parker. He worked with Frank Sinatra on the 1946 recording of “The Music of Alec Wilder”. Miller also played the English horn part in the Largo movement of Dvořák’s New World Symphony in a 1947 recording conducted by Leopold Stokowski. He also gave the American premiere of Richard Strauss’s Oboe Concerto in a 1948 radio broadcast.
As part of the CBS Symphony, Miller participated in the musical accompaniment on the 1938 radio broadcast of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theater on the Air production of The War of the Worlds. He also performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C Minor.
Miller joined Mercury Records as a classical music producer and served as the head of Artists and Repertoire (A&R) in the late 1940s, and then joined Columbia Records in the same capacity in 1950. This was a pivotal position in a recording company, because the A&R executive decided which musicians and songs would be recorded and promoted by that particular record label.
He defined the Columbia style through the early 1960s, signing and producing many important pop standards artists for Columbia, including Johnnie Ray, Percy Faith, Ray Conniff, Jimmy Boyd, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, and Guy Mitchell.
After arriving at Columbia, Miller enticed both Patti Page and Frankie Laine to join the label after their early successes at Mercury. Miller helped direct the careers of artists who were already signed to the label, such as Doris Day, Dinah Shore, and Jo Stafford. Miller also discovered Aretha Franklin and signed her to the first major recording contract of her career.
Mitch Miller did not like Rock and roll at all. He actually passed on Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and the Beatles as well. Luckily, they went on to fame with other companies. He did, however, go on to sign Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, two of Presley’s contemporaries at Sun Records.
In the early 1950s, Miller recorded with Columbia’s house band as “Mitchell Miller and His Orchestra.” He also recorded a string of successful albums and singles, featuring a male chorale and his own arrangements, under the name “Mitch Miller and the Gang” with many songs reaching top of the charts.
In 1957, Miller’s orchestra and chorus recorded “U.S. Air Force Blue,” a United States Air Force recruiting song and also recorded children’s music for the Golden Records label.
In 1961, Miller also provided two choral tracks set to Dimitri Tiomkin’s title music on the soundtrack to The Guns of Navarone. Followed by the theme of The Longest Day over the end credits in 1962 and the “Major Dundee March,” the theme song to Sam Peckinpah’s 1965 Major Dundee.
In 1987, Miller conducted the London Symphony Orchestra with pianist David Golub in a well-received recording of Gershwin’s An American in Paris, Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue.
Initially only supposed to air as a one -time episode in 1960, Sing Along with Mitch went on to become a weekly series featuring an all -male chorus. The tv audience were presented with lyrics at the bottom of the television screen at the beginning and ending of each episode. While many insist there was a bouncing ball to keep time, Miller correctly said this was something they remembered from movie theater Screen Songs and Song Car tunes, sing-along cartoons. I for one could have sworn that there was a bouncing ball when I used to watch it as a child!!!
Sing Along with Mitch occasionally featured celebrity guests who would appear throughout the hour, The show also offered cameos by uncredited celebrities not necessarily known for their singing ability, who were either visiting or working in New York who were placed in with the chorus.
As the popularity of the TV show rose, Miller continued to produce and record several “Sing Along with Mitch” record albums, complete with tear-out lyric sheets. The album series ultimately comprised 20 titles, released from 1958 to 1963.
In 1958, Miller saw a very talented black woman on a game show called, “Name that Tune.” Her name was Lesslie Uggams. He invited her to come and sing with him on her show and then asked her to become a regular on it. She was just 16 years old, but had a singing talent that couldn’t be denied. Her appearance was not very acceptable by many viewers in the southern states and the network began to get many letters and phone calls. Giving in to the naysayers, the network asked Mitch to reduce her role and then to eventually phase her out. Miller would have no part of that. He stood up to the top brass and said if she goes then he goes. He didn’t care about the letters. He never read any of them. He never told Ms. Uggams what was going on either. She found out some two years later about how the network tried to get rid of her. The southerners wouldn’t watch the show in the beginning but after a while the viewership began to rise in the south. Many black people from all over began to tune in. It was refreshing to see someone of their color on TV. Black people weren’t even in commercials at that time. There was still a lot of prejudice in the television industry.
Miller always insisted that Uggams’s race was of no significance to him, and that he hired her on the basis of talent alone; as he was frequently quoted as saying, “A singer like Leslie Uggams comes along once in a lifetime.”
Ms. Uggams later went on to say that she was very aware of the significance at the time and had to be on her best behavior so people couldn’t write bad things about her or drum up a scandal. She was the first African American who was seen regularly on a variety show. She once stated that she was carrying her whole race on her shoulders. She realized she was breaking barriers. Miller went on to help other young black talent by giving them opportunities that the never would have had. Eventually, in 1969, Ms. Uggams was asked by CBS to host her own variety show. She went on to become a famous actress and singer crediting Miller for how he had stood up for her in such uncertain times.
Sing Along with Mitch ran on television from 1961 until the network canceled it in 1964, a victim of changing musical tastes advertisers were targeting a younger audience. Miller left Columbia Records in 1965 and joined MCA Inc. as a consultant, signing the same year with MCA’s Decca Records subsidiary.
In later years, Miller would carry on the sing-along tradition, leading crowds in song in personal appearances. He hosted a 1981 TV reunion of the Sing Along Gang for NBC (featuring veterans from the original gang. Miller also appeared as host of two PBS television specials, Keep America Singing (1994) and Voices in Harmony (1996), featuring champion quartets and choruses. He also appeared conducting regional orchestras and filled in many times as guest conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra.
Miller was married for 65 years to Frances Alexander, who died in 2000. They had two daughters, a son, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Miller lived in New York City for many years, where he died on July 31, 2010, four weeks after his 99th birthday.
Despite his enormous popular success, the genius of Miller and his accomplishments have been largely overlooked by scholars. Miller’s choice to hire and retain Leslie Uggams as his lead soloist was unprecedented, and their pathbreaking collaboration should be recognized. Sing Along with Mitch aired at the height of the civil rights movement. Miller was received with great approval by representatives of the African American community. In 1962, Dr. Rosa L. Gragg, president of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, presented him with an award, which commended “the bearded maestro, his associates, and his sponsor, P. Ballantine and Sons brewing company for the quiet and dignified manner in which talented Leslie Uggams has been made an integral part of the TV series.” This honor was reported in Black newspapers across the country.
Like me, I’m sure many people remember the fun times singing along with Mitch Miller and his chorus, although I swear, I still remember a bouncing ball!