Mitch Miller: The Kitch of Mitch

The name of Mitch Miller came up the other day quite by coincidence. The conversation was about Louis Prima’s difficult, early-1950s, pre-Vegas days when decent gigs and recording deals were, for him and new wife Keely Smith, hard to come by.

The conversation turned to a song titled “Come On-A My House,” produced by Mitch Miller for singer Rosemary Clooney in June of 1951. Though it was a tremendous hit for Clooney, Prima–deservedly–felt it would have been a perfect Prima tune and may have helped resurrect the singer/trumpeter’s flagging career.

Prima never spoke to Mitch Miller again. He wasn’t the only one.

If anyone still wants to sing along with Mitch, by the way, they still can. The bearded conductor, classical oboist, record producer and television personality is still very much with us at the age 98, living in New York City and doing guest symphony conductor dates from time to time.

Few in the history of the music business have had as varied a career as Miller, and even fewer have been as popular and beloved by the general public. What some industry people thought of him was sometimes another matter.

The invention of a Mitch Miller couldn’t happen today, if only because his was a career that included stints as a classically trained symphonic oboist (jazz fans recognize his work as oboe soloist on the legendary “Charlie Parker with Strings” recordings of 1949), to producer of some of the most God awful recorded novelties in music history (from Frankie Laine’s “Mule Train” to Johnnie Ray’s “Cry”), and ultimately as host of the hit sing-along television program, “Sing Along with Mitch.”

For one artist to have started his career as an oboe soloist with the Budapest String Quartet, only to ultimately gain fame as host of what would be described today as a karaoke TV show, is almost impossible to fathom.

As a record producer in the 1950s and 1960s, first at Mercury and later at Columbia, “the bearded one,” as he was known, was a schlockmeister all the way. Some artists, like Guy Mitchell and Patti Page, weren’t particularly quality conscious when it came to material. Others, such as Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney, went along with some of Miller’s suggestions reluctantly.

Then there was the case of Frank Sinatra. For any number of reasons, Sinatra’s career was pretty much down the tubes by the late 1940s, as were his record sales at Columbia. Mitch Miller thought he could make Mr. S. a star again via his proven formula for novelty songs, and strongly suggested that Sinatra record dreck like “Bim Bam Baby,” and the truly embarrassing “Mama Will Bark” from 1951. The latter was duet between Sinatra and a then-popular, pinup television star named Dagmar. And yes, there was actual barking on the track, though not by Sinatra as is widely thought, but by a dog impressionist by the name of Donald Bain.

A few years later, when Sinatra’s career was reborn as an Academy Award-winning film star and hit-maker at Capital Records, Sinatra sent telegrams to judiciary and senate committees, accusing Miller of presenting him with inferior songs, and of accepting money from writers whose songs he (Miller) had used.

Miller always said that Sinatra and other Columbia artists could not be forced to perform anything they didn’t want to. Mr.S.wouldn’t hear of any of it. Years later, it is said, the two physically crossed paths in a Las Vegas casino. Whomever was with Sinatra or Miller on the scene that night tried to affect a reconciliation.

“F–k y–, keep walking,” was Sinatra’s reply.

Interestingly, for a music man with the tastes of MItch Miller, he couldn’t stand rock and roll, and is said to have passed on the likes of Elvis and Buddy Holly. Indeed, Columbia’s small share of the rock market was due to Miller’s distaste of it. Miller was much more interested in producing and recording dreck like “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

After the demise of his “SIng Along with Mitch” television show, and with the advent of the Beatles, Mitch MIller fell pretty much out of fashion and off the radar. No matter. He made his mark, and at the age of 98 is likely still following that elusive bouncing ball.

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