On the True Importance of Mitch Miller
Today is the birthday of that peculiar American phenomenon Mitch Miller (1911-2010). Most of us today know him from scratchy old record albums, listened to for camp value on holidays, featuring strange all-male choruses singing the melody lines of popular tunes (arranged without harmony parts) — it sounds sort of like a cheerful chain gang. Some of these records, like The Yellow Rose of Texas and the marching song from The Bridge over the River Kwai, actually became hits. Older folks also remember his television show Sing Along With Mitch (1961-1964) in which folks at home (apparently lonely and strange people) were encouraged to sing along with the people on television.
While this is Miller’s best known profile, it is actually FAR from being his most important legacy. From the late 1940s through the mid 1960s he was an important A & R man and producer at Columbia Records. His most famous discovery was probably Tony Bennett. Many, many long years ago I used to work for Tony (MUCH more on that in future posts) and so I got to speak to Mitch many times on the phone, so I got all the old scuttlebutt. His creative relationship with Bennett provides a good entree to an aspect of Miller’s work that critics often have a problem with — his penchant for broad, theatrical, almost cartoonish novelty. A good example is “Rags to Riches” (1953), a tune Tony always downplays and diminishes when he talks about it as being gimmicky. I, however, was taught to love it by Carmine on Laverne and Shirley. And I always will. Love it, that is. Besides, I love the arrangement: it’s charming (if the flourishes are a little stereotypically Italianate) and it’s just so dramatic — it packs a pow. Well, here it is:
To find out more about the history of show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc