Mitch Miller, the king of pre-rock pop recording who became a popular TV personality,has died at the excellent age of 99. As the head of popular artists and repertoire for Columbia records in the ’50s (Columbia was one of the two most dominant U.S. labels, along with RCA), he helped define the sound of the era. He was famous for being one of the producers who created a sense that a pop record was more than just a representation of a performance: this was the time when records started to include instruments, effects, and studio gimmickry that could never be replicated in live performances. (The more hands-off approach to recording had its roots in classical recording, where you’re presented with arrangements that cannot be changed, and try to present the music in a very direct way.) This helped to lead to the idea that would soon dominate the record business, of the three-minute record as an art form in itself, separate from the live experience. He also signed up a very impressive roster of pop singers, mostly easy-on-the-ears stylists like Rosemary Clooney, Jo Stafford (he lured her from Capitol Records to Columbia, where she sold 25 million records) and Patti Page. And he was the first producer to record songs written by the team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, with “The Story of My Life.”
Miller was also notorious for his tastes: the overblown arrangements, the goofy novelty songs. At a time when the quality of pop songwriting was in apparent decline — or at least, already starting to fragment into niche markets — he often picked songs that had hooks and gimmicks, no matter how silly. Most famously, he convinced Frank Sinatra to record “Mama Will Bark,” making Sinatra hate him for the rest of his life.
Like most record producers, Miller was a musician; unlike most record producers, he actually achieved some success as a bandleader, first recording for his own label, then with his successful TV series “Sing Along With Mitch,” where he’d lead a chorus in old songs while the lyrics were projected on the screen. It was a popular satirical target (along with the Lawrence Welk Show) for its squareness and for Miller’s terrifying beard. But in the early ’60s — the Mad Men era, basically — it was a show where families could escape arguments over different styles of popular music and sing along with the songs they all agreed on. Here’s a clip with a special guest:
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