Mitch Miller, the oboe-playing record label exec who became a star in his own right with his “Sing Along With Mitch” albums and TV show, died July 31 in New York following a short illness. He was 99.
As head of A&R at Mercury Records and Columbia Records, Miller was a major architect of late 1940s and early ’50s pop, molding the careers of Frankie Laine, Patti Page, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Guy Mitchell, Johnnie Ray and (tempestuously) Frank Sinatra.
But he was best known to the public as the leader of “Mitch Miller and the Gang,” a male chorale that from 1958 through the mid-’60s released a best-selling series of sing-along albums devoted to familiar songs. Beginning with the No. 1 1958-set “Sing Along With Mitch,” the group took 17 LPs into the top 10 through 1962; three collections reached the top of the charts.
NBC picked up Miller’s routine for a popular series that ran from 1961-64. The grinning, avuncular Miller stood front-and-center, stiffly conducting his middle-aged group after instructing home viewers to “follow the bouncing ball” — a white dot that kept time with the words which unspooled at the bottom of the TV screen.
Miller’s refined classical roots belied his later career as a purveyor of all-American corn. After studying oboe at the Eastman School of Music in his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., he performed with regional symphonies before joining the CBS Symphony in 1932.
In the late ’40s he joined Mercury, working as a classical producer before heading the label’s pop division. He oversaw hits like Laine’s “That Lucky Old Sun,” “Mule Train” and “Jezebel” and Page’s “Confess” and “So in Love.”
Moving to Columbia at the behest of his music school classmate Goddard Lieberson, Miller racked up an impressive run of pre-rock ‘n’ roll chart-toppers. He brought Hank Williams’ “Cold, Cold Heart” to Bennett, talked Clooney into recording the slightly off-color “Come on-a My House” and oversaw the flamboyant Ray’s sobbing “Cry” — all No. 1 hits.
He fared less well with the volatile Sinatra, who was vocal in his complaints about the material he was being served by his A&R man. “Sinatra has waged a long-smoldering feud with Mitch Miller,” Billboard reported in late 1951. The singer fled Columbia in 1953 for Capitol Records, where he re-established himself as the era’s premiere pop singer.
Miller was famously out of sync with rock ‘n’ roll — he allowed RCA to outbid Columbia on Elvis Presley, and passed on signing Buddy Holly. His conservative take on pop essentially kept the label out of the rock business until after the arrival of the Beatles in the early ’60s.
Miller began recording under his own name at Columbia in 1950, when he reached No. 3 with his vocal arrangement of the Israeli song “Tzena Tzena Tzena.” His biggest pre-sing-along hit came in 1955, when “The Yellow Rose of Texas” climbed to No. 1.
But it was as leader of “The Gang” that Miller was best known. The sing-along formula had long legs, but by 1964, the last year the NBC series aired, Beatlemania had arrived on U.S. shores, and Miller’s music sounded antique.
After exiting Columbia in the ’60s, Miller largely busied himself as a guest conductor with classical symphonies. He received a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy in 2000.
In a statement, the Academy’s Neil Portnow said, “Mitch Miller was a true musical renaissance man with career roles that ranged from record company executive and television star to producer, arranger, musician and classical conductor.”
Survivors include two daughters, a son, two grandchildren, two great-grandchildren and two brothers.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)