Remembering Singing Along With Mitch Miller

Before karaoke and MTV, viewers in the 1960's used to sing along with Mitch Miller. The gregarious TV host and music producer who helped launch the careers of Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney died on Saturday at age 99. Music critic Jim Bessman talks about Mitch Miller's musical and cultural legacy.

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TONY COX, host:

One last time, let's sing along with Mitch.

(Soundbite of TV program, "Sing Along with Mitch")

Mr. MITCH MILLER (Host): I hope that gal turns up. We've a marvelous hour ahead for her and you, a great minstrel show complete right down to the tambourine. Then some numbers inspired by mandolin, fiddle and saxophone. Some railroad songs as exciting as the rise of the engineer, and finally, a rousing salute to Gilbert and Sullivan. So let's warm up, shall we?

Unidentified People: (Singing) I never knew...

COX: That clip might bring up memories of Mitch Miller there in an old episode of his 1960s TV show, "Sing Along with Mitch." The gregarious television host and music producer died on Saturday at age 99. He was an acclaimed oboist who performed with Gershwin and Charlie Parker, and a music executive who launched the careers of Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney. And he even helped a young Bob Dylan.

But he is likely best remembered for the proto-karate(ph) sing-along show which ran on television from 1961 to 1964. For many Americans, Miller's smiling bearded face was a welcome antidote to that rock and roll racket on the radio, according to some folks. Jim Bessman has been writing about American music for almost three decades. He is the author of more than 70 liner notes, two books and a column that ran today, titled "Rock 'n' Roll Aside, Mitch Miller Was a Friend of Music." He joins us now from our New York Bureau. Jim, nice to have you on.

Mr. JIM BESSMAN (Columnist, Examiner.com): It's nice to be here.

COX: And before I ask you my first question, let me tell our audience that we also want to hear from you, your memories of Mitch Miller's music. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. And to join the conversation, just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

All right, Jim, do this for us. You know, everybody doesn't know who Mitch Miller is - was. Put his musical legacy in some context for us, will you?

Mr. BESSMAN: Well, as you pointed out, he was responsible for signing and producing a number of the great artists of the time of the '50s and actually of the early '60s, most prominently Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney. Tony, in concert today, he'll reminisce and he'll refer to himself and Rosemary as the first American idols and it gets a big laugh. But that really is close to the truth. They were just huge stars at the time and they owed the launch of their careers to Mitch Miller, who signed them and produced their records and found a lot of the songs that they recorded at the early stages of their careers.

COX: You know, karaoke is a big thing now. We all know that. And back in the '60s, you know, there was no karaoke per se, but there was this, as people were watching Mitch Miller on television, gathered around the television in the living rooms of American homes from coast to coast. Many of the people who watched the show - follow this - Jim, I'm going to ask you about this, because many people who watched the show say that they remember a bouncing ball that followed the lyrics on the screen.

Now, Karen Herman spent more than two hours, two hours talking with Mitch Miller about his career for the Archive of American Television. That was back in 2004. So the issue of this bouncing ball came up and she got to the bottom of the myth of that with Mitch Miller.

(Soundbite of archived recording)

Ms. KAREN HERMAN (Director, Archive of American Television): Talk about the bouncing ball concept.

Mr. MILLER: Never was a bouncing ball. Everyone says there's a bouncing ball. We just had the lyrics and, as I told you, had the two cameras and the stuff in black.

Ms. HERMAN: Why do you think that everybody thinks that there was a bouncing ball?

Mr. MILLER: Because there was in the theater. There was a - when the organ would teach you a new song in theater, the organ would play and there was a bouncing ball. And then there was a cartoon - Looney Tunes and all that, they had a bouncing ball. So people, you know, drew that from their memory.

COX: So, Jim, by the way, we put that full interview on the TALK OF THE NATION website at NPR.org if you'd like to hear it. I got to tell you, Jim, a lot of people, myself included, all of the producers and writers here at TALK OF THE NATION, when we were thinking about this earlier today, we were like, oh yeah, the show with the bouncing ball. How did it get to be that we thought there was a bouncing ball if there wasn't one?

Mr. BESSMAN: Isn't that funny? We all share the same illusion here because I felt the same way, though I do recall the "Looney Tunes" that Mitch referred to in that interview, the bouncing ball in those cartoons. And I guess we just had first seen the lyrics superimposed on the screen through Mitch's show, and then we just transposed it - transposed the bouncing ball, the cartoons afterwards, I guess.

COX: Do you have any idea or can you explain, as a cultural critic, how a show - and as a music critic - how a music show like that was so successful then? And whether or not, in your opinion, a show like that could ever make it again?

Mr. BESSMAN: Well, we got to remember that at that time, and we're talking the early 1960s, there were only three major networks. Now, of course, there's -well, I'm - I don't know how many, but there are a lot of alternatives that we have to watch different things. So to answer the end of the question, no, I don't see how any of this could happen again. Having said that, I'm immediately thinking of "American Idol" and how popular that is, crossing a wide range of demographics.

But I think the reason was, that at that time, there weren't a lot of alternatives in people's viewing choices; but also that Mitch has struck a chord, at least among family viewers, at that time. He offered music that people could participate in as - if you wanted to sing along, which of course you were asked to do. And it was just a fun thing. It was great music. I guess it was something that everyone could enjoy.

COX: It seems really hokey now, though, doesn't it? To look back, like really, just corny, corny, corny. Let's go to St. Paul, Minnesota. Karen(ph) is on the line. Karen, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

KAREN (Caller): Thanks. I remember spending many nights at my grandparents, who were immigrants. And they watched this show, like it was college on television, to learn about America. They would listen to that and watch it. They had the records. They played them over and over and over. And they could sing songs like, you know, "Peg o' My Heart" and "Yellow Rose of Texas," which was such American songs - some of them, you know, from other cultures. But that to them - and whenever I think about Mitch Miller and his, like, little mock turtleneck and his little pointy Vandyke beard, I just think of my grandparents and how much that music meant to them.

COX: Thank you very much for that call, Karen. I appreciate it. And in fact, before you chime in on what you had to say, Jim, we got a text just a second ago. And there's another show that's current, that you could draw, perhaps, a connection to Mitch Miller in an odd sort of way, and it's "Glee."

This person says: Mitch was the original "Glee" geek. And he helped me, through singing, to relive - to relieve the stress that I had as a kid. That's Jay(ph) from Cleveland. Jay, thank you for that.

For a moment, let's talk about what he did, Mitch Miller, not on his television show, and his role in music. He signed Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney. How important was the music that he produced at Columbia Records?

Mr. BESSMAN: Well, it was hugely important. I don't know that we want to give him too much credit for Bob Dylan. That would go to another man in the A and R department that Mitch was part of, John Hammond. I don't think Mitch would have had a whole lot of input in Bob Dylan's career. But in the career of, again, people like Tony, Rosemary, Patti Page, Frankie Lane, Johnny Ray - there's a whole string of artists that were very important and significant in the pre-rock and roll era that he came up and brought along. He signed, he produced, he found the songs.

We talked of the role of the A and R executive. It stands for artists and repertoire, which we usually don't even mention anymore. But what that meant was, not only did he sign the artist, he would find the repertoire or the songs for the artist. So for instance, Tony Bennett also likes to talk about how Mitch essentially forced him to sing Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart." Tony felt that that was a country song, that he was not - not able to sing a country song. And he jokes in concert, that Mitch told him that he was going to sing it if Mitch had to tie Tony to a tree. And Tony says, and so he tied me to a tree. And sure enough, he sang the song and it was a huge hit.

COX: A big hit. Let's go to another call. This is from Tucson, Arizona. Is it Jean Paul(ph)?

JEAN PAUL (Caller): Yes.

COX: How are you?

JEAN PAUL: Hi.

COX: Welcome to the show. What's your comment?

JEAN PAUL: My comment is that unlike a lot of people, I was not particularly enamored of Mitch Miller. I remember the show really well, and he fit in to the same genre as Lawrence Welk for me. And I would just - I can't speak for my sisters, but I would run from the room...

(Soundbite of laughter)

JEAN PAUL: ...as he came on. What is really nice is to hear all of this other stuff about him. I had no idea, so it's great to hear things about him.

COX: Thank you very much for the call. It was sort of hokey, but there weren't a lot of options, as we've said. And here's another call. This is Bryce(ph) in Flint - let's see. No. Hold on a minute, Bryce. I'm going to get to you if I can. This is Larry(ph) in New Boston, Texas. Larry, welcome to the show. Larry? Hello, Larry.

LARRY (Caller): Yes.

COX: Okay. You're on.

LARRY: I was born in 1961, so I don't have much recollection of the show that was on TV. But we had a "Sing Along with Mitch" Christmas album that my parents got out every year. And looking back at my childhood, it just wouldn't have been Christmas without Mitch.

COX: Without Mitch. Thank you so much for that call. I wonder - Bryce, I apologize to you. I said I was going to come to you but the clock is telling me we have to leave. I wonder what an old Mitch Miller album is worth these days. What would you say, really quickly, Jim?

Mr. BESSMAN: Well, I don't know. I mean, you can get so much of the music on CD and through YouTube. So, I don't know how much the price is for collectors of vinyl, or even an older configuration, would be, but I'm sure that there will be people that would pay a good price.

COX: Wish we had more time because there are people that are sending in these emails and...

Mr. BESSMAN: Yeah.

COX: ...calling and writing and - we - there's so much more...

Mr. BESSMAN: I got a huge response today to the piece I did.

COX: Did you?

Mr. BESSMAN: Much of it mirrors all the things that...

COX: That we're hearing today.

Mr. BESSMAN: ...have said so far, yeah.

COX: Absolutely. It would be great to be able to spend more time with it. Unfortunately, we just don't have the time to do that. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Jim, I want to thank you once again for coming on. Jim is a music journalist who writes for, among others, The Examiner and Billboard magazine. He joined us from our New York bureau. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of song, "The Yellow Rose of Texas")

MITCH MILLER and THE GANG (Band): (Singing) There's a yellow rose in Texas that I am going to see. Nobody else could miss her, not half as much as me. She cried so when I left her, it like to broke my heart. And if I ever find her, we nevermore will part. She's the sweetest little rosebud that Texas ever knew. Her eyes are bright as diamonds. They sparkle like the dew. You may talk about your Clementine and sing of Rosalee, but the yellow rose of Texas is the only girl for me.

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