MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In the 1960s, long before MTV and "American Idol," the shared musical experience for millions of American TV viewers involved singing along with a chorus of middle-aged men in sweaters. The weekly songfest was presided over by a smiling, bearded conductor named Mitch Miller.
Miller sold millions of "Sing Along with Mitch" albums. But even before that, he was one of the most powerful men in the music industry, producing records for artists ranging from Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis to Frank Sinatra.
Mitch Miller died Saturday in New York City, after a brief illness. He was 99 years old.
David C. Barnett, of member station WCPN, has this appreciation.
DAVID C. BARNETT: You might say Mitch Miller owed his musical career to a piano teacher with personal hygiene problems.
Mr. MITCH MILLER (Record Producer): This teacher was a very good teacher, but every time she leaned over and said, now, Mitchell, you must do it this way, her breath just bowled me over.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BARNETT: In a 1978 interview, Miller recalled that burst of bad breath as a turning point in his young life.
Born on the 4th of July in Rochester, New York, he'd heard that Eastman-Kodak founder and local philanthropist George Eastman was donating musical instruments to students in the public schools. So Miller decided to ditch the piano and get in line - only, he was a little late.
MR. MILLER: All the shiny ones were gone. They said, would you like an oboe? It was the only thing left. I said, sure. I wanted anything.
BARNETT: Miller went on to study oboe at the Eastman School of Music, which led to stints with several orchestras.
(Soundbite of orchestral music)
BARNETT: He played under a number of prominent conductors, including Thomas Beecham, Arturo Toscanini and Igor Stravinsky. Later, as a member of the CBS Symphony, he helped provide the soundtrack to a Martian invasion on the legendary, 1938 "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast.
(Soundbite of music and "War of the Worlds")
Unidentified Man: We take you now to Grover's Mill, New Jersey.
BARNETT: After a decade of playing on the radio and doing session work, famed music executive John Hammond tapped Mitch Millers pop sensibilities for a job at Mercury Records, where Miller produced a string of hit singles for Frankie Laine.
In 1978, Miller told Cleveland disc jockey Bill Randall about the secret behind one of his most famous studio tricks, on Laines 1949 hit...
(Soundbite of song, "Mule Train")
Mr. FRANKIE LAINE (singer): (Singing) Mule train, hiyah, hiyah.
(Soundbite of a whip)
Mr. BILL RANDALL: That whip-cracking sound, how did you get that on the record?
Mr. MILLER: We were hitting leather-seated chairs with rulers and things like nothing worked. And they were remodeling the studio. So I went in, and there were two slats for flooring. I began to hit them together. Hey, that's it. So we dubbed it in and in 10 minutes, we had it.
BARNETT: Miller's critics derided the use of production gimmicks, but they couldn't deny how his sense of showmanship appealed to the public. Miller helped guide the careers of Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, and a 20-year-old crooner from California named Johnny Mathis.
(Soundbite of song, "Chances Are")
Mr. JOHNNY MATHIS (Singer): (Singing) Chances are 'cause I wear a silly grin the moment you come into view. Chances...
Mr. MATHIS: I remember very clearly that he said he wanted me to sing so that everybody who listened to me thought that they could sing that way, also. Very simply, straight ahead, no embellishments.
BARNETT: Several years later, Miller was in a bind because a new Mathis album was due, but he had no fresh material. Ever the marketer, he assembled a collection of songs that Mathis had previously recorded. "Johnny's Greatest Hits" stayed on the charts for a record 10 years.
Mr. MATHIS: It started a trend where everybody has a greatest hits, and he was the first person to do that.
BARNETT: But perhaps Mitch Miller's biggest impact on American music came in 1958, when he put together a record date with a chorus of male singers who harmonized to nostalgic, popular tunes from a half-century earlier.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Men (Singers): (Singing) Shine on, shine on harvest moon, up in the sky...
Mr. MILLER: The idea was to make them a tempo that people could sing with and yet, make them interesting enough so that people who didn't sing wanted to hear them over and over again.
BARNETT: The album shot to the top of the charts. It was followed by 19 more "Sing Along With Mitch" records, and it spawned a hit TV show that also broke barriers.
Mitch Miller's enthusiasm for a 17-year-old black singer landed her a feature spot on the program.
(Soundbite of television program, "Sing Along With Mitch")
Mr. MILLER: Leslie Uggams. Remember the name.
(Soundbite of music)
Ms. LESLIE UGGAMS (Singer): (Singing) Im just a little sparrow in the nest of the Lord.
Mr. BOB McGRATH (Actor): There was very, very few African-Americans on television, on a regular show - almost none, at that point. That was a real breakthrough.
BARNETT: "Sesame Street's" Bob McGrath also got his start on the "Sing Along with Mitch" show. He recalls that in many ways, Mitch Miller was a risk-taker and a taboo-breaker. But McGrath says he could also be rigid and inflexible.
Mr. McGRATH: He kept rock 'n' roll out of Columbia Records for longer than anybody there cared to. He just felt it was not a very musical style, and those were his convictions, and his convictions were very, very strong.
BARNETT: Mitch Miller spent his later years conducting pops programs with most of the major orchestras in the U.S., ending each performance with an audience sing-along.
For NPR News, I'm David C. Barnett.
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