And now, join the gang and me for Sing-Along Dirges With Mitch (Mitch Miller, 1911-2010)

Now, for the third time in two months, we’ve had someone notable get to 99 and not be able to see 100.

First, it was the beyond-legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden. Then, the stentorian voice of Yankee Stadium, Bobbobbob … Sheppardeppardeppard. And the third on the match comes from the far recesses of my childhood, and from the netherworld of recorded music where corporate processed cheese clashes constantly with the realm of music as art form.

Mitch Miller, goateed king of the sing-along, creator of one of my favorite Christmas albums but suppressor of generations of fine pop music, has departed this coil at the double-nonnies as well.

One person’s heaven is another’s hell. If we were meant to go to hell, it would probably sound like Miller and his gang singing “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” for all eternity. (Or Michael Bolton; either one.) If Miller were meant to go to hell, it would probably sound like the incessant gargling of a billion death metal records.

So do we praise the man who once was good enough to play oboe in an orchestra formed by George Gershwin? Who, as an A&R exec at Columbia Records in the ’50s and ’60s, turned Tony Bennett and Johnny Mathis into superstars and boosted the career of one of my favorite singers, Frankie Laine, by getting him to sing rugged, tough-son-of-a-bitch cowboy songs?

Or do we damn him, as Dave Marsh did, as a chief enemy of rock’n’roll (No. 11) in his books of rock lists? The guy who stopped the chart progress of Paul Revere & the Raiders’ most excellent version of “Louie Louie” (a band on his own label!) from advancing further up the charts — and let The Kingsmen’s trashy version become thee version — just because he hated rock’n’roll? The guy who forced Sinatra to record the low-water mark of his career? (“Mama Will Bark,” with Dagmar, 1950.)

Or, worst of all — and something inexplicably missing from The New York Times’ obit — the guy who tried to take a gospel singer from Detroit named Aretha Franklin and shoehorn her into a career of jazz and pop standards? (Of course, later it all turned out well, as Jerry Wexler at Atlantic helped her recover her soul and truly become Aretha. No thanks to Mitch.)

I guess if you live long enough, you do a lot of things that people like and a lot that they dislike.

But I didn’t know all that about him growing up. Back in my pre-Connecticut toddler days in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, my parents would occasionally watch his “Sing Along with Mitch” on NBC. (And yes, you do see a pre-“Sesame Street” Bob McGrath singing his heart out.) I would have to go to bed early, but I do remember seeing this weird guy with the pointy beard (in an age of clean-cut guys) and the grin of a demon standing on a podium, usually waving his hands in time backed by banjos and harmonicas, as a group of testosterone-laden guys earnestly oversings every song in the American pop standard songbook, with lyrics superimposed on the screen. ‘Course, I didn’t quite articulate it that way when I was three …

But Miller had his attributes. He was the king of the novelty song before his TV days. One time cheese won out with very happy results was when he forced George Clooney’s Aunt Rosie, then a struggling session singer, to sing a silly ditty based on an Armenian folk song. It was a tune written by a couple of Fresno natives: Ross Bagdasarian, before he became David Seville and discovered the joys of sped-up vocal tracks; and his cousin, a ne’er-do-well bicycle rider named Bill Saroyan. “Come On-A-My House,” with that swingin’ harpsichord, was Ms. Clooney’s blessing and curse — she hated the song, and got into a shouting match with Miller over it, but it was the record that established her as a star.

And before that, there was his novelty Christmas record: a kid named Jimmy Boyd who caught his mom fooling around with the fat guy (and you thought Santa only brought presents for kids!).

And, of course, Miller, at the height of his TV fame, took his turn at putting out a Christmas album. Don’t ask me why — there’s something about Christmas records that will make me take notice of artists I wouldn’t normally listen to the other 12 months. (For example, he’s certainly not cheesy, but the only Alan Jackson I usually listen to is his excellent Christmas album from about 10 years ago with the big band-style backing.) Mitch and the gang just somehow became part of my Christmas pantheon when I had my first pangs of holiday sentimentality in the mid-’80s, and in spite of him, his album is one of my holiday faves.

In the long run, though, Mitch Miller didn’t do much damage. The British Invasion and societal upheaval pushed his earnest hokiness to the wayside. So did his fellow Columbia executive, John Hammond, who brought in two guys who couldn’t sing very well and turned them into titans. Frankie went on to “From Here to Eternity” and his most fertile musical period, with Nelson Riddle at Capitol. And Aretha got to be the Queen of Soul after all.

But I’ll leave you with one tantalizing what-if: I didn’t realize this until I read some of his obits, but the guy who didn’t want to sign Buddy Holly because he was too rock’n’roll did make an effort to sign Elvis. What would’ve happened had he and Columbia gotten their claws on Presley and not RCA? I shudder to think …

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2 Responses to “And now, join the gang and me for Sing-Along Dirges With Mitch (Mitch Miller, 1911-2010)”

  1. Jay Says:

    …..it probably means Elvis would have been forced to start singing shitty songs much sooner in his career. Mitch would have had him singing nothing BUT songs that were of the “quality” of “Do the Clam.”

  2. Bob garvin Says:

    fran the tidy bowl man has passed as well.where the hell would we all be without that blue whirlpool?! i betcha mitch used it too.love garvin

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