Mitch Miller: Producer, composer and conductor who made an enduring impact on American popular music

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The Independent Online

As a recording manager and record producer, Mitch Miller nurtured the talents of some of the biggest names in American music – Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine, Johnnie Ray, Doris Day, Rosemary Clooney – and he made the US Columbia label the biggest in the country. For several years in the 1950s, he was the most important figure in the record industry and many younger talents followed his example and learnt how to produce records.

Mitch Miller was born in Rochester, New York on 4 July 1911, one of five children to Abram Calmen Miller, a Russian immigrant and foundry worker, and his wife, Hinda Rosenblum, a dressmaker. As a child, Miller was recognised as a gifted pianist, but he switched to oboe and at 15 he was playing with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra. He won a scholarship to the Eastman School of Music and graduated in 1932. Years later, when the school wished to create the Miller Atrium in his honour, he insisted it was named for his parents.

Moving to New York City, Miller was in the pit orchestra for the Broadway premiere of Porgy and Bess (1935), later touring with its composer, George Gershwin. He was with the CBS Symphony Orchestra when they performed the score for Orson Welles' controversial broadcast of The War of the Worlds (1938).

Miller became a record producer in the 1940s, first with Mercury Records and then, in 1950, with Columbia. He still played the oboe from time to time, notably on some of Charlie Parker's recordings for Mercury in 1949 including "April in Paris" and "Summertime".

Although big-band singing was the order of the day, he wanted to make records with small groups of musicians if that suited the song. In 1949, he took "Mule Train" from a little-known Western, Singing Guns, and gave it to Frankie Laine. Laine's bellowing performance was accompanied by Miller himself adding the whip-cracks. "We only had a few musicians – accordion, rhythm, string bass," said Miller, "so I was too embarrassed to put my name on it as conductor." Two years later, Miller paired Laine with some throbbing guitars for "Jezebel". "I liked working with Mitch very much," Laine once told me. "He liked to arm wrestle before we started recording."

Miller knew Frank Sinatra well, sometimes being the conductor on his radio programme, Your Hit Parade. He made some excellent records with Sinatra, including "American Beauty Rose" and "I've Got a Crush on You", but in 1950 Miller wanted Sinatra to record "The Roving Kind" and "My Heart Cries for You" (which had been written by Miller's orchestrator, Percy Faith). "I don't sing this crap," said Sinatra, leaving Miller with two problems: what would satisfy Sinatra and who would sing the songs. Rather than cancel the session, Miller asked the up-and-coming Guy Mitchell to step in, and both songs made the US Top 10. Sinatra found success by reviving "Nevertheless (I'm in Love with You)", but the following year he made his worst record, "Mama Will Bark", with the TV personality Dogmar, and he resolved to get away from Miller as quickly as he could.

Frank Sinatra notwithstanding, Miller had an exceptional talent for matching the singer with the song. The UK record charts started in November 1952 and 8 of the first 25 No 1s were produced by Miller: "Comes A-Long A-Love" (a song Kay Starr had no time for), "She Wears Red Feathers" (a cheerful novelty about a London banker from Mitchell), "I Believe" (the ultimate religious power-ballad from Laine), "Look At That Girl" (for Mitchell, who had just married a Miss USA), "Hey Joe" (one of several examples of Miller turning a country song into a pop hit, this time for Laine), "Answer Me" (another religious song for Laine), "Such a Night" (Johnnie Ray's recording was banned by the BBC for its suggestiveness) and "This Ole House" (a novelty hit for Rosemary Clooney, later revived by Shakin' Stevens). He also found and produced Patti Page's "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window", a UK No 1 for Lita Roza.

Although Miller could spot strong ballads like "Rags to Riches" and "Stranger in Paradise" for Tony Bennett, he was especially adept at finding novelty songs and he encouraged his friend Bob Merrill to write distinctive material for his acts. Merrill wrote many of Mitchell's hits as well as Clooney's No 1 "Mambo Italiano" (1955). One of Miller's biggest successes was with the impudent "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" by the 12-year-old Jimmy Boyd in 1953, and he also produced "Too Old to Cut the Mustard" (Marlene Dietrich and Clooney), "Singing the Blues" (Mitchell) and "Whatever Will Be, Will Be" (Doris Day). He also produced Shirley Bassey in New York in 1957.

Miller loved coming to London. One of his slogans was "Thank God for the British" because he always felt that a record that had failed in America might get a second chance when it was released here. "Cool Water" (Laine), "Christopher Columbus" (Mitchell) and "Where Will the Dimple Be" (Clooney) had been overlooked in the US, but became successful in the UK. "I like the British," he told the New Musical Express in 1955. "They are not in as much a hurry as we Americans are. They take time out to really listen."

Johnnie Ray's highly emotional "Cry" (1952) caused a sensation. It was a huge influence on Elvis Presley and Ray's lack of inhibition paved the way for rock'n'roll. However, Miller himself frowned upon rock'n'roll and is now often cast as the villain of the story – the industry man who held out against it. He told Melody Maker in 1957, "Rock'n'roll is the glorification of monotony. A certain element of juveniles accepts almost any form of it, even the lowest and the most distasteful, because everybody else in their group does." However, Miller's most bitter complaint about rock'n'roll was over payola – that is, bribing disc-jockeys to play records.

In 1955, Miller had had his own million-selling record with "The Yellow Rose of Texas" (which was also used to good effect in the fight scene in the diner in Giant) and he started making sing-along albums by Mitch Miller and the Gang, at first a 20-voice male chorus. The first album, Sing-Along with Mitch (1958), topped the US album charts for 8 weeks and was followed by Christmas Sing-Along with Mitch (1958) and 15 further albums. They had hits with "Colonel Bogey March" (1958) and "The Children's Marching Song (Nick Nack Paddy Wack)" (1959). The albums were not particularly successful in the UK, largely because The Black and White Minstrel Show mined the same market.

In 1961, Miller put the format on US TV and the audience was encouraged to sing-along as the lyrics of "California Here I Come" or "You Are My Sunshine" came on the screen. Even at the time they were corny and kitsch, but this was the start of karaoke, and Miller, with his Buffalo Bill beard and easy-going nature, became a popular TV personality. One of his female singers, Leslie Uggams, became a star in her own right.

Miller's response to the advent of rock'n'roll was to make an international star from a new ballad singer, Johnny Mathis, and he also encouraged an arranger, Ray Conniff, to make his own easy listening albums.

In later years, Miller worked less successfully on Broadway productions but he often appeared as a guest conductor of symphony orchestras, including the LSO and the Boston Pops. Although he is often seen as a right-wing figure, he stood alongside Pete Seeger and sang "Give Peace a Chance" at a peace rally.

He spent his later years in a nursing home, but he still had his faculties and he would organise sing-along afternoons for the residents.

Mitchell William Miller (Mitch Miller), record producer: born Rochester, New York 4 July 1911; married 1935 Frances Alexander (died 2000, one son, two daughters); died Manhattan 31 July 2010.