Follow the Bouncing Ball

When TV personality Art Linkletter died earlier this year, I was surprised because I didn’t know he was still alive to begin with. Same with Mitch Miller, who died over the weekend at age 99. I am just old enough to vaguely remember Sing Along With Mitch, Miller’s TV program. Before that, however, Miller had established the “sing along” franchise. Before that, he had scored hits as a bandleader. And before that, he had shaped the sound of American popular music. Starting in 1950, Miller headed A&R for Columbia, and in that capacity guided the careers of many significant artists of the MOR era, including Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis, Patti Page, and Percy Faith, all of whom he brought to the label. He’s also responsible for signing Aretha Franklin to her first contract, although Columbia tried to turn her into a songbird along the lines of Doris Day or Jo Stafford, and it wasn’t until she left the label that she became who she became.

And that fact segues rather nicely into one of the main reasons Miller is remembered by the rock generation: as one of its supposed enemies. Rock is “not music, it’s a disease,” he famously said, yet he also produced Johnny Ray’s “Cry,” the influential 1951 hit that topped the pop and R&B charts, and attempted to sign Elvis Presley to Columbia. According to his New York Times obituary, in later years he moderated his views by saying that his objections were on principle rather than taste—objections to the sleaziness of payola, for example, and to the way white audiences were eager to accept white imitations of black music.

Miller scored hits under his own name as early as 1950, although the mid-50s records billed to Mitch Miller and the Gang were the biggest and best-known. “The Yellow Rose of Texas” hit Number One in 1955, and you’ve probably heard his 1958 version of “March From the River Kwai” and “Colonel Bogey” even if you didn’t know it. With rock ‘n’ roll at its early heights in 1958, Miller responded by releasing Sing Along With Mitch, an album of traditional songs and novelty ditties, sung by a male chorus and backed by an orchestra, with song lyrics printed on the back cover. It went to Number One on the album charts, as did Christmas Sing Along With Mitch that December. Between the summer of ’58 and the end of 1962, Miller charted 18 Sing Along albums in all, 16 of which made the Top 10. In January 1961, Sing Along with Mitch premiered on NBC-TV and ran until 1964, although the network brought it back for a brief string of summer reruns in 1966. It was this show that coined the phrase “follow the bouncing ball,” which made it easy for viewers at home to sing along with lyrics flashed on the TV screen.

Watching Sing Along With Mitch now, which you can do at Classic Television Showbiz, gives you the opportunity to see not just the coming generation gap, but why it had to happen. Given what we know about Miller’s career up to the early 1960s, Sing Along With Mitch is clearly reactionary, but also just as clearly the last stand for the sort of popular culture that had dominated American life for the previous 30 years. It’s the thing that Elvis and the Beatles came to destroy.

9 thoughts on “Follow the Bouncing Ball

  1. I’m old enough to remember watching Mitch Miller with my Dad every Friday night. I still have several of his old Sing Along with Mitch albums that my parents bought. They’re in good condition too but I haven’t played them in years. It’s so perfect that this TV series came and went during the same time period so accurately portrayed in the wonderful AMC series, Mad Men.

  2. Yah Shure

    And Mariah Carey, in turn, came to destroy the Rock era. Not to take anything at all away from him, but Elvis or no Elvis, ’50s pop culture would have run its course on its own, as happens with every decade. Speaking of which, I can’t help but wonder what on earth Presley would have sounded like, had Miller succeeded at signing him with Columbia.

    Mitch’s cover of “The Children’s Marching Song” was a radio favorite of mine in the first days of 1959, but because my older brother and I had to reach a consensus on any parent-bankrolled 45 purchases, I went without it, at least at first. My mom finally caved in to my pleading, but the record she got me wasn’t by Mitch, nor was it the competing Cyril Stapleton version. What I ended up with was a record by the Norman Leyden (92 and still kicking) Child’s World Orchestra and Chorus on RCA Victor’s Bluebird kiddie label. Disappointed at first, I grew to appreciate Leyden’s unique twists in the arrangement, along with the wonderful version of ‘The King And I”s “March Of The Siamese Children” on the B-side. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think it was my mom’s way of keeping Mitch Miller out of the house. Her own mother adored Miller’s TV show, while Mom though it was Squaresville personified.

    The irony in getting that kiddie record cover of Mitch’s cover was that Mom didn’t actually succeed in keeping the Shure residence a Mitch-free zone. We also had gobs of those yellow 78 RPM kiddie discs around the house from Little Golden Records, the company for whom Mr. Miller was the music director. Those golden goodies provided hours of fun, and for that, I salute the goateed guy with the bouncing ball. My only regret was that Little Golden used an inferior adhesive on the labels; thus many of those records I still have are completely unidentifiable.

    But, yeah, his TV show and the ‘Sing-A-Long’ albums were pretty… Sorry, grandma.

    1. jb

      I agree that cultural decades generally run their course on their own, but I submit that what happened with the birth of the rock era was far more significant than an earlier era of culture running out of gas. Elvis and his progeny (count the Beatles among them) did more than take the place of the big bands and the great vocalists who had dominated music since the 1930s–they transformed the engine that drives popular culture. They represent the triumph of youth sensibility over adult sensibility, and the ending of the era in which children were seen and not heard. It took television longer to catch up, but it did, and eventually youth appeal became the driving force of much television programming.

      (I am not sure how the movies fit into this thesis, exactly–films got more adult in the late 60s before becoming the celluloid equivalent of theme-park rides a decade later, and now I just assume that nobody’s making movies for people my age, that they’re all made for people aged 18 to 29.)

  3. Of course, Frank Sinatra–the darling of rock culture–called rock and roll (among other things) “the most brutal, ugly, desperate, vicious form of expression it has been my misfortune to hear.” Yet, Sinatra’s obits spent hardly any time on Frank’s attitude toward the music. By contrast, Mitch, in classic scapegoat fashion, is having his career trashed in the name of the standard old-vs.-young pop narrative, wherein he takes the fall for regarding rock and roll in precisely the same way as nearly every other trained, professional musician of his day. (In fact, Stan Freberg made Mitch look like a champion of teen pop.) Despite his statements against rock and amateur musicianship, any number of R&B and rock and roll artists recorded while Mitch was at the helm, from Carl Perkins and Dr. Feelgood to the Ravens and Chuck Willis.

    I’m puzzled by the media’s focus–and yours–on the “Sing along” phase. Objections to rock and roll started way back with artists like the Crows, Drifters, and Big Joe Turner–Elvis’ 1956 debut on RCA started what was a second phase of attack on the music–this time, with the term “R&B” being phased out, and the music’s black artists on their way to being musically marginalized in Rolling Stone/NYT fashion. Focusing on Mitch doesn’t seem very logical, given all the other successful pop producers of the day (Hugo Winterhalter, Charles Grean, et al.). And there was tons of non-rock pop music available in the late Fifties and early Sixties besides Mitch–Harry Belafonte, Les Baxter, Lenny Dee, Billy Vaughn, Peggy Lee, Sinatra, Andy Williams, and so on.

    I guess I’m slightly (though only slightly) surprised to see Mitch make it this far into old age, only to get the full scapegoat treatment–even with most of today’s current pop audience going, “Mitch who?” Pop narratives die hard, I guess.

  4. jb

    @Lee: You’re a little defensive in your comments, maybe–I don’t believe that my lame little blog post makes me guilty of giving Mitch Miller “the full scapegoat treatment” or being “illogical”–but I take your point that Miller could not have hated rock entirely, and that there were other prominent figures who hated it just as much or more. And yeah, there was a great deal of non-rock pop available in the 50s and early 60s, some of which we have noted around here, and some of which we like a lot, so he’s not the only person who was swimming against the rock tide at the same time. I “focused” on Miller because he died, and on the singalong phase of his career because that’s the one most people, myself included, are going to think of first when they think of him. No, it probably isn’t fair that history is written by the winners, but it always has been before.

    All that said, your site does a valuable service by pointing out Miller’s wide contributions to popular music, and I commend you for it. I learned a lot.

  5. Apologies for seeming to single out your post–I was referring to the media-wide put-down of Miller, all of it following a predictable path–rock vs. “pop,” Miller vs. Sinatra, establishment vs. counterculture. The only theme lost to time is the one about Miller “selling out” his Classical background–that was a major gripe of musicians of my parents’ (and Stan Freberg’s) generation but one meaningless to 2010 pop culture.

    The Rolling Stone revised history of rock and roll has the music storming the charts overnight and adults fighting it tooth and nail. But, as you likely know, the process was much slower than we’ve been led to think, and most of those who initially profited from rock were adults. To me, Miller’s passing is a chance to examine the tales that have been handed down about this music, almost all them wrong. Thanks for the nice response, and I’ll try to be less intense in the future! (I think this extreme summer is affecting my mood….)

  6. Nice, heated discussion! My dad had the “Sing Along with Mitch” records – all I remember is him singing “Blue-tailed fly” -but the fact that I remember it after 50 years is something in itself.

    Mitch Miller said something rash, and got nailed by a myth. Seems a similar thing happened 5 years later when Pete Seeger did whatever he did at Newport with Dylan (proverbial ax to the cables, so on.) Definitely not fair to Pete, who no matter what he did deserves the NOBEL Peace Prize for the songs he wrote/champions: We Shall Overcome. If I had a Hammer. Where Have All the Flowers Gone.

    Long way of sayin, Mitch probably wasn’t all that bad,

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