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.