NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mitch Miller, the powerful American music executive who guided some of the biggest U.S. pop stars of the 1950s and had Americans crooning with him on the “Sing Along With Mitch” television show, has died at age 99.
Miller, who wore a trademark Vandyke beard and had a fondness for cigars, died at New York City’s Lenox Hill hospital after a brief illness, his daughter, Margaret Miller Reuther, told the New York Times.
As head of the artists and repertoire department at first Mercury Records and then Columbia Records, Miller discovered, signed, mentored and produced some of the most popular singers of the 1950s. He also feuded with many of them — most notably, Frank Sinatra — and his influence wilted as rock ‘n’ roll flourished in the ‘60s.
Miller also was a success with his own band and had a No. 1 single with “The Yellow Rose of Texas” in 1955. His hit albums included a series of sing-along records, which evolved into the “Sing Along With Mitch” TV series in 1961.
The highly rated show aired through 1966 and made Miller a celebrity. He cheerfully urged viewers to “follow the bouncing ball” at the bottom of the TV screen as it skipped across lyrics for familiar and simple American standards like “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”
Miller, born on July 4, 1911, grew up in Rochester, New York, and was a classically trained oboist. After performing and recording with orchestras, he joined Mercury and revved up the careers of Patti Page and Frankie Laine, who had a big hit with the Miller-produced “Mule Train.”
Miller moved to Columbia a few years later and his skills as a talent scout and producer helped make it the top label in the U.S. music business. Along the way he helped give rise to stars such as Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, Jerry Vale, Marty Robbins, Johnny Mathis and Mahalia Jackson.
No one denied Miller’s marketing genius, but many singers said he was too controlling and sacrificed artistry for sales by having them record light-hearted songs, novelty tunes or songs from outside their typical genres.
Clooney was not enthusiastic when Miller had her record the offbeat “Come on-a My House” but it became her signature song while Page had a huge hit with “The Tennessee Waltz,” which Miller chose for her off the country charts.
Sinatra was accustomed to picking his own songs and was openly contemptuous of Miller when they started working together in the early 1950s. The low point came when Miller had Sinatra join a comedienne in recording “Mama Will Bark,” which featured a howling dog in the background. At one point Sinatra ordered Miller out of the studio.
Later, other record labels were signing rock acts that appealed to young audiences and Miller’s talent pool at Columbia lagged behind them.
“It’s not a music,” he once said of rock. “It’s a disease.”
“I remember Mitch Miller saying every week, ‘This rock and roll stuff will never last,’” Clooney said. “But one doesn’t like to bring that up to Mitch.”
Columbia did sign Bob Dylan, however, because it had other folk acts like the New Christy Minstrels, but Miller eventually lost power when Columbia decided to pursue the youth market.
Miller and his wife, Frances, had three children. Frances died in 2000.
Writing by Bill Trott; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte