singing along with mitch -- 3/23/15

Today's selection -- from The B Side by Ben Yagoda. For the immediate post-World War II generation, that generation impacted by the tens of million of war casualties and living under the newly cast shadow of the hydrogen bomb, the most dominant music producer of the era was an impresario of vapid taste named Mitch Miller -- handling at various times Frank Sinatra (briefly), Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney and others. He was nicknamed "the Beard," and astonishingly, he became a household name with the eighteen albums he released in quick succession that encouraged listeners to "sing along with Mitch" to such outdated standards as "Down by the Old Mill Stream" and "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," followed by a lyrics-on-screen TV show of the same name that ran from 1961 to 1964. (To get a glimpse into early 1960s popular culture, replete with commercials, try watching the entire video clip below -- we dare you). Fifteen of these albums hit the Billboard Top Ten:

"Two days after [The Weaver's 1950 hit] 'Tzena Tzena Tzena' was released, another version of the song, by 'Mitch Miller and his Orchestra & Chorus,' came out; it eventually climbed to number three. For Miller the recording was characteristic in at least two respects. First, it showed his alacrity in regard to cover records. When a label bought exclusive rights to a particular song, that implied a guarantee that no other company would even see the words or music until the record was released. But after that, all bets were off, and if it smelled like a hit, a half-dozen or more competing versions went in the works. The Beard's speed earned him another nickname -- 'Cut 'em, press 'em, ship 'em' Miller.

"The Chorus was front and center in his 'Tzena' -- prefiguring the wildly successful 'Sing Along with Mitch' albums that started coming out in the late fifties -- but there were other notable elements: handclaps, tambourine, accordion, and, improbably, the French horn. As such, the record illustrated a second Miller trademark [-- gimmicks]. 'Oddly enough for a man of such musical ability, Miller ... achieved his power through the use of gimmicks,' observed George Frazier in a Vogue article on the music business. ...

"One of his most famous pieces of 'stuff' was on 'Mule Train,' put by Frankie Laine in 1949, when both he and Miller were at Mercury. The record tried to simulate the feel of a real wagon train through use of an echo chamber (essentially invented by Miller), assorted shouts and grunts, and two wood blocks, which simulated the sound of a cracking whip. ...

"He backed up [a new hit called] 'Come On-a My House' with a sort of barrelhouse harpsichord, and amplified the same instrument on 'Delicado,' a 1952 number-one hit by Percy Faith. (Faith, one of Miller's go-to guys through the fifties, was a Canadian conductor and arranger who, like his boss, came from a classical music background, and was a pioneer of the 'semi-classical' genre, also known as 'easy listening.' ...

"In a 1953 New Yorker profile, Robert Rice commented on Miller's 'deep lack of interest in -- in fact, almost a contempt for-popular music.' The implication was that his respect was saved for the classics. 'Popular songs and singers are only more or less marketable commodities to him,' Rice went on. 'His appraisal of them is quite unaffected by prejudice or emotion, since he regards them all as negligible from an artistic point of view.' Johnny Mandel summed up his sense of Miller's operating aesthetic: 'Mitch used to say, "If I hated it, it would be a hit." ' 'I wouldn't buy that stuff for myself,' Miller told Time magazine in 1951, referring to the hits he produced at Columbia. 'There's no real artistic satisfaction in this job. I satisfy my musical ego elsewhere.' ...

"Rosemary Clooney balked when Miller presented her with 'Come In-a My House,' which had been concocted by the playwright William Saroyan and songwriter Ross Bagdasarian (later the creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks) on a cross-country drive. She recalled in her autobiography: 'I thought the lyrics ranged from incoherent to just plain silly, I thought the tune sounded more like a drunken chant than an historic folk art form, and I hated the gimmicky arrangement: It was orchestrated for jazzed-up harpsichord, of all things, with a kind of calypso rhythm.' She told Miller: 'I don't think so.' 'Know what I think?' he replied. 'I think you'll show up because otherwise you will be fired.'

"Although he outlived Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, and virtually all the singers he recorded except Tony Bennett, they and their advocates among critics and journalists seized the narrative of the 1950s and shaped it into a story of Mitch versus the American Songbook. Miller didn't help his cause by the career move he leaned into in 1958 with his LP Sing Along with Mitch. The disk featured Mitch and his male chorale, 'the Gang,' performing hearty and straightforward renditions of old-fashioned tunes like 'Down by the Old Mill Stream' (1910) and 'By the Light of the Silvery Moon' (1909). It was comfort food for the generation who didn't take to rock and roll or modern jazz; the record went to number one on the Billboard album charts and stayed there for eight weeks. Over the next four years Miller released seventeen more sing-along albums, fourteen of which hit the top ten. He parlayed that success into a television series called, naturally, Sing Along with Mitch, which ran on NBC from 1961 to 1964."


author:

Ben Yagoda

title:

The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song

publisher:

Riverhead Hardcover

date:

Copyright 2015 by Ben Yagoda

pages:

133-136, 139-142, 146
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