From Bad Breath to the Bouncing Ball

“Be kind to your web-footed friends, for a duck may be somebody’s mother…”

Remembering Rochester native Mitch Miller (1911 – 2010), born on the Fourth of July, who died Saturday after a very brief illness, at the ripe old age of 99.

Gen-Xers may be saying, “Who?”, but if you had a TV or a record player around 1960, you probably knew who he was. He started out with piano lessons as a child, but wanted to get away from his teacher’s relentless bad breath. So when the newly-formed Eastman School of Music donated a bunch of instruments to city schools, he got in line–end of the line, after all the “sexy” instruments were gone. The teacher said, “Want to play oboe?”, and he said “Sure, why not?”

The oboe took him to the Eastman School, then to professional orchestras under George Gershwin (he played in the original touring production of “Porgy and Bess”), and under Arturo Toscanini and Igor Stravinsky. He also played on the famous radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds”.

After doing some of his own conducting for Mercury Records, moving from classical to pops, he became a huge A&R force at Columbia Records in the ’50s, the major force in grooming the early careers of Tony Bennett, Patti Page, and Rosemary Clooney. Miller produced Frankie Laine’s smash hit “Mule Train”, while smacking together floor boards that were to be installed in the studio to create the sound of the whip cracks.

Miller also convinced a young Johnny Mathis to move from jazz to pop. He counseled Mathis to avoid the vocal gymnastics and sing in a smooth style, so that everyone listening would feel they could sing the song just as well.

This philosophy came in handy when music entrepreneur John Hammond approached Miller about a TV show in 1958. Miller’s concept: an all-male chorus singing minimally-adorned versions of nostalgic hits our parents and grandparents grew up with. And superimposed lyrics on the screen with a bouncing ball to help folks at home keep the rhythm. He had an immediately recognizable look–the goatee and the funny “underhand” conducting style we used to parody as kids.

It seems corny now, but it worked. People all “sang along with Mitch” in the privacy of their living rooms, and 19 albums followed (we had 3).

“…Be kind to your friends in the swamp, where the weather is very, very ‘dahmp’…”

Miller was a pioneer in bringing talented young vocalist Leslie Uggams in as a regular on the show, at a time when few African-Americans got much airtime on the major networks.

Another first for Miller: When he ran into a contract deadline for a new Mathis album and no time to do new material, he rifled through the old master tapes and created the first “Greatest Hits” LP, starting a new marketing trend.

Miller wasn’t a progressive in all realms, however. He never warmed to rock and roll. He didn’t fear moral decay–just felt it wasn’t very well-written music. He was even immune to the Beatles. His influence kept rock and roll out of Columbia Records for years, (though that eventually changed, as Dylan and Springsteen well know).

And although his closing “web-footed friends” ditty parodied “The Stars and Stripes Forever”, the “Star-Spangled Banner” remained sacrosanct. Back in 1968, when singer Jose Feliciano became the first of many to take liberties with the National Anthem at a televised ballgame, Miller was at the forefront of the scathing reaction that largely discredited the singer, weighing in loudly with our local newspaper.

When I was in college, I occasionally ran into the Maestro in the halls of Eastman when he came to town to guest conduct. He had a quiet but commanding presence and warmly greeted each of us as we passed. (His similarly-bearded brother, Leon, taught biochemistry to us in medical school as well.)

Later, there was a rift between him and the Philharmonic for many years–a la the Berra-Steinbrenner feud–but that was eventually patched up. It was always, first and foremost, about the music.

“…Now you may think that this is the end; well it is!”

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3 Responses to From Bad Breath to the Bouncing Ball

  1. Becky Priest says:

    you’re ditugustingly whitty and smart.

  2. Alan,
    thanks so much for this…. mitch sure part of my childhood…loved all the trivia about J. Mathis and more. A treat.

  3. Susan Power says:

    I, too, loved all the trivia, and the whole article made me smile (especially remembering the duck song). Thanks!

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