August 6, 2010

A Note on Mitch Miller

Jazz fans owe a debt of gratitude to Mitch Miller, who passed away at the age of 99 on July 31. Miller may have been known to many from his shlocky 1960s television show, Sing Along With Mitch, but he played an indirect role in the success of jazz in the 1950s.
     Miller was an oboist and musical director at Mercury Records, where he produced Charlie Parker with Strings, an album that many people love and probably an equal number hate. In 1950, he became a talent scout for Columbia Records, which at the time was only the number four record company, in spite of bringing the long-playing record (LP) to market only two years earlier. Miller brought in a slew of new talent to Columbia, including Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Johnnie Ray, and Johnny Mathis. (Of course, he missed some opportunities as well: disliking rock ‘n’ roll, in 1955 he turned down Elvis Presley.)
     Miller had an unfortunate obsession with novelty tunes, which nevertheless often turned out to be big hits. He got Rosemary Clooney to sing “Come on-a My House” - and made her a star in the process - and Jimmy Boyd’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” sold two million copies. The most notorious example of this was a tune forced on Frank Sinatra called “Mama Will Bark,” a duet with TV personality Dagmar (who clearly couldn't carry a tune) that featured howling hound sound effects. Sinatra gets to sing lyrics such as Hot dog. Woof!” on this barker, which was a minor, if embarrassing, hit. Miller was able to produce a string of pop singles, and in just two years, Columbia’s profits increased by 60 percent.
     The reason this is relevant to jazz is that Columbia’s phenomenal success in pop music allowed it to take some chances on jazz musicians. They not only spared no expense in recording jazz artists but they also marketed them like their pop stars, bring jazz a new-found prominence in American culture. Their stable eventually included Dave Brubeck, Erroll Garner, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and many others. Signing with Columbia Records became the sign that a jazz musician had finally arrived. So, Miller’s instincts as a showman, and the cash he brought in to Columbia, led directly to the phenomenal growth of jazz in the 1950s and beyond.

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