Conductor Mitch Miller dies at age 99

Mitch Miller and his group sing on the television show Sing Along With Mitch in 1961. Leslie Uggams was among his singers.

Times file (1961)

Mitch Miller and his group sing on the television show Sing Along With Mitch in 1961. Leslie Uggams was among his singers.

NEW YORK — Mitch Miller, the goateed orchestra leader who asked Americans to Sing Along With Mitch on television and records and produced hits for Tony Bennett, Patti Page and other performers, has died at age 99.

His daughter, Margaret Miller Reuther, said Monday that Mr. Miller died Saturday in Lenox Hill Hospital after a short illness.

Mr. Miller was a key record executive at Columbia Records in the pre-rock 'n' roll era, making hits with singers Bennett, Page, Rosemary Clooney and Johnny Mathis.

As a producer and arranger, he had misses, too, famously striking out on projects with Frank Sinatra and a young Aretha Franklin and in general scorning the rise of rock.

Sing Along With Mitch started as a series of records, then became a popular NBC show starting in early 1961. Mr. Miller's stiff-armed conducting style and signature goatee became famous. The TV show ranked in the top 20 for the 1961-62 season, and soon children everywhere were parodying Miller's stiff-armed conducting. An all-male chorus sang old standards, joined by a few female singers, most prominently Leslie Uggams. Viewers were invited to join in with lyrics superimposed on the screen and followed with a bouncing ball.

Born July 4, 1911, in Rochester, N.Y., Mitchell William Miller was the son of Russian Jewish immigrants.

An accomplished oboist, Mr. Miller played in a number of orchestras early in his career, including one put together in 1934 by George Gershwin.

He began in the recording business with Mercury Records in the late 1940s, first on the classical side, later with popular music. He then went over to Columbia Records as head of its popular records division.

Among the stars whose hits he worked on were Clooney, Page, Bennett, Frankie Laine and Jo Stafford. His decision to have Mathis switch from jazz to lushly romantic ballads launched the singer as a superstar. Bennett credits Mr. Miller with helping him become a superstar.

Mr. Miller and a chorus had a No. 1 hit in 1955 with The Yellow Rose of Texas, and that led to his sing-along records a few years later. The years of Mr. Miller's biggest successes were also the early years of rock 'n' roll, and many fans saw his old-fashioned arrangements of standards and folk favorites as an antidote to the noisy stuff the teens adored. As an executive at Columbia, Miller would be widely ridiculed for trying to turn a young Aretha Franklin into a showbiz diva in the tradition of Sophie Tucker. She left Columbia in the mid 1960s, signed with Atlantic Records and was soon transformed into the "Queen of Soul."

But Mr. Miller was not entirely unsympathetic to rock 'n' roll, or to the counterculture. In 1969, he attended a massive demonstration in Washington against the Vietnam War. In a 1955 essay in the New York Times magazine, he said the popularity of rhythm and blues, as he called it, with white teens was part of young people's "natural desire not to conform, a need to be rebellious."

He added: "There is a steady — and healthy — breaking down of color barriers in the United States; perhaps the rhythm-and-blues rage — I am only theorizing — is another expression of it."

Mr. Miller's square reputation in the post-rock era brought his name and music to unexpected places. In 1993, one of his Sing Along records was used by the FBI to drive the Branch Davidian cult from its Waco, Texas compound. During Queen's nonsensical camp classic, Bohemian Rhapsody, the group chants "Mitch MILL-uh!" as if to affirm the song's absurdity.

In recent years, Mr. Miller returned to his classical roots, appearing frequently as a guest conductor with symphony orchestras. In 2000, he won a special Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.

Conductor Mitch Miller dies at age 99 08/02/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 2, 2010 11:41pm]

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