The name Mitch Miller is one that is known widely among America's veteran television fans. After all, they put his show, Sing Along With Mitch, at the top of the TV rating charts in the early '60s.
The show followed a simple format: Miller and his Sing Along Gang stood in front of television cameras and sang favorite songs. The lyrics were superimposed on the screen and the folks at home could sing along.
Dialogue occupied only three or four minutes of the 30-minute program; the rest was singing. And Americans loved it.
But what most of them didn't know was that Miller had a varied and successful career long before making it big in television.
He was the son of a Russian emigre who was a metal worker in Rochester, N.Y. His mother was a seamstress. The young Mitch learned piano and oboe and studied at the Eastman School of Music. While a student there, he played oboe in the Syracuse Symphony and the Rochester Philharmonic.
After graduating cum laude from Eastman he went to New York City, where he held various jobs before going on tour in 1934 as oboist with a symphony orchestra organized by George Gershwin. They traveled the country playing Gershwin's major works, including Rhapsody in Blue.
The next year he played in the Porgy and Bess orchestra throughout the show's eight-week Broadway run. A variety of other freelance jobs followed until he won a full-time position with the Columbia Broadcasting Symphony Orchestra.
Miller stayed with that job for more than 10 years before leaving to produce records for the then-little-known Mercury label. His extraordinary results there caught the attention of Columbia Records, and he was offered a job in 1950 as head of that company's popular records. In two years, Columbia's standing went from No. 4 to No. 1.
At Columbia he recorded some "sing-along" albums. Their instantaneous success made Miller the largest selling album artist in the record business.
Television executives took notice, and Sing Along With Mitch was born. When the show went off the air in 1967, Miller took it on the road with series of successful tours across the nation and as far away as Japan.
Then, having succeeded in business and as a musician, Miller decided to give conducting a whirl. He soon became one of the nation's most sought-after conductors. He has conducted sym-
phony orchestras in Boston, Cleveland, Los Angeles, London, Denver, Detroit, Minneapolis, Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, among others.
And he has yet to stop. "I'm pretty busy," Miller says. "I pick and choose my dates, and I go where I have fun."
One of the fun places, he says, is Miami, where he has conducted the New World Symphony.
"I do maybe 40 to 45 concerts a year," he says. In the past year he conducted three concerts in Indianapolis, three in Detroit and five in Houston.
The rest of the time, he says, he spends "watching my money."
But he also has cultivated other business interests, and now is building what he describes as "a wonderful housing development" in Westchester, N.Y.
"It's on land I've owned for a long time," he says. "It's a tract of 250 homes called Green Briar. It's a beautiful setting with rolling hills and 50 acres of parkland." So far, he says, 125 of the units have been sold.
With so many accomplishments in his career, Miller says there is not one for him that stands out.
"Whatever I was doing at the time has been the high point of my career," he says. "But what I enjoy doing most is conducting."
His favorite composers? "Bach if I have to choose one; Bach and Mozart if I have to choose two, and if I have to choose three, add Beethoven."
Of Gershwin, Miller says, "He was a genius, even though he was not well-received as a serious composer before his death at 37. There was a lot of jealousy involved."
As for today's music, Miller withholds judgment. "Wait 25 years and then find out what we think of today's music," he says.
Miller has an office in his Manhattan apartment on Central Park West. He and his wife, Frances, have three children. All of them are musical, he says, but none went into the music business.
Miller will be celebrating his 82nd birthday on the Fourth of July. But he is giving no thought to changing his present lifestyle. "Conductors don't slow down," he says.