Sexy, Simply, Sad: How Mitch Miller Defined Pop Music in the 1950s

Mitch Miller died this past Saturday at the age of 99.

His name, I presume, will mean little to people born in the ‘90s, or ’80, or ‘70s, or even the late ‘60s. The days of Mitch’s great fame lay far back in the early 1960s, when he produced a number of albums that invited listeners to “Sing Along With Mitch.” The music was principally choral, usually with no more accompaniment than a lone harmonica. But they were so well received that Miller was given his own television program, which lasted five years.

Long before his sing-along days, though, he was a pop-music star-maker, and the subject of “The Shaggy Genius of Pop Music,” from the April 12, 1956, Post. (The article made much about Miller’s shaggy, wild appearance because he wore a mustache and goatee 55 years before it became de rigueur for young men.)

Mitch Miller, one of the world’s truly great oboe players and thus a musical longhair by most standards, is Columbia’s “Pop A & R man,” which means he is Artists and Repertoire director for the company’s most popular records division. He finds the songs, elects the artist, suggests the musical arrangement, often conducts the orchestra and supervises the actual recording, a chain-reaction experiment involving the potential gain of millions of dollars.

During the past seven years, with unorthodox ideas and inexhaustible energy, Miller has proved his point. Stores here and abroad have sold some 80,000,000 Miller-made records, a more impressive total than most of his major competitors combined can claim. He often has half a dozen hit songs making the radio-and-jukebox circuit at the same time, and he once nonplused his competitors by having eight of these songs among the top ten listed in the Billboard box score. He has racked up seventy hits—a hit is any record which sells over 200,000-and thirty-five of those were “smashes” that passed the 500,000 mark. He had three records that topped 2,500,000, an achievement comparable to, let’s say, to three conquests of Mt. Everest.

Miller began his music career as an oboe player of great promise:

His first big chance came when the first oboeist in the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra committed suicide. Miller, who at seventeen had already astounded his teachers at the Eastman School of Music, got the job. “I guess you got to be nuts to play that instrument in the first place,” he says thoughtfully. “Maybe a lot of them do go crazy.” For the next twenty years or so, Miller was probably the highest-paid oboe player in the world, traveling regularly from recording rooms to theaters, concert halls and radio studios.  By 1947, Miller had almost exhausted the possibilities of the oboe. He had played with most of the top orchestras and had hundreds of recorded solos to his credit.

Ten years later, as Columbia’s pop guru, he was “committed to making some 400 sides a year,” which required him to listen to thousands of songs — about 40 tunes a day. Throughout these years, Miller worked at such a hectic pace, it’s remarkable that he lived to reach his 99th birthday.

Miller [is] an adrenaline-saturated man who rarely needs more than four hours’ sleep at night. Suspendered, and often tieless—because he is afraid the wrong colors or patterns will clash with his beard—Miller nevertheless makes an awe-inspiring sachem, and his barrel chest, lethal cigars and visored cap only add to the effect. There is always a tidal wash of visitors, and the Columbia switchboards handles an average of 110 incoming calls for him every day.

There is an atmosphere of frenzy when Miller is generating voltage in the office, and the tension is not lessened by a discordance of sound from pianos or phonographs in other offices, or by the mumbo-jumbo chatterings of artists and publishers as they mill around the inner sanctum.

At the moment, Miller’s most merciless adversary is time. To meet the ravenous appetite of the pressing plants he makes twelve round-trip flights to California and eight round trips to Chicago every year, in a pursuit of songs and talent. As a result, he often works twelve hours a day for five days in New York, then rushes to the airport, barely making a Friday-night plane for points west. He is a frequent club speaker, he emcees a C.B.S. radio network show on Sunday nights and he is often a guest on network television shows. And in addition to all this, he is the mastermind behind the sale of 90,000,000 Little Golden records for children, an enterprise owned by Simon & Schuster, the book publishers.

Miller’s 1950s pop hits sound dated now, but the thinking behind his choice of songs could still be valid for today’s music producers.

Mitch Miller and Rosemary Clooney
Rosemary Clooney became a star after Miller had her sing C’mon-a-My House in an American accent.

Some three years ago, as some radio listeners may recall with a shudder, an obscure night watchman in a Pittsburgh factory composed a soggy lamentation aptly entitled “Cry.” It was on the verge of drying out from disuse in Columbia offices when Miller… concluded that the world needed a catharsis. “The Korean War was on and there was a feeling of uncertainty,” Miller says, “and the kids couldn’t make any plans. I read a book once that it’s bad to hold back tears. You let then out and save yourself a lot of tension.” So Miller dredged up a lachrymose but unknown youth named Johnny Ray and together they recorded. It went over 2,000,000 and made Ray a star.

When the leaves began to fall and there’s a nip in the air, Miller tends to think in terms of vasodilators that will warm the tissues. He puts out the waltzes, for instance, or campus songs or melodies with a strong beat. During one of these November chills, Miller came across a raucous oddity called “Mule Train” in which he could almost see the dust and the heat waves in the desert. Miller frantically tracked down Frankie Laine in a Minneapolis night club and played a crude arrangement of the tune over the long-distance. Two days later in Chicago a somewhat reluctant Laine belted the number into a recording microphone, and Miller subsequently dubbed in horsewhip cracks with two blocks of wood. The disk eventually sold over 2,000,000 and Miller now looks back on the experience with an awed respect for his own clairvoyance. “Suppose I had released it in summer?” he says soberly. “It would never have been a hit.”

While the season might affect how the public would respond to a new song, there were some things, Miller believed, that every pop hit demanded.

“I know what I want in a song. I’ve said it in different ways, but I usually tell people: Keep it sexy, keep it simple, keep it sad. A good number has to have self-identification. People want to think: ‘This could be me. If I could write words or music to express myself, this is how I’d say it.’ Most amateur writers don’t seem to get that at all… A singer who has that certain something can sell records to people who may never see him or her in the flesh and don’t care if they do.”

One of the nuggets Miller uncovered in this sort of musical blind man’s bluff was an ex-serviceman named Anthony Dominick Benedetto, who had vainly pleaded to be heard in person. Piqued but persistent, Benedetto spent his last five dollars to make a crude recording of Boulevard of Broken Dreams, and when he heard it, Miller flipped, as the saying goes. Presently, with his named changed to plain Tony Bennett, the young man recorded a love song called Because of You which sold 1,500,000 copies and made him a name overnight. “Whatever I’ve got,” he now says humbly, “I owe to Mitch.”