Posted by Jay Livingston
Mitch Miller died on Saturday at age 99. His career might well serve as a shorthand version of the larger transformation of the music business in the 1950s. That decade brought changes in how we listened to music and changes in how music was made. Mitch Miller didn’t create those changes, but he took advantage of them and pushed them along. He started out as an accomplished musician, an oboist.* But he put down his oboe, and either by design or drift – I don’t know which– became a producer, one of the most important in the business. He went from playing music to producing records. It’s as though Ray Kroc had been a talented pastry chef but had taken off his toque to move into what we might call “other areas” of the food world.
As I said in the post about “Million Dollar Quartet,” the balance in the music we listened to shifted after the 1940s – less live performance, more records. But even within the recording industry, the social structure was changing. In the pre-Mitch era, records were a musician’s medium. The musicians came into the studio and performed the songs in their repertoire while someone in the control room ran the tape. “Million Dollar Quartet” depicts a simple version of this scenario – the Yellow Sun studio in Memphis. Bigger labels like Capitol and Columbia, recording big bands, did the same thing albeit with bigger studios and maybe more sophisticated technology.
In the 1950s, records became producer’s medium. The producer remained invisible to the audience, who still spoke of “a Tony Bennet record” or a “Rosemary Clooney hit.” But then, audiences also thought of the movies as belonging to the actors – a “John Wayne western”– when in fact, the film was largely a creation of the off-camera people who rarely achieved the name recognition of its stars – writers, directors, and others, especially producers who assembled the team. In the record business, it was the producers who called the shots. Some of the obits for Miller mention how he forced even big stars like Sinatra to perform songs they would have preferred to skip.
The low point came when Miller had Sinatra join a comedienne in recording "Mama Will Bark," which featured a howling dog in the background.That barking in the studio (it wasn’t a real dog) is significant, at least from the viewpoint of Elijah Wald, who almost a year before Miller’s death had an article in the Financial Times about the change in music. Wald doesn’t mention the dog, but he does say:
Record producers were also beginning to discover something filmmakers had understood for years: that studio productions need not have the same limitations as live performance.Miller was an auteur in the sense that he had an overall idea for a record and went about assembling people to get the job done – not just the star singer, but the composer, arranger, back-up musicians, engineers, the occasional canine, and the rest.
The most influential of these record auteurs was Mitch Miller
Those combinations could be bizarrely imaginative. For example, in 1951 Miller took a song based on a passage from Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage and an Armenian wedding melody, backed it with a harpsichord playing boogie-woogie, and handed it to a jazz singer named Rosemary Clooney. “Come On-a My House” stayed at the top of the pop charts for eight weeks.Of course, his most famous creation as a producer was the one that put his name up front: the sing-along – first the records, then the TV show, where his all-male chorus would lip-sync to the heavily-reverbed studio recordings of old (and often public domain) songs while the words were flashed on the screen.**
Wald doesn’t like the shift from live performance to studio recording, as you might guess from the title of his book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ’n’ Roll. That title, by the way, is not to be taken literally. Wald doesn’t really blame it on the Beatles.
when the Beatles quit touring in 1966, it was less a revolutionary act than an acknowledgment that the world had changed.No one person or group, not even Mitch Miller or the Beatles, is responsible for that world-change. Again, I strongly recommend Richard Peterson’s work, especially “Why 1955?” for a fuller account of all the forces and changes – legal, economic, technological, social, etc.– that determined the shape of popular music.
* I first heard him on the “Charlie Parker with Strings album,” though at the time I had no idea that the oboe soloist behind Bird was the same guy responsible for those sing-along records I so detested. The hit from that recording session was “Just Friends,” and you can hear Mitch solo for four bars at about the 1:18 mark.
**I heard an interview with Miller just a few weeks ago. It was on a college radio station out on Long Island, though I don’t know where and when or with whom the actual interview took place. Maybe the legendary Mitch did agree to answer questions from some kid at an obscure radio station. What struck me was that, as I recall it now, Miller had little to say about the artistic or musical qualities of the records he had produced. He spoke instead about the technical and contractual problems, as though he saw the records not as a medium for music but as a commodity to be produced and sold.
Update, August 6. Shortly after I posted this, WBUR had a one-hour show devoted to Mitch Miller as a producer. Elijah Wald is one of the guests along with Will Friedwald (WSJ) and singers Leslie Uggams and Patti Page. (Listen here.) They point out that after Mitch, there were people who became known as producers – Quincy Jones, Berry Gordy, et al. (A propos the Charlie Parker recording, they also say that Bird specfically requested that Mitch be the oboist on that session.)