The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

11 December 2004

Follow the bouncing ball

It was probably too much to expect that Mitchell William Miller would have been a rock and roll fan. For one thing, he was born in 1911; for another, he studied the oboe at Eastman, inspired by Pablo Casals' cello work, long, fluid melodic lines that melted into the air. By 1936 he was playing with the CBS Symphony Orchestra; he left in 1948 to take an A&R job at Chicago's Mercury Records under VP John Hammond.

In 1950, former classmate Goddard Lieberson lured Mitch Miller back to CBS, this time to run A&R at Columbia Records; Miller brought one of his Mercury stars, Frankie Laine, with him. At Columbia, Miller's tenure was a mixture of brilliance and banality. An example of the former: the invention of the Greatest Hits album. Johnny's Greatest Hits, a compilation of Johnny Mathis singles, entered the Billboard album charts in 1958. It was still there in nineteen sixty-eight. An example of the latter: Frank Sinatra's "duet" with Dagmar, "Mama Will Bark," which was thrown on the B-side of a real Sinatra single, "I'm a Fool to Want You," but still garnered enough airplay to make #21 on the charts.

That rock and roll stuff never did impress Mitch Miller much; "The reason kids like rock and roll," he said, "is that their parents don't." He did have more than a passing familiarity with country music, though, and when Sam Phillips put Elvis Presley's Sun contract on the market, Miller thought Elvis had enough potential to justify putting in a bid. And in one of the weirder ironies of pre-Beatles pop, one of Mitch Miller's biggest stars at Columbia was, yes, Mitch Miller, who put nineteen singles on the Hot 100, including one Number One ("The Yellow Rose of Texas," 1955). In 1960, the TV variety series "Ford Startime" gave him a one-shot special, titled "Sing Along with Mitch"; it became a series on NBC and ran for four years.

In the 80s and 90s, Miller returned to classical music, conducting the London Symphony on record, including a highly-regarded Gershwin collection — no surprise, really, since Miller had played with George Gershwin on his 1934 American tour.

But when I think of Mitch Miller, being the crass pop-culture sub-maven I am, I'll probably remember his 1958 hit (it scraped the bottom of the Top 20) waxing of the Colonel Bogey March, the whistled tune that appeared in the film of Pierre Boulle's novel The Bridge on the River Kwai, and which, contrary to popular belief, did not originally accuse Hitler of monorchidism.

Posted at 8:54 PM to Tongue and Groove


TrackBack: 8:36 PM, 12 December 2004
» Sing along with Mitch from The Anger of Compassion
Charles Hill posts today on Mitch Miller, a subject which never would have caught my interest. Or so I thought. It did. Did you know (I didn't) that Miller created the "Greatest Hits" album? As for his music...well, I don't......[read more]

So with his "follow the bouncing ball," Mitch Miller became an early pioneer of interactive media...

Look what's happened with that idea of greatest hits packages, though: remember when seemingly all of the Dunhill acts (Steppenwolf and The Mamas and the Papas, most notably) had albums titled "Their 16 Greatest Hits"?

Posted by: Craig Ceely at 1:31 PM on 12 December 2004

At a time when albums tended to be 10 or 11 tracks, 16 was quite a deal, even if they had to pad them out with B-sides and album cuts.

Dave Clark, who owned his own masters, had the most fun with the concept: he'd title a package something like "Twenty-Five Thumping Great Hits" and then slap, oh, 20 songs into it.

The latest trend is to throw new tracks into Greatest Hits sets, which I find a mixed blessing at best.

And then there was Phil Ochs' Greatest Hits, which was all new material — no hits of any kind.

Posted by: CGHill at 2:51 PM on 12 December 2004

I hadn't thought of the value aspect of the Dunhill packages, but their titles were still misleading.

I agree with your "mixed blessings" point, though. For example, the new CD version of Who's Next features lots of previously unreleased material, but at a cost: the sequencing is lousy, in that the dramatic effect of the album ending beginning with "Baba O'Riley" and ending with "Won't Get Fooled Again" is gone. What were they thinking?

As for Phil Ochs -- well, of course.

Posted by: Craig Ceely at 6:13 PM on 12 December 2004