Follow the bouncing ball (encore)

Among other things, Mitch Miller devised the Greatest Hits album, which some view as a cynical way to repackage old material. With Miller’s passing this past weekend, it seems sensible — to me, anyway — to rerun my Mitch Miller article from December 2004.

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.

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