Mitch Miller: Jazz Friend or Foe? - JazzWax

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August 04, 2010


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Joel Lewis

The rather neutral comments in the Miller obits have a lot to do with the fact that he had vanished as a tastemaker nearly 45 years ago. Clive Davis had to fire him as Columbia was falling behind badly in the post Beatle-era & Davis himself was the one who personally signed up acts like Janis Joplin, Santana and Chicago. Even John Hammond, a man of equally strong opinions on what made 'good muisc', could ease out of his comfort zone & sign up someone like Denny Zeitlin and, amazingly, Horacee Arnold.

A telling encounter was Link Wray's brief stay at Columbia. Link Wray was signed up through Columbia's nashville office and released a number of classic rock n' roll instrumentals. Miller urged him to record mainstream numbers & Wray refused. If one is to believe the ever fabulating Wray, the guitarist arrived at a NY recording session to see that a full orchestra was awaiting him to record some of Miller's mainstream material. Wray walked out & went back to the small labels that would record his music.

Miller's stand against rock & roll seemed contradictory. If you saw your role as making maximum money for your company, who cares if the singer can't sing and the song has two chords? Give the listener what they want, right?

In an odd note, Miller apparently was of a liberal political bent & did release a sing-a-along album called "Mitch sings for peace" (or something like that) that consisted of civil right anthems and the like. Go figure.


According to Will Friedwald's obit, Miller virtually invented the role of the modern record producer. In that sense he could be viewed as the father of hip-hop. Rosemary Clooney has a funny account in her book about refusing to sing an especially corny song until Mitch started to rip up her contract. The song became a hit and revived her career, but she had to sing it at every engagement for the rest of her life, possibly contributing to a nervous breakdown. When I was a kid, movie houses would play ditties before the feature with the words on screen and a little bouncing ball as a cursor. It was a bizarre experience even then; but today we have karaoke.

Claude Neuman

“Said Miller in 1996 about rock: "I can't get interested in people who can only sing songs with three chords in them." That comment echoes, since it would include the blues and at the same time ignores an entire generation's desires.”

Maybe a generation’s desires are molded by what is pushed at them as much as anything else (when the big bands were aired on network radio, they fitted the previous generation’s).
But assuming that generation’s desires were indeed for rustic simplicity, indeed if Columbia and the other majors had recorded the blues and marketed it to a wide audience, it may have saved us from it’s plagiarized american and british versions called rock&roll.
And that may have maintained a climate less foreign to jazz, since whereas blues is a simple music, it swings.
By the way (I’m thinking here of your interview of Ted Gioia), blues is a simple music, yes … except if you listen to the great post-war electric blues guitar players (some of whom remained in their prime as late as into the 80’s while jazz per se had entered into a state of perplexion), who are every bit as impressive in their own way as their jazz soloists counterparts, and did to the guitar what jazz brass and reed players did to their own instruments, make it recall the inflexions of the human voice : T-Bone Walker, Robert Nighthawk, B.B. King, Albert King, Albert Collins, Brewer Phillips, Otis Rush, Jimmy Dawkins, (early) Buddy Guy, Fenton Robinson, Jimmy Johnson…
If their music had been effectively marketed to the young of both races in the 50’s and 60’s they may not have had to wait for the british to steal and bowdlerize it, for some of them to finally make a pittance.

P.S. : Marc,I'm so glad I discovered your blog! Thanks a million and keep trucking.

Grant Tietinger

Hmmmm... did any body ever see Mitch Miller and Skitch Henderson in the same room at the same time?

Just wondering.

Theo Morgan-Gan

Great blog! I'm quite saddened by Mitch's death, being a total sucker for the "sicky pop stuff"... I think the guy was a genius, but agree with the comment that for someone so commercially minded, ignoring RnR was a great mistake.

There's a fantastic book on Mitch just waiting to be written.

Steve Provizer

Elijah Wald's book-How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music-makes the case that Miller did a lot of creative things, like: "Miller's combination of Hank Williams's songwriting with big band singers Jo Stafford and Frankie Laine and the outer-space steel guitar of Speedy West on "Tonight We're Setting the Woods on Fire."

As far as Rosemary Clooney-I assume you're talking about "Come On A My House," with its cooking harpsichord. My point is that anyone with a hit record is forced to either make peace with performing it incessantly or let it be an unending source of despair.

Ted Steinberg

Marc, you forgot to mention his most famous contribution. Perhaps you were too young to recall his modeling for The Statues of Lenin. He's Russian, you know; you can check with the KGB, they're up on the arts. When the Berlin Wall came down and I saw all those Mitch Millers being towed off, I said, "maybe, now I can listen to Charlie Parker with Strings" without picturing the pursing lips of Maestro Miller. He was unable to appreciate music before or after his demise. Other than his modeling skills I wasn't too crazy about his pap, and his mom wasn't that great either.

Bill Kirchner

Wasn't the recording of Erroll Garner by Columbia in the '50s more due to George Avakian than Mitch Miller?


Steve, Tony Bennett says that he still loves singing "San Francisco" but I suspect that the only thing he loves about it is the adoring smiles on the audience's faces. He also claims to have physically thrown up at Columbia studios after Clive Davis made him do an album of contemporary hits in the '70s. In a late interview with Gary Giddins, Kay Starr expressed great dismay at being forced to record the hits that made her famous. Duke Ellington used to keep his 'required' numbers fresh by constantly rearranging them, sometimes radically. (I assume that "cooking harpsichord" is a reference to the food-related lyrics. Good one.)


I wonder if the harpsichordist might have been Stan Freeman who played that instrument on many Columbia recordings. He was also an excellent jazz pianist and cabaret singer, in spite of a lousy voice. He even had a short piano solo right in the middle of Bird's classic solo on "Just Friends."

Mel Narunsky

I thought George Avakian was the big producer and A&R man for jazz at Columbia during the 1950s and 1960s. Teo Macero was another.

Correct me if I am wrong, but as far as I was aware Mitch Miller had nothing to do with jazz record production.


I'm not vouching for any of this, but a recent book review of a new bio of Frank Sinatra suggests that Mitch's song choices were a major factor in Sinatra's suicide attempt during a career lull.

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  • Marc Myers writes regularly for The Wall Street Journal and is author of "Anatomy of a Song" (Grove) and "Why Jazz Happened." Founded in 2007, JazzWax is a two-time winner of the Jazz Journalists Association's best blog award.

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