Sing-a-long king Mitch Miller dies

Mitch Miller died a couple of weeks ago. Didn’t know him? You’re not alone.

Even if you’ve been following the music scene for the past 40 years, you may not remember the guy best known for a single accomplishment: a television show called “Sing Along With Mitch” that was popular from 1961-1964.

According to a New York Times obituary, Miller was a talented musician (he played the oboe for major orchestras in the 1940s and ’50s) and a big-time producer (he resurrected the careers of Rosemary Clooney and Tony Bennett). For awhile, he seemed to have the golden touch, culminating with a TV show based on a simple premise: Viewers sang along with his men’s chorus while a ball bounced atop lyrics scrolling along the screen.

For several years, “Sing Along With Mitch” was all the rage on TV, as people watched the crisply dressed, goateed Miller cruise through renditions of then-favorites such as “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary” and “Home On The Range”.

Highbrow critics disliked the show — one said it was best viewed with the sound off — but for a few years, audiences loved the down-home shtick and atmosphere.

If stardom was his dream, he achieved it. And then the rest of his life happened.

Just as suddenly as Miller stumbled into the limelight, he faded into the shadows. The TV show was canceled. He failed to sign Elvis Presley for his record label. He passed on signing Buddy Holly. He trashed the then-budding rock ‘n’ roll movement, memorably saying: “It’s not music. It’s a disease.” He effectively shoveled dirt on his own musical grave.

The years passed, and his legacy gathered dust. Then things became even worse. Shopping malls began playing “Sing Along With Mitch” to drive away loitering teens, and ATF agents used “Sing Along” Christmas carols in an attempt to flush Waco’s David Koresh out of his Branch Davidian compound.

Seeing his greatest accomplishment turned into a running joke had to hurt. But Miller hung around showbiz, producing a few Broadway musicals (mostly failures) and periodically serving as a guest symphony conductor. Maybe it wasn’t the life he dreamed of — it definitely wasn’t the life he lived earlier — but it appears he made the best of it.

If stardom was his dream, he achieved it. And then the rest of his life happened.

It turns out I was in Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan at the same time Miller was there dying. But I didn’t know it, because there was no celebrity buzz in the halls and no paparazzi encamped in the lobby.

When Miller died at 99, he had lived long enough to see himself go from celebrity to afterthought. At the end of his obituary, this caught my eye:

“What pleased me the most,” Miller told an interviewer asking about his life, “was a fellow who came up to me after a concert in Chicago and said, ‘You know, there’s nobody in the whole country who hasn’t been touched by your music in some way.’

“That really made me feel good.”

It appears that what mattered most to Miller when his road ended was the journey.


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