The Talented Mitch Miller Part Two
Mitch Miller’s single for his 1957 recording of the River Kwai March and the Colonel Bogey March
In the early 1950s Miller recorded with Columbia’s house band as “Mitchell Miller and His Orchestra”. He also recorded a string of successful albums and singles, featuring a male chorale and his own distinctive arrangements, under the name “Mitch Miller and the Gang” starting in 1950. The ensemble’s hits included “The Children’s Marching Song” (more commonly known as “This Old Man”), “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena”, and “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, which topped the U.S. Billboard chart, sold over one million copies in the United States alone, and reached #2 on the UK Singles Chart. Miller’s medley of the two marches from The Bridge on the River Kwai, “The River Kwai March” and “Colonel Bogey March”, lasted 29 weeks on the Billboard pop charts in 1958, longer than any other record completely within that year.
In 1957, Miller’s orchestra and chorus recorded U.S. Air Force Blue, a United States Air Force recruiting song, in a format that today would be called music video. He and his orchestra also recorded children’s music for the Golden Records label. A choral group called The Sandpiper Singers provided the vocals for these recordings, including an album of Mother Goose nursery rhymes.
In 1961, Miller also provided two choral tracks set to Dimitri Tiomkin’s title music on the soundtrack to The Guns of Navarone. Followed by the theme of The Longest Day over the end credits in 1962 and the “Major Dundee March”, the theme song to Sam Peckinpah’s 1965 Major Dundee. Though the film was a box-office bomb, paradoxically the song remained popular for years. In 1987, Miller conducted the London Symphony Orchestra with pianist David Golub in a well-received recording of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” “Rhapsody in Blue,” and “Concerto in F.”
Sing Along with Mitch
In the early 1960s, Miller hosted the NBC television show Sing Along with Mitch, a community-sing program featuring him and a male chorus: an extension of his highly successful series of Columbia record albums of the same name. In keeping with the show’s title, viewers were presented with lyrics at the bottom of the television screen, and while many insist there was a bouncing ball to keep time, Miller correctly said this was something they remember from movie theater Screen Songs and Song Cartunes sing-along cartoons.
Singer Leslie Uggams, pianist Dick Hyman, and the singing Quinto Sisters were regularly featured on Sing Along with Mitch. One of the singers in Miller’s chorale, Bob McGrath, later went on to a long and successful career on the PBS children’s show Sesame Street (he was a founding member of the “human” cast in 1969 and became its longest-serving cast member until his enforced retirement in 2016). One of the show’s trademarks was the final number, a group sing-along with the regular house chorale, among whom would be an uncredited celebrity not necessarily known for their singing ability, who was dressed like the others. “Hidden” guests in this closing singalong included Johnny Carson, Jerry Lewis, George Burns, Shirley Temple and Milton Berle.
Sing Along with Mitch ran on television from 1961 until the network canceled it in 1964, a victim of changing musical tastes. Selected repeats aired briefly on NBC during the spring of 1966. However, the show’s primary audience was over the age of 40 and it did not gain the favor of advertisers targeting the youth market. The show’s format remained popular in England, where comedian Max Bygraves hosted his own version, Sing Along with Max.
Miller left Columbia Records in 1965 and joined MCA Inc. as a consultant signing the same year with MCA’s Decca Records subsidiary.
In later years, Miller would carry on the sing-along tradition, leading crowds in song in personal appearances. For several years, Miller was featured in a popular series of Christmas festivities in New Bedford, Massachusetts, leading large crowds singing carols. Miller hosted a 1981 TV reunion of the Sing Along Gang for NBC (featuring veterans from the original gang, including Bob McGrath, Andy Love, Paul Friesen, Victor Griffin, and Dominic Cortese). Miller also appeared as host of two PBS television specials, “Keep America Singing” (1994) and “Voices In Harmony” (1996), featuring champion quartets and choruses of SPEBSQSA and Sweet Adelines International. He also appeared conducting regional orchestras and filled-in many times as guest conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra.
Steve Allen once performed a pointed satire of Sing Along with Mitch, with the comedian made up as Miller and robotically bending his arms à la Miller while conducting. The sketch spoofed the show’s production values, including cameras panning among the vocalists, going out of control and knocking them over, then chasing Allen out of the studio and onto the roof. Ross Bagdasarian produced an animated spoof in a segment of “The Alvin Show,” with the David Seville character conducting Alvin and the Chipmunks in Miller’s herky-jerky style, singing “Down in the Valley” while scrambled lyrics appeared on-screen. Stan Freberg, who had previously recorded “Wunnerful! Wunnerful!”, a scathing satire of The Lawrence Welk Show, presented an equally brutal satire of the show, “Sing Along with Freeb”, on his February 1962 ABC special, The Chun King Chow Mein Hour. Jonathan and Darlene Edwards (Paul Weston and Jo Stafford) produced an entire album of off-key sing-along in the Miller style, which supposedly greatly angered him. On the cartoon series The Flintstones, Fred and Barney appeared on the “Hum Along with Herman” show (for people who do not know the words), another satire of Miller’s show.
In 1999, Amazon.com referenced Sing Along with Mitch in Christmas commercials, featuring a male choral group nicknamed the “Sweatermen” singing subtitled songs about the company. The advertisements carefully copied Miller’s 1961 Christmas special, complete with identical choral arrangements, choreography, and set design.
Personal life and death
He was married for sixty-five years to the former Frances Alexander, who died in 2000. They had two daughters; Andrea Miller, and Margaret Miller Reuther; and a son, Mitchell “Mike” Miller; and two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Mitch Miller lived in New York City for many years and died there on July 31, 2010, after a short illness.
“Tzena, Tzena, Tzena”
“The Yellow Rose of Texas”
“March from the River Kwai and “Colonel Bogey””
“The Children’s Marching Song”
Awards and honors
* Miller received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.
* He was awarded Honorary Membership in the Barbershop Harmony Society in 1985.
* He was inducted into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame in 2013.