Mitch Miller, the Clive Davis of his day, has died in New York City, according to his daughter Margaret Miller Reuther.
Miller, who signed some of the ‘50s biggest singers, including Frank Sinatra, Patti Page, Tony Bennett, Johnny Mathis and Mahalia Jackson, was head of the A&R department at Mercury and then Columbia Records.
He was, though, probably better know to most Americans as the star of the hugely popular early-’60s “Sing Along With Mitch” TV show and who had a number-one hit with his single, “The Yellow Rose of Texas,” along with a series of hit albums.
On the show, Miller engaged in an early form of karaoke: He asked viewers to sing along with his all-male chorus by following a bouncing ball over the lyrics to songs as they scrolled at the bottom of the TV screen. The show also made a star of young singer Leslie Uggams.
"He is an odd-looking man," New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson wrote in 1962. "His sharp beard, twinkling eyes, wrinkled forehead and mechanical beat make him look like a little puppet as he peers hopefully into the camera. By now most of us are more familiar with his tonsils than with those of our families."
Born on July 4, 1911, Miller grew up in Rochester, New York, and was a classically trained oboist. After a short career as a musician – including a stint with George Gershwin — and bandleader, he moved over to A&R.
Though a significant talent scout, he often ran into problems with the talent, that bristled at his preference for lighthearted fare. He and Sinatra, for example, reportedly fell out when he had Ol’ Blue Eyes record a song called "Mama Will Bark” – with a howling dog in the background.
Not a big fan of rock ‘n’ roll, he passed on both Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, and in the late ‘60s, as Columbia started going seriously after the youth market, Miller fell out of favor. In 2000, he won a special Grammy Award for lifetime achievement.
He and his wife, Frances, had three children. Frances died in 2000.