Monday, August 2, 2010

Before "Glee," before "American Idol," before Karaoke Tuesdays at the local bar

There was Mitch Miller:

Mitch Miller, who was a jolly sing-along elf on television and a controversial, hard-nosed music executive when the cameras were turned off, died Saturday at Lennox Hill Hospital at the age of 99.

His daughter Margaret said he had suffered a short illness.

As head of "artists and repertoire " for Columbia Records in the 1950s, Miller had an enormous role in shaping the popular music of his era.

He helped rescue Columbia by producing records that were generally bright, upbeat and accessible. He gave the producer a much greater role in shaping the sound of recorded music.

In the process, he infuriated artists like Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney, who felt he was disregarding musical and songwriting quality in favor of cheap, trivial novelty songs like Clooney's "Come On-A My House" or Sinatra's "Mama Will Bark. "

He also hated rock 'n' roll, calling it "a disease, " and he generally kept Columbia out of rock 'n' roll for its first decade by passing on artists like Buddy Holly.

He did have an ear for potential commercial value, however, and he made a small unsuccessful offer in 1954 to sign Elvis Presley. In the early 1960s, he joined in signing Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan. But he tried to make Aretha a pop singer and he left Dylan in the company's "folk " division.

It wasn't until the success of the Beatles in 1964 that Columbia finally reduced Miller's power and started signing artists like the Byrds.

Be kind to your web-footed friends, for that duck could be somebody's mother.

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