It’s hard to have any respect for Mitch Miller. Even without the bouncing ball, the guy was a malevolent presence as head of A&R at Columbia Records after 1950. He hated both jazz and rock and roll, referring to the latter as “musical baby food” and a symbol of the “worship of mediocrity.”
Miller passed on both Elvis and Buddy Holly. He wouldn’t have been the guy to sign Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen or Janis Joplin to the label. His own taste, despite a background as a classical oboist, was for inane (but frequently bestselling) novelty numbers. He made both Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra record junk, and earned the ever-lasting enmity of both. After their unhappy association had ended, Miller saw Sinatra on the street in Vegas and extended his hand. Sinatra reportedly replied: “Fuck you, just keep walking.”
But here’s an odd thing. In Tony Bennett’s new book Life is a Gift, he recounts some experiences with Miller around the 1951 recording of his hit version of Hank Williams'”Cold, Cold Heart.”
“Mitch really didn’t like jazz,” Bennett writes. “He didn’t care for Duke or Count Basie, and when I came to the label, I was a jazz singer.” The pair had a tense relationship, so Bennett was disinclined when Miller brought in “Cold, Cold Heart.”
“If I have to tie you to a tree, you’re going to do it,” Miller reportedly said, emphasizing that this hick country song had beautiful lyrics. Bennett recorded it, of course, and it reached number one. (Miller had a lot of hits by consistently underestimating the taste of the American people.)
But here’s the kicker: Bennett writes that after “Cold, Cold Heart” hit big “Hank’s songs caught on everywhere.” Williams was even said to play Bennett’s version for friends–why not, he made a mint from it. So are we to believe that the successful career of this sublime pioneer of country music is owed to a New York-based hack with no real interest in the genre? Could well be.
I also recall that Mitch Miller seemed to be on TV every time my family turned the idiot box on, waving his arms with a baton in his hand and his Beatnik facial hair arrangement churning up and down, up and down. He looked like he thought he was conducting the London Philharmonic when, in fact, he was fronting some of the worst music to ever be emitted from a television.
And, getting back to the Beatnik affectation, Miller was the antithesis of Beat. I would have liked to be a fly on the wall when Kerouac was watching him. (By the way, Kerouac was enamored of “the Galloping Gourmet” and was said to suffer his fatal stomach aneuyrism while eating a can of tuna and watching the Galloping Gourmet).
In my mind’s eye, he’s always “conducting” the immortal “Yellow Rose of Texas,” with a big grin on his face. It’s what he did when he wasn’t on TV that did the real damage.
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