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1950’s Record Producer Mitch Miller – aka “The Beard”

Above is one half of the title – Mitch Miller.  Arthur Schwartz, on the other hand, was a seasoned Broadway composer, not top echelon like Cole Porter or George Gershwin, but a respectable, second tier composer.  He is perhaps best known for providing the music for one of Fred Astaire’s movie musicals, “The Band Wagon” (1953), most of the music for which he had already written for the 1931 musical review of the same name.   However he composed the famous song “That’s Entertainment” specifically for the 1953 film.

Here is a another of Schwartz’ songs from the same musical, “Dancing in the Dark.”

This chapter illustrates a period in the history of American popular song by using the encounter between a representative of traditional Broadway (Schwartz) and the new fangled “record producer” (Miller) of the 1950’s.  Although Mitch Miller was no fan of the soon to emerge phenomenon of “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” nonetheless, he was responsible for the shift in both the geography and the approach to popular music which became associated with rock music.

But more about this later . . .

Just to back track a bit, it is important to give people a sense of the source of American popular music in the first half of the 20th century, its “geography.”  There were basically three sources: Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood.  “Tin Pan Alley” was originally a very specific place: West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Manhattan.  Now mainly the location of shops that sell cheap costume jewelry and women’s accessories, beginning about 1885, Tin Pan Alley became the home of music publishers.

No one is sure how it got its name, but one reasonable explanation is that, in such pre-air conditioned days, one could hear through the many open windows all the different publishers’ song pluggers playing on the many (and slightly out of tune) pianos, the many different songs they were all considering for publication throughout the day.  The din of this collective sound, perhaps, seemed to sound like the banging of tin pans.  At any rate, Tin Pan Alley was a vital and often dominant contributor especially during the era when sheet music was the main way in which popular music was enjoyed.  As records and radio took over, Tin Pan Alley waned in influence, basically around 1930.

The Broadway shows, further uptown in Manhattan, were also a source of popular music and, with the advent of motion pictures with sound, Hollywood, California became another source of popular music.  There is no denying that, sometimes, there was an interaction between all three.  As with “The Band Wagon,” often songs came out of Broadway shows, were then remade in Hollywood as ‘movie musicals’ and then recordings and sheet music were produced back in New York, perhaps in the more modern manifestation of Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building in Times Square, where most New York music publishers had moved beginning in the 1940’s.

At any rate, during the height of the Great American Songbook Era (probably about 1940), a researcher discovered that 8% of the songs played on the radio were from Broadway, 25% were from films, and 67% were “pops” (i.e. “Tin Pan Alley,” whether in its original location or elsewhere).  Of the songs that have actually survived and are today considered “popular classics” of the era, probably about one third are from each of the categories.  Therefore, it can be argued, that Broadway faired the best, while fewer than half of the “pops” stood the test of time.

Which brings us back to Mitch Miller and Arthur Schwartz . . .

Why is Mitch Miller significant?  How did he change the ‘geography’ of the American popular song?  Quite simply, he made the recording itself the actual locus, the actual event.  Through the use of gimmicks, studio tricks and sound effects, and the effort to create a particular recorded “sound,” Mitch Miller is the beginning of the movement away from the traditional approach to popular music – or even classical music.  In the past it was the melody, chords, and lyrics which constituted the song, the piece of music.  True, various performers had their unique interpretations of these songs, but the point of a recording was simply to capture that reality as best as possible.

So, originally, the recording was like a picture of a loved one – a useful reminder of the person.  But what happens when the picture is preferred to the person?  When the actual person is a disappointment?  Ultimately this is the phenomenon of people being disappointed at times by hearing a rock group in person, because it doesn’t sound like the recording.  Now, at this point, we are still a ways off from this and what Mitch Miller was known for primarily was producing, at times, rather corny, “novelty songs.”

Probably the most popular novelty song of the era, which Mitch Miller didn’t produce (but might as well have), was Patti Page’s recording of “How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?” This was the number one smash hit for eight weeks running in 1953, composed by one Bob Merrill, a man who could neither read nor write music, on his toy xylophone.

Miller actually did produce a dog barking song entitled “Mama Will Bark” (1951), recorded by Frank Sinatra and a creature known as ‘Dagmar’ who was no dog, but couldn’t sing well either.  This was at the lowest point of Sinatra’s career and the last song he recorded for Columbia Records before he left for Capital Records.

To be fair to Miller, here is a better novelty song of his, “Come On-A My House” (1951), recorded by Rosemary Clooney (under protest originally).  It is a gimmicky, faux-ethnic song but, in addition to Clooney’s personality, what ‘makes’ the song is the amplified, barrelhouse harpsichord playing of Stan Freeman – part of the in-house studio production of the song.  (If you want to hear some of Stan Freeman’s more serious jazz harpsichord playing, listen to his 1951 recording of Perdido.)

So what it comes down to is that, after having trouble getting songs from his latest musical, “By the Beautiful Sea” recorded, Arthur Schwartz, hat in hand, approached Mitch Miller at Columbia Records in 1954.  After listening to all of the songs of this venerable lion of Broadway, Miller, the new doyen of popular taste, told him that only one of the songs interested him and even that he would have to, in essence, dumb down.

Remember, in 1954 the term “rock ‘n’ roll” would have been met with a blank stare by most people.  So, we are not talking about great adult popular music being overturned by a teenage rebellion – at least not yet.  We are talking about adults dumbing down their own music.