What brings this to mind is last week’s news that Mitch Miller had died. He was 99 years old, so he had a good innings as they say, and that fact must temper our mourning. The chief sadness about his passing is that so little notice was paid to it. Mitch Miller was once as famous as anyone in the country.
Trained as a classical oboist, Miller somehow became a record company executive, though we must not hold that against him. He later reformed and redeemed himself, and in so doing he changed American music.
In the autumn of 1961 his television program debuted on NBC. It was called “Sing Along With Mitch,” and it became important in lots of homes, including mine. It also shaped “pop culture” in this country, in the happy days before that phrase existed.
The smiling, goateed Miller would appear, standing in front of an impressively talented male chorus. They would sing songs as Miller conducted not them but the audience in his unique style, in which it looked as though he had poison ivy or fleas, for he seemed to be scratching his ribs. As the songs were sung and conducted, the lyrics would appear along the bottom of the screen. The audience was invited to “follow the bouncing ball” as it moved along the words being sung.
And follow the bouncing ball the nation did.
The show came amid what Martin Mull would later name “the folk threat.” Popular vocal music at the time was singable and featured discernible, melodic tunes. Old standards were again standard. Mitch Miller and his chorus had an actual hit with “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Familiar songs tended to be popular then, and vice-versa.
In some ways it seems almost too cute, looking back on it.
Miller’s chorus was called upon to do more than sing. They also had to whistle. Indeed, they had a hit with “Colonel Bogey’s March” from “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” Imagine watching a show in which a group of men are standing there, whistling in unison! Yet we watched it and we loved it. It is hard to imagine a chorus whose style is so distinctive that it’s instantly identifiable, yet Mitch Miller’s chorus was exactly that way. When they performed the title song at the end of the movie version of Cornelius Ryan’s “The Longest Day,” everyone knew who was singing. And, out of habit, everyone wanted to sing along.
Each week the show would have several upbeat songs for the audience to join in singing, plus some solos — the singer Leslie Uggams became famous appearing there, as did Bob McGrath, who would later become a popular host of “Sesame Street.” Each week a state would be selected and songs about it would be sung. It was delightful, and it got the country to sing, loudly and happily.
It was also easily parodied. While the phrase “follow the bouncing ball” had existed before “Sing Along With Mitch,” it became a catch phrase because of the program. Miller’s amusing style of conducting was imitated for fun by just about everyone. You would pretend to scratch your ribs with both hands at once, and everyone thought of Mitch Miller, and everyone laughed. Parodies appeared on other television shows — it was the era of the television variety program — and in cartoons. The program and its parodies were all unrelentingly cheerful.
Perhaps it was a more cheerful time in general, when humor required cleverness and wit and when nastiness for its own sake was not yet enough to be considered fashionably funny.
Sometimes when leafing through an old magazine, one encounters a picture of a family gathered around the television, watching together. Such a scene seems unlikely to us today, but that kind of thing really did happen back then, and one of the programs that families really did watch together was “Sing Along With Mitch.”
The show was unashamedly sentimental. I think Miller would have considered it a failure to have learned that somewhere in the country there was someone who made it through an entire broadcast without a tear coming to his eye.
The program aired for only three seasons. By 1964, the country was in some disarray — it would get much worse — with a president having been assassinated, a war newly entered, and unrest in the cities. A show that made us feel good seemed impertinent. It was canceled.
Mitch Miller was once one of the most famous people in the country, yet when he died it was little noted. Fame is fickle.
Still, we might pause to remember the ending to each week’s show, sung to the tune of “Stars and Stripes Forever”:
Be kind to your web-footed friends, for a duck may be somebody’s mother.
Be kind to your friends in the swamp, where the weather is very, very damp.
Now you may think that this is the end. Well, it is.
Editor’s note: Dennis E. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. His column appears on Mondays. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.