Sunday, August 08, 2010

Just because he played with Bird doesn't make him hip

I was obsessed with records before I could read the writing on their labels. The colors, designs and shapes of the words used to guide me. When I would go visit families around the neighborhood, I probably asked them what records they owned, hoping most likely that they'd whip out some Herb Alpert or Fifth Dimension.

It was during one of these visits to an older gentleman across the street from our house that I first heard the phrase "Sing Along with Mitch." I didn't know at the time that those words were synonymous with "Squaresville." The rhythmic sound of them was pretty cool. Luckily, Mitch and the Gang were never thrown on the phonograph or the hi-fi and my ears were spared the chestnuts like "Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider" or "Michael Row the Boat Ashore."

These memories came back to me this week because Mitch Miller passed away at the ripe old age of 99. I admire him for his longevity, but that's about it. When it came to the music industry, he was The Man, not like "my main man," but like "I'm sick of being hassled by the man." From forcing Frank Sinatra to record "Mama Will Bark" - a novelty song [that I have somewhere on 78] complete with dog barks and a deadpan duet partner named Dagmar - to refusing to sign any rock and roll acts to Columbia to those blankety-blank Mitch and the Gang albums, Miller personifies unhip.

However, he did a few things that made some good: He insisted that Rosemary Clooney record "Come On-A My House," a snappy little number with the fiestiest harpsichord solo ever; he got Frankie Laine to sing "Mule Train," which should be internalized by any kid who likes to sing loud; and he got Tony Bennett to sing "Because of You." It's funny that all of these songs wound up on an compilation album called Remember How Great, Volume 2 which I can practically guarantee you can find at any thrift store or used record store.

Finally, Mitch played oboe on a couple of Charlie Parker's Bird with Strings sessions. I have to wonder what he thought of Bird's soloing style. I also have to wonder what the energy in the studio was like that day, considering the hippest cat and the squarest man were in such close proximity.

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