Remembering Mitch Miller (1911-2010)

Mitch Miller: oboist extraordinaire.A "Sing Along with Mitch" best-seller.This past week the music industry lost an interesting personality when Mitch Miller died at age 99. While not well-known to today’s audiences, to people “of a certain age” (myself included), Mitch Miller was a pretty major figure in the world of music. He led a very interesting life that reflected the very best tradition of “making it” in the industry from the ground up.

Mitch Miller’s musical journey, like so many others of his generation, started with the obligatory piano lessons – that familiar trapping of middle-class upbringing for youngsters in the early years of the 20th century. In Miller’s case, a few lessons taught by a piano instructor with a horrific case of chronic bad breath was all it took to inspire the young man to look for another alternative – any alternative.

Upon learning that George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak Company and a major figure in arts philanthropy (he provided the seed money to found the famed Eastman School of Music, now part of the University of Rochester) was donating a vast collection of musical instruments to be used by schoolchildren, Miller took quick advantage of the opportunity. But instead of being able to select a shiny trumpet or trombone as he had hoped, he discovered that the only instruments left to choose from were the lowly woodwinds.

Deciding on the oboe was a critical event in Miller’s musical development. It turned out that he excelled in playing the instrument, subsequently earning enrollment in the Eastman School in his hometown of Rochester, NY. A singular talent, he graduated from Eastman to perform in symphony orchestras under legendary conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Sir Thomas Beecham and Artur Rodzinski.

Miller also moonlighted by playing in the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in New York City – a studio ensemble – where he caught the eye of several CBS producers who commissioned Miller to compose arrangements of popular songs. Thus began Miller’s transition from classical to pop music.

Miller’s fame grew exponentially when he began a series of albums featuring an all-male chorus titled Sing Along with Mitch. The first album was released in 1958 and went on to sell more than 8 million copies. The series would eventually total some 19 LP recordings.

A companion television program broadcast between 1961 and 1966 became popular with millions of viewers across the country – that’s where the famous “follow the bouncing ball” originated. Critics may have sniffed at Miller’s saccharine or schlocky arrangements of the Great American Songbook, but the record-buying public loved them.

In addition to his highly successful career as a performing artist, Mitch Miller also worked behind the scenes, helping to produce the record albums of famous pop artists. One such artist was Rosemary Clooney … another was Jimmy Boyd (whose song I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus sold over 2 million copies) … and Miller also produced the first record album for Aretha Franklin, effectively launching her star career.

Another famous singer Miller worked with was Johnny Mathis, whose albums he produced for many years. One time, Miller and Mathis discovered they needed to fulfill a recording contract by producing “one more” album – only to realize that they had precious little new material to record.

In yet another move that turned out to be fortuitous, Miller came up with the idea of releasing a Mathis “greatest hits” album consisting of nothing but already-released material. This album sold millions of copies, and sparked a whole new genre of “greatest hits” releases that would become a common practice for all the other popular artists of the day.

It’s no wonder the singer Tony Bennett has called Mitch Miller “perhaps the single most influential producer in the history of recording.” The music industry agreed, honoring him with a Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2000.

With Mitch Miller’s passing, there are few performers left from the golden age of American popular music in the “easy listening” genre. A few artists such as K.D. Lang and Harry Connick, Jr. are carrying on the tradition, but it’s a pretty safe bet we’ll never again see the likes of a Mitch Miller.

Farewell to an Audio Hi-Fi Pioneer

1812 Overture

Wilma Cozart Fine, audio Hi-Fi pioneer, operating the controls at Mercury's classical record division in the 1950s.
Wilma Cozart Fine, audio Hi-Fi pioneer, operating the controls at Mercury's classical record division in the 1950s.
This past week, the world lost a legend in the audio recording field with the death of Wilma Cozart Fine, age 82. The name may not be familiar to many. But if you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s, chances are your family owned at least one of the recordings Ms. Fine produced for the Mercury label – perhaps the 1812 Overture sonic blockbuster featuring the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (and also featuring real cannons and bells) that would become the first classical album to sell more than one million copies.

A native Mississippian who grew up in Ft. Worth, Texas, Wilma Cozart graduated with college degrees in Music and Business, then went to work in the late 1940s for the newly reorganized Dallas Symphony as personal secretary to the orchestra’s new music director, the fiery Hungarian conductor Antal Dorati. The Dallas Symphony managed to secure a recording contract with RCA Victor – highly unusual for such a young ensemble – and proceeded to release a number of praised recordings including the Bela Bartok Violin Concerto #2 with Yehudi Menuhin.

When Dorati took up a new position as music director of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, Cozart decamped to there as well. Shortly thereafter, she was retained by Mercury Records in New York City to manage the label’s newly formed classical record division.

Using her orchestra management acumen, Cozart, all of 24 years old, snagged a recording contract for Mercury with the lauded Chicago Symphony Orchestra – the first of several exclusive contracts she would negotiate with orchestras in Minneapolis, Detroit and Rochester.

The debut classical recording produced by Mercury’s sound engineers led by C. Robert Fine was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and it caused a sensation in the music world when it was released in 1951. It was widely praised as the best-sounding classical recording made up to that time, with the New York Times reporting that the realism and clarity of the recording made it seem as if the listener was “in the living presence of the performers.” Sensing the marketing power of this description, Cozart would adopt the “Living Presence” moniker for the entire Mercury classical catalog.

The secret to making the Mercury classical records was simple in concept yet quite challenging to implement: A single microphone was painstakingly tested for positioning in the auditorium above and in front of the orchestra at the precise location where the sound would “bloom” most naturally. (Later, when stereophonic disks were introduced, three microphones would be used during recording and then mixed down to two channels.)

Cozart, who married Robert Fine in 1958, learned the craft (and art) of record production from the ground up. In the end, she and her team would release several hundred Mercury classical recordings before the label was acquired by Dutch-based Philips.

It is difficult to cite another instance in which a classical record producer such as Ms. Fine has had such a positive impact on the reputations of the conductors and performers being recorded. Indeed, the enduring popularity of conductors like Antal Dorati, Paul Paray, and Frederick Fennell and his Eastman Wind Ensemble would not be nearly as potent without the documentation of their art as taken down by Fine and her production team.

As the years have ticked by – with new technical innovations introduced and thousands of new classical records produced – the Mercury recordings have retained their reputation as examples of exceptional clarity and realism in sound. For many, these recordings remain the audiophile standard against which all other sound production quality is judged.

But the story doesn’t end there. The pioneering efforts of Ms. Fine would have an interesting “second act” more than three decades later. It was to her that Philips turned in the early 1990s to undertake the endeavor of remastering and transferring nearly the entire Mercury classical catalog to CD. And this was no mere “symbolic” or cameo effort on Fine’s part, either. The original Mercury mixing equipment would be repaired and brought back into production for the project. Ms. Fine performed the digital editing herself – nearly 50 years after she had done it (in analog) the first time around!

And again, the critics swooned.

What is the legacy of Wilma Cozart Fine? It’s not just that she was a pioneer in classical music’s Hi-Fi wave – or that she was the first woman to break into a male-dominated field. It’s that she and her team brought the world some of the best classical recordings ever made …and set a standard for excellence that has yet to be surpassed nearly six decades on.

Sandford Dody: The most famous biographer you’ve never heard of.

Sandford Dody, ghostwriter to the stars.
Sandford Dody: Ghostwriter to the stars.
The American author Sandford Dody died a month ago. You’re forgiven if you don’t know who he is – and not just because, at age 90, he was a throwback to another era.

Mr. Dody was, in fact, the author of numerous autobiographies of American stars of the stage and screen. But the public never really knew that, because his name didn’t appear on his books.

Dody was a ghostwriter. Acclaimed “autobiographies” that in actuality he authored of celebrities like Bette Davis (The Lonely Life) and Helen Hayes (On Reflection) became best-sellers, with readers delighted to find out how “good” Miss Davis and Miss Hayes were as authors – almost as great as their acting abilities!

Most would never learn the truth – that Sandford Dody, as confidante and gentle interrogator, was the person who coaxed and teased these great stories out of his subjects.

How did Dody end up becoming “Ghostwriter to the Stars”? Like so many people who made their careers in the field of entertainment and arts journalism “back in the day,” the native New Yorker started out wanting to be in show business, perhaps as an actor or a writer. And like many others with stars in their eyes, he made the trek to California to try his luck in the film industry.

Back in the 1940s, it wasn’t so hard to meet the famous as well as not-so-famous who inhabited the then-relatively small world of the Hollywood film industry. Even as he dreamed of becoming a playwright, Dody took bit parts in a few films.

But as it became clear he would never ascend the heights either in front of the footlights or on the marquee boards, and in need of money, Dody turned to ghostwriting beginning in the 1950s. His first project was authoring the autobiography of a now-obscure silent film star, Dagmar Godowsky. (One could assume Miss Godowsky was obscure even then, some 30 years after her film career had ended!)

The assignments with Bette Davis, Helen Hayes, the Metropolitan Opera star Robert Merrill, and members of the Barrymore family came along later, in the 1960s. (The Davis autobiography was particularly successful, and is credited with leading to a late-career renaissance for the aging movie star.) And while these projects would prove to be financially lucrative for Dody, it is clear from his own writings that the author was somewhat ambivalent about the whole business of ghostwriting.

In fact, he stopped doing it after his book on Miss Hayes was released. Why? In his own autobiography, published in 1980, Dody gives us a clue. “The most suitable way to view stars is from a long way off,” he declared.

For Dody, it seems that spending so many hours with his subjects as he prepared to write his manuscripts, experiencing their egotism and petty vanity “up close and personal” inevitably came as a letdown. “Let the next star write her own damned autobiography,” is how he would sum it up after he retired.

In later years, Sandford Dody returned to New York City, where he resided quietly in Lower Manhattan, living off his royalties and indulging in his passion for the musical and visual arts. For those of us who know New York as a “walker’s city,” it will come as no surprise that Dody kept up a nearly-every-day regimen of walking an eight-mile loop from his Greenwich Village apartment to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center and back. It’s an important clue as to how he was able to reach his tenth decade despite having battled asthma from the earliest years of childhood.

Ironically, it is a poignant passage from his own autobiography, Giving Up the Ghost, that illustrates the uncommon talent Dody possessed as a writer – and hints at what he might have produced had he taken a different literary path:

“When a ghost’s job is done, he wanders, unheeded, unseen in a half-world and in circles now too grand for him. Unseen by everyone – except on rare occasion by the subject who pretends blindness but winks conspiratorially when the unfamiliars are looking the other way – I have been able to slip through closed doors and between locked mortals as they engage in their earthly affairs. Impossible to be heard, I for one have cried out in protest, in joy, in vain. Isn’t that what death is all about, finally?”

Risë Stevens: A Living Legend

Risë Stevens poses with a young Gen-Y fan, New York City (2006).
Risë Stevens poses with a young Gen-Y fan, New York City (2006).
Risë Stevens as Carmen, her signature role at the Metropolitan Opera for 20+ years.
Risë Stevens as Carmen, her signature role at the Metropolitan Opera for 20+ years.
Risë Stevens (c), honorary chairperson of the 2004/05 Career Bridges award program supporting promising young opera singers at the outset of their careers.
Risë Stevens (c), honorary chairperson of the 2004/05 Career Bridges award program supporting promising young opera singers at the outset of their careers.
This past week, a living legend in the world of the arts has celebrated a birthday. When Risë Stevens was born in Bronx borough 96 years ago, New York City was very much like it is today … the largest city in the United States, with a rich ethnic diversity including many first-generation immigrants. A city of amazing contrasts, from dirt-poor neighborhoods to districts of fabulous wealth and style.

Miss Stevens’ background was typical of many. Her father was a first-generation Swedish Protestant, her mother a second-generation Russian Jew. Growing up on the tough neighborhood streets of the Bronx, the bright lights of Manhattan must have seemed a world apart rather than just a few short miles away.

In her rise to the top of the billboards at the Metropolitan Opera, Stevens would have her share of luck – the onset of World War II in Europe gave American-born soloists their best chance ever to star in the limelight. But it also took years of practice, sheer hard work and “paying her dues” on provincial stages in places as diverse as Prague and Buenos Aires. Much of those early years are recounted in her biography Subway to the Met, published in the late 1950s.

Miss Stevens’ rich mezzo-soprano voice, coupled with her highly attractive physical appearance, made her a natural for several femme fatale operatic roles such as Dalila in Saint-Saens’ Samson & Dalila, Giulietta in Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann and, most notably, the title role in Bizet’s Carmen. But early in her Met career, management seemed disinclined to cast her in this role, perhaps because several other stars were already filling the honors there. Not willing to accept this situation, Stevens did a true star turn, getting herself cast opposite Bing Crosby in the Hollywood blockbuster movie Going My Way in which, as Father O’Malley’s erstwhile neighborhood chum and now star of the opera, she sang the famous Habañera from the opera Carmen.

That seemed to do the trick, as the American public now clamored to see her sing the role. Dutifully, the Metropolitan Opera cast her as Carmen within the year, and for the next two decades, Stevens would practically own the role at the Met. (And it was as Carmen that Stevens made her last performance before retiring from the Met stage in 1961.)

The number of people who were introduced to the world of opera through Miss Stevens during the 1940s and 1950s is astonishingly large. Her compelling portrayal of Bizet’s cigar-factory worker temptress has been cited as THE defining catalyst for opera lovers in countless postings all over the web (you can read some examples here, here and here).

But beyond the limelight and the marquee board, there is another reason why Risë Stevens has been loved by so many: she has always been true to herself, and to her art. You can see that in how, despite the fact that she probably made more money starring in just three Hollywood films than she made in her entire career on the opera stage, she left Hollywood and returned to opera because it was her true love.

… You can see it by her loyalty in promoting the art of opera and her beloved Met Opera company. Even today, she remains on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, making her association with the company more than 70 years running.

… You can also see it in her compelling “up-from-poverty” personal story … and in her long and loving 65+ year marriage to her Viennese-born Hungarian husband, Walter Surovy.

And you can see it in the genuine interest she takes in people of all backgrounds and generations. Unlike so many stars who, once they are famous, become absolute personality horrors – full of arrogance and snobbery — Risë Stevens has never lost her connection to the “real world.” My own two daughters have carried on a correspondence with their “Miss Risë” for 15 years, who they’ve come to regard as a kind of special relative who lives far, far away and is larger than life in some respects.

From them, and from so many others: Happy Birthday, Risë … and may you celebrate many more!

More Action on the Search Engine Front

Bing logo designWolfram Alpha logoDespite the fact that Google has proven itself to be all but immune from threats posed by competing search engines, hope springs eternal. Within the past couple weeks alone, two new challengers have emerged, accompanied by much fanfare in the business press.

Microsoft takes yet another swipe at Google with its new Bing search engine. Based on an earlier one called “Kumo,” some industry observers — though not all — believe it is a pretty good competitor. Reviewers are particularly pleased with the presentation of refined versions of search queries. Bing also features a rollover display of each link’s content, allowing you to see how useful it will be before clicking through to the site.

The search engine also appears to index more recent “breaking news” items, whereas with Google, those results are not shown unless you click through to Google News — an extra step.

The big question is whether Bing will be able to wean web users away from their habit of searching on Google as their default choice. Certainly, Microsoft is putting some serious promotional dollars behind the launch — upwards of $100 million according to Advertising Age magazine. But based on the tea leaves, a wholesale change in search behavior seems unlikely. Search habits aren’t going to change dramatically unless there is a dramatic improvement in the effectiveness and speed of search activity. Fom what we see of Bing so far, we’re talking about improvements nibbling around on the margin rather than big sweeping change.

But “big sweeping change” just might be the recipe for Wolfram/Alpha, the other new entrant in the search engine sweepstakes. That’s because W/A isn’t actually a search engine in the classsic sense. Instead, its developers refer to it as a “computational knowledge engine” that uses complex algorithms to search databases to come up with answers to questions, rather than presenting a list of sources where the answer might be found. It can report some really cool factual results just based on the user typing in, for example, a date range, several city names, or an animal species.

The key difference between Wolfram/Alpha and Google is that W/A does not index web pages. Instead, it draws answers from a wide range of information-packed databases. So if you want to know the number and magnitude of hurricanes hitting North America in the past 15 years, you’ll get a specific answer rather than being presented with a series of web links wherein you might find the answer to be hiding.

Some observers see the potential for W/A and Google to team up rather than compete against one another. After all, what they do isn’t directly competitive, but in more respects complementary. And in an interesting twist, it turns out that Stephen Wolfram, the ~50-year-old computer scientist and developer who created the software platform upon which W/A is based (called “Mathematica”), once supervised a summer intern by the name of Sergey Brin — who would go on to develop Google with partner Larry Page.

Sergey and Stephen teaming up once again would be quite the coincidence … or would it really?

A mobile society? Maybe not so much.

The United States has long been known as one of the most mobile societies on earth. Throughout the history of our nation, Americans have seemingly always had a major collective case of wanderlust.

This was especially true during World War II when hundreds of thousands of servicemen and women found themselves posted to places far away from home. Getting a taste of unfamiliar and interesting locations — so different from what they knew growing up — many people elected not to return home from the war.

My father, who was stationed in Alaska during World War II and was mustered out of the Army Air Corps in San Francisco/Oakland, tells of acquaintences who opted to take a small cash payout and stayed in California, rather than accept free transport back to their homes in New York, Pittsburgh, rural Alabama or wherever.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the population growth of the Mountain and Pacific States plus plentiful manufacturing jobs throughout the Midwest sparked dramatic population migrations from South to North and from East to West. Families took annual vacation road trips of 1,000 miles or more, fueled by cheap gasoline and the brand-new Interstate highway system.

Today, things look much different. According to a just-released Rasmussen poll, 90% of respondents report that they have lived in the same state for at least the past five years. And nearly three-fourths report that they’ve lived in the same state for more than 20 years.

This news comes hard on the heels of the U.S. Census Department reporting that only ~35 million people changed where they lived from March 2007 to March 2008. The Census Bureau noted that this was the lowest number recorded since 1962 — when the United States had 120 million fewer people.

More recent stats for the comparable 2008-09 period aren’t yet available, but I suspect the numbers have declined even further. If so, it will represent a big change in one of America’s most unique and defining aspects — its mobility. I wonder … is another one of America’s trademark characteristics now becoming more a myth than reality?

Happy Birthday to a Renaissance Man

Previn in younger days
Previn in younger days
andre-previn-at-801André Previn turned 80 years old earlier this month, which gives us cause to reflect on the incredible life of this highly interesting, very creative man. In his musical life, he’s demonstrated a versatility and catholicity that surpasses even Leonard Bernstein’s reputation.

Born in Germany, raised in the United States and truly a citizen of the world, Previn has lived out his life in the European capitals of London, Paris and Berlin … and here in the U.S. in places as diverse as Hollywood and Pittsburgh. A true wunderkind, he burst onto the musical scene back in the early 1950s, recording fine jazz piano arrangements that were released on 10” RCA Victor 78-r.p.m. and LP records … then soon migrated over to MGM Studios, writing musical scores for more than a dozen Hollywood films.

I own a few of Previn’s early jazz albums. His song arrangements are little gems – each one their own special musical adventure. Listen to his rendition of Stella by Starlight, for example, and you’ll immediately understand his special way with the music.

Previn’s pop music career masked the fact that he had studied classical music at the Paris Conservatory, and in San Francisco under the tutelage of the great French conductor Pierre Monteux. By the 1960s, Previn had moved from pop back to his classical roots, issuing a series of critically acclaimed recordings with the best symphony orchestras of London. His interpretations of the symphonies of Ralph Vaughan-Williams and Sir William Walton … along with recordings of the important British choral masterworks Belshazzar’s Feast and The Rio Grande remain touchstone performances, nearly 40 years on.

In his later years, in addition to guest-conducting the world over, Previn has penned a steady stream of memorable compositions, including several concertos for his ex-wife, the celebrated violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Even more impressive is Previn’s foray into the world of opera. His 1998 composition A Streetcar Named Desire has received more than 20 productions – an almost unheard of feat for a contemporary opera. And today, he’s busily at work writing a new work for the Houston Grand Opera to premiere next month, based on Noel Coward’s 1938 play Still Life (later made into the movie Brief Encounter).

At age 80, André Previn shows absolutely no sign of slowing down. And why should he? Musically speaking, he still has much to say … and the arts world is richer for it.

Happy Birthday, Maestro!