NASHVILLE SKYLINE: He Took Hank Williams to the World

The Late Pop Producer Mitch Miller's Role in Country History

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

All of you country music beneficiaries of your crossover songs to the pop charts and to the lush — and affluent — pop audiences, do you know who to thank for your previously nonexistent access to the pop world?

Well, it’s an old guy who just died. Mitch Miller was his name, and he was 99 when he passed away on July 31. He’s probably mainly remembered today as being the grandfather of karaoke.

In 1958, he began recording a series of Sing Along With Mitch record albums, which reflected his dislike for the rock ’n’ roll of that era and featured mainstream traditional songs such as “Home on the Range” and “That Old Gang of Mine.” It was Mitch conducting a chorus of male singers, and you could sing along. In effect, he democratized music by telling audiences that anyone could sing.

He transferred that concept to television on NBC in 1961, with the lyrics appearing at the bottom of the screen. There is a popular myth that there was a bouncing ball that bounced across the words, but Miller never used that. There were bouncing balls in movie theaters and on cartoon shows, which taught people the words to songs.

The Sing Along With Mitch show was hugely popular. Mitch and his neatly trimmed mustache and Van Dyke beard became famous. Interestingly, the show was sponsored by Ballantine beer.

But in his long career, Miller was a musician, record label executive, producer, conductor, singer and A&R man. He was a classically trained graduate of the Eastman School of Music who played in orchestras, toured as an oboe player in George Gershwin’s orchestra and played on Frank Sinatra recording sessions.

He became classical music director at Keynote Records and then moved to Mercury Records, where he discovered his true calling, by producing hits by such pop singers as Patti Page. When Miller moved to Columbia Records, he turned it into the giant of American record labels. He truly bridged the gap between the WWII era of big bands and the rock ’n’ roll of the 1950s, and he introduced the notion of the A&R man becoming the powerful producer — a notion that later took root in the rock world.

Miller hated rock ’n’ roll and passed on opportunities to sign both Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly to his record label. But he loved country music and produced such hits as Marty Robbins’ “A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation).”

But the main thing he did for country music was to introduce the crossover concept. He mated country songs with pop singers and presented them to the mainstream pop audience. His tool of choice was the Hank Williams song catalog, after future Atlantic records producer Jerry Wexler, then a writer at Billboard, recommended it to him. It especially helped that Williams’ mentor was an old Tin Pan Alley hand himself. Fred Rose, who founded Acuff-Rose with Roy Acuff, had extensive pop music experience and credentials. Even though Miller’s personal taste often veered into the realm of novelty songs (he alienated Sinatra by making him record such songs as “Mama Will Bark”), he forever altered the pop landscape by introducing the Hank sensibility into pop music.

Miller paired Tony Bennett with Hank’s “Cold, Cold Heart.” He recorded Frankie Laine singing “Hey, Good Lookin’.” Rosemary Clooney cut “Half as Much.” Jo Stafford recorded “Jambalaya” and “Hey, Good Lookin’.” They were big hits. And they set a precedent. B.J. Thomas had a career hit with his version of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Many other pop singers continued mining the Hank catalog and looking at other country songs.

Mitch Miller and Hank Williams together forever changed the public concept of country music. It had been largely insular and regional. The popularity and reach of Williams’ songs in pop began to transform the music into a broad national and even international canvas.

Similarly, Jerry Wexler later played a pivotal role in transforming Willie Nelson from a promising country singer-songwriter into an influential crossover artist with the albums Phases and Stages and Shotgun Willie. The experience gave Nelson the confidence to step even further outside the country mainstream with the risk-taking album Stardust, which became a massive hit.

So Lady A and Taylor Swift and all other crossover acts, you should give thanks to your pop grandfathers.