The album. I can’t remember whether it was in the late fifties or the early sixties, but I somehow know it was a Friday evening when my parents brought home the original “Sing Along With Mitch” LP. We played it right away, of course.
The cover was divided into two horizontal sections. At bottom was Smiling Mitch. Above him, in various colors, was a list of the songs contained therein. I remember listening to, and liking, “Sweet Violets.” Who knows why? And we all thought “Be Kind to Your Web-Footed Friends” was a scream.
The TV show. This was a Friday night staple. Wildly popular. I know we watched it every week. Even now when I think of Leslie Uggams, I think of Mitch; she was pretty much a regular on the show, as I recall. Years later, a show named “Sesame Street” debuted and was a big hit. I looked at it and thought, “Hey, isn’t that guy with the Muppets none other than Bob McGrath from the Mitch Miller show?” Sure it was.
At some point in the show’s run, the producers came up with a cute gimmick. Sometimes during a song, as the camera would pan among the member’s of Mitch’s all-male troupe, all of a sudden we’d see that someone famous had been slipped into the group. Once it was Joe E. Ross, in costume as Gunther Toody from “Car 54, Where Are You?"
Creative “repurposing.” My younger brother had a 45 rpm record of “The Woody Woodpecker Song.” On the B side was something called “The Woodpecker Dance,” performed by “Mitchell Miller and the Orchestra.” Same guy? Almost certainly. The dance was a sprightly tune; I listened to it a number of times myself. Years later, listening to the classical radio station, I heard it again – it was actually part of a piece of classical music. Can’t remember the composer, though I suspect the person was credited on the 45. Mitch had obviously breathed new life (or at least a different life) into an old piece of classical music. Clever – and cost-effective, since the selection was in the public domain.
The bottom line. Was Mitch Miller a schlockmeister? Of course. But some people say that word in the same tone of voice that they normally reserve for “child molester.” Yep, Mitch’s stuff was corny all right, but it was the type of stuff that a family could enjoy together. And although many of the songs performed were very old standards that could be performed free, it was through Mitch and his gang that I learned songs like “That Old Gang of Mine.”
I also remember the night that Mitch featured a young classical pianist, only a few years older than I was, and I was about 10. As we watched, my parents turned to me and asked me if I’d like to take piano lessons. As I recall, I was noncommittal, but despite this they signed me up and I took lessons for five years. Forty years later, I still play and I’m still grateful for the lessons, as much of a pain as they sometimes were – not because of the teacher but because for so long I was such a tight-assed, nervous, inhibited student.
Did my parents have this idea before this episode was shown? Quite possibly. Or maybe they had the idea right then and there. They’re not around to ask now.
But if Mitch did give them the idea, I hope that he is now in a very pleasant place with that old gang of his.