Mitch Miller, the goateed bandleader who hosted NBC's Sing Along with Mitch in the early 1960s, died July 31 at age 99. Miller's music and his show were before my time, but I've always found the phenomenon of his program fascinating from the archival footage. Partly because Sing Along with Mitch was, in a way, before its own time.
When the show debuted in 1961, Miller originally an oboe player was already a music impresario, having produced hits for the Mercury label and then Columbia Records. Tony Bennett and Rosemary Clooney were among the singers whose careers he boosted, and he's recognized as one of the first to employ overdubbing, layering different tracks in the studio. As a musician, he'd played with George Gershwin and recorded with Charlie Parker.
His own Sing Along albums led to his family music program. Featuring performances of wholesome songs with onscreen lyrics to allow the home audience to join in, it was a bit of prerock culture in the early rock era. Even as his show became popular, the growth of rock music (which Miller personally disdained) was superseding the kind of novelty songs and standards the host preferred.
Sing Along took the same unjaded pleasure in the medium that many of the earliest TV programs did. It was the kind of show that still found it simply amazing that there was this machine that could bring pictures and music into your living room, all at the same time, just like that.
The show seems impossibly ancient and naive today. But it presaged a whole line of something-for-everybody TV-music programs leading up to American Idol today, as well as being a precursor of karaoke. Long before the Internet and video games, Miller showed that TV was a device that people were going to want to interact with.
This text originally appeared in the Aug 16, 2010 issue of TIME Magazine.
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