Recently I read the biography of Tony Bennett called "Life is a Gift: The Zen Of Bennett." It was an interesting read but frustrating at times. Like many other singers of the 1950s, Tony didn't like working under Columbia Records A&R genius Mitch Miller. I use the word "genius" on purpose as Miller sure had the pulse of the public right as far as music in the 1950s is concerned. He shaped the careers of Johnny Mathis, Doris Day, Guy Mitchell and Rosemary Clooney to name a few. He picked a lot of the songs they recorded, including novelty tunes the public ate up as fast as he could release them.
Even though this meant best selling records for many artists, many of the singers didn't like recording what they thought was drivel. Tony Bennett wanted to record jazz, not songs like "In the Middle of an Island". It was one of 1957's top sellers. Tony made a lot of people happy with his recordings of that era, but after reading his book it seems like he forgot what Columbia and Mitch did for his career. Would he have been as popular without those songs?
Other Columbia artists like Rosemary Clooney also complained bitterly for years about having to record those songs. She wanted to do jazz as well and later did so very successfully. That's great, but why always put down the popular music they sang earlier?
Jo Stafford (my favorite singer) was teamed with Frankie Laine by Mitch Miller. They recorded a lot of fun songs and some stinkers like Chow Willy. Well, it is catchy but as Jo herself once said "Chow Willy?!"
The Mitch Miller legend went on for years, reaching its height in the 1960s with his very TV show "Sing Along With Mitch." On that show the music was mostly of the early Tin Pan Alley or folk song days.
Tony Bennett wants to sing "The Great American Songbook." But what exactly is that? Everyone seems to have their own opinion and the collective amnesia about what popular music was in the 1940s and 50s seems to be brushed aside. I sometimes think I'm fighting a losing battle about all of this. In my mind "The Great American Songbook" includes popular music of the 1920s through 1950s and includes songs the public loved during those years. Despite what Tony thinks, the public never embraced jazz as popular music. "In The Middle Of An Island" isn't jazz and Tony might not want to sing it anymore, but it IS a part of that great musical heritage of American Popular Music and The Nostalgic Rambler's version of the Great American Songbook (hey if everyone else seems to define it, so can I!).....
I have the first Johnny Mathis album before he was molded by Mitch and the Columbia folks. It isn't noteworthy. Under Mitch Johnny Mathis recorded some great albums for Columbia...his best in my opinion. After those successes he decided to pick his own stuff. His success never matched those iconic years.
Doris Day had that great sound of the the happy 1950s. Mitch Miller once again.
The first Nostalgic Rambler blog several years back was on Mitch Miller. I'm revisiting him today as I induct him into the Nostalgic Rambler Great American Songbook Hall Of Fame, despite what Rosemary, Tony, Jo and Johnny might have said about him. Congrats Mitch! And we forgive you for Chow Willy....