Why I Love Holiday Singalong With Mitch, to the Chagrin of My Family
[Editor's Note: Fuck Guilty Pleasures celebrates the over-produced, commercial, artless, lowbrow music that we believe is genuinely worthwhile. Like, among the best music ever.]
Mitch Miller, musician, record producer, and twinkly-eyed choir master of '60s TV, rules. (Or, ruled. May he rest in peace.) I hold dear and consider one of the greatest Christmas albums ever to be Mitch Miller and The Gang's 1961 Holiday Singalong With Mitch, which my family owns on cassette tape and which gets at least two full play-throughs whenever I'm home for Christmas.
It's fair to say, however, that my loved ones do not share my fondness for it. They probably wouldn't mind if it found its way into the fireplace along with a yule log and some lighter fluid. Why?
Because the album is utterly ridiculous. Every song hails from the secular Christmas canon, from "Frosty the Snowman" to "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" to "Must Be Santa", above. It is entirely devoid of spiritual undertones; though the original track list includes "Silent Night", the cassette version does not.
On each tune, polka-style accordion features prominently. Most songs showcase percussive jingle bells. All are sung by a choir of males who possess very little in the way of harmony. And, on "Must Be Santa", the grown men are joined by what sounds like a throng of falsetto elves. There is no sophistication, no irony, and no reason why I should love this record so, except that it is truly jolly.
Despite the campiness of Holiday Singalong, in his heyday Mitch Miller was a music industry kingpin. Born in Rochester, NY, in 1911, he was Jewish, which is the first odd thing about all of this. As a teenager, he excelled at classical oboe, eventually earning a degree in music and playing with the Rochester Philharmonic.
After moving to New York City, he was an A&R rep for Mercury Records in the '40s and for Columbia Records in the '50s and '60s. You might say he helped shape the history of rock 'n' roll, based on the artists he did and didn't sign. (He gave Aretha Franklin her first record deal but passed on The Beatles.)
Your parents may remember Miller from his TV show, Sing Along with Mitch, which ran for four years on NBC, starting in 1960. The show was essentially white dudes in sweaters, singing, while Miller cheerfully conducted and lyrics flashed on the TV screen so viewers at home could chime in. Call it primitive karaoke. It's been the subject of numerous parodies by comedians; it was even mocked on an episode of The Flintstones in 1963 (below).
You know you've attained new heights of dorkdom when Fred and Barney are poking fun at you. Though fairly popular for spell, Miller was never particularly cool.
He was, however, an excellent choral arranger. Check out his other famous (and similarly-named) holiday album, Christmas Sing-Along with Mitch, for superb a capella four-part harmonies. He was also a skilled conveyor of happiness. As Miller grins through his bushy mustache and pointy goateed beard and directs viewers not to "just sit there -- c'mon and sing!" he seems brimming with genuine glee. I defy anyone to watch him stiffly "conducting" home audiences on songs like "Has Anybody Seen My Gal?" without toe-tapping or finger-snapping.
And I challenge even the grumpiest Scrooge to listen to Holiday Singalong With Mitch and not feel at least a little bit festive. Though Miller passed away at age 99 in 2010, his holiday spirit is as infectious as ever. Is his music cheesy? Yes. But you know what? Cheese tastes delicious at Christmas.
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