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Conductor Mitch Miller Dies At Age 99

NEW YORK - Mitch Miller, the goateed orchestra leader who asked Americans to "Sing Along With Mitch" on television and records, has died at age 99.

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His daughter, Margaret Miller Reuther, said Monday that Miller died Saturday in Lenox Hill Hospital after a short illness.

Miller was a key record executive at Columbia Records in the pre-rock 'n' roll era, making hits with singers Rosemary Clooney, Patti Page, Johnny Mathis and Tony Bennett.

"Sing Along With Mitch" started as a series of records, then became a popular NBC show starting in early 1961. Miller's stiff-armed conducting style and signature goatee became famous.

As a producer and arranger, Miller had misses along with his hits, famously striking out on projects with Frank Sinatra and a young Aretha Franklin.

The TV show ranked in the top 20 for the 1961-62 season, and soon children everywhere were parodying Miller's stiff-armed conducting. An all-male chorus sang old standards, joined by a few female singers, most prominently Leslie Uggams. Viewers were invited to join in with lyrics superimposed on the screen and followed with a bouncing ball.

The years of Miller's biggest successes were also the early years of rock 'n' roll, and many fans saw his old-fashioned arrangements of standards and folk favorites as an antidote to the noisy stuff the teens adored. As an executive at Columbia, Miller would be widely ridiculed for trying to turn a young Aretha Franklin into a showbiz diva in the tradition of Sophie Tucker.

But Miller was not entirely unsympathetic to rock 'n' roll.

In a 1955 essay in The New York Times magazine, he said the popularity of rhythm and blues, as he called it, with white teens was part of young people's "natural desire not to conform, a need to be rebellious."

He added: "There is a steady -- and healthy -- breaking down of color barriers in the United States; perhaps the rhythm-and-blues rage -- I am only theorizing -- is another expression of it."