Mitch Miller’s Easy Ride
Posted by Michael Eldridge on August 6, 2010
Or, The Latest Installment of the “Six Degrees of Calypso” Game.
When I saw the obit for oboist, rock-o-phobe, and follow-the-bouncing-ball guy Mitch Miller in Tuesday’s New York Times, I suspect my first reaction—”Who knew Mitch Miller was still alive?”—wasn’t all that unusual. (Like many Americans of my generation, my introduction to Miller came via my parents’ Christmas LP collection. “Holiday Sing Along” was in heavy rotation whenever I got to play yuletide DJ on my folks’ old Motorola hi-fi—it shared the spindle with Andre Kostelanetz, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Alvin & The Chipmunks. There was something oddly compelling about the sound of a dozen becardiganed bass-baritones singing in manful, echo-y unison. But even in 1967, I imagined Miller was old.)
As it happens, I had just that day been editing a paragraph or two involving Miller from a project that calypso researcher and boreal federal judge Ray Funk has invited me to work on: a box set on the Calypso Craze of 1956-7 that he’s putting together for the German reissue/specialty label Bear Family Records. And while the Times focused on Miller’s affinity for novelties (Dinah Shore with bagpipes, anyone?) and reviewed many of his hits—and a few of his misses—as a producer and Artist & Repertoire man for Mercury and Columbia Records, it was somehow silent on his peripheral involvement in the Craze.
To correct that oversight, herewith the relevant ‘grafs from Ray’s draft manuscript (blandished by yours truly), which come on the heels of a section devoted to the folk trio The Tarriers:
Another long-forgotten folk trio, the Easy Riders, had a major hit for Columbia Records in early 1957 with their version of a classic calypso, “Mary Ann.” (The Riders Frenchified the sand-sifter’s spelling, however, to “Marianne.”) The group was composed of three experienced folk singers, Terry Gilkyson, Frank Miller and Rick Dehr, who were signed to Columbia by A&R legend and future singalong king Mitch Miller. While “Marianne” was the Riders’ first hit as a group, they had also backed up Dean Martin a year earlier on an easy listening hit that they’d composed, “Memories Are Made of This.”
“Mary Ann,” first recorded by Lord Invader for Moe Asch’s Disc Records (see “Mess-A-Calypso“), was a highly popular road march at the end of World War II. Although its authorship was disputed by King Radio, it is generally accepted that the tune was written by the legendary Roaring Lion, who like Invader recorded it in 1945 (and again in 1951 and 1993). The tune was covered repeatedly in the latter half of the 1940s, being an especial favorite with Latin orchestras. Likewise, the Easy Riders’ recording of “Marianne” spawned a quick series of cover versions by the Hilltoppers, the Lane Brothers, and the venerable folk singer Burl Ives. Though the song eventually went gold for the Riders, it hit nearly as big for the Hilltoppers, a group of clean-cut collegians who took the song to #3 on the Billboard pop charts—and to appearances on American and Canadian TV. (On the Steve Allen Show they were joined in their performance by Brenda Lee, Aldo Ray, and Yehudi Menuhin.) The Lane Brothers, who in fact specialized in re-recording hit tunes, went on to cover discs by the Everly Brothers and other pop and rockabilly acts. Burl Ives had of course been on the folk scene for two decades and was no stranger to calypso either, having hosted Sir Lancelot on his 1940s radio show—and having covered Lancelot’s “Shame and Scandal in the Family.”
The Easy Riders’ own success with “Marianne” led to work in two movies (“Calypso Heat Wave” and “Windjammer”) and further dabbling in calypso-styled songs. The group disbanded in 1959, though Gilkyson went on to a career as a songwriter for Disney, and both his son Tony and daughter Eliza became successful musicians in their own right.
 Cohen, Ron. Rainbow Quest: the Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940-1970, Univ. of Massachusetts Press, p. 120