Born Albert George Cernick, 22 February 1927, Detroit, Michigan
Few singers typified American 50s pop more than Guy Mitchell. During that decade he was an enormously popular singer in the USA and especially the UK, with a rich voice and an affable personality. Surprisingly, he survived the rock & roll era by switching to pop covers of country songs. The son of Croatian immigrants, Mitchell was born Al Cernick in Detroit. When he was 11, his family moved to Los Angeles where he auditioned for Warner Bros. The company groomed him to be a child star, but the relationship with WB ended when the family moved to San Francisco in 1940. After a stint in the Navy and a regular spot on a San Francisco radio show (1946), Mitchell became a vocalist with Carmen Cavallero’s orchestra, with which he made his first recordings for Decca in 1947.
In 1949 he won Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Show as a soloist and recorded for MGM (as Al Cernick) and King (as Al Grant). The next year he was signed by Columbia Records, where his producer Mitch Miller changed his name to Guy Mitchell. Five singles were issued in quick succession, all of which flopped. The turning point came on November 2, 1950, when Frank Sinatra refused to record two songs that Mitch Miller had selected for him. While the band was waiting in the studio, Miller called Guy Mitchell as a last-minute substitute. Those two songs, “My Heart Cries For You” (an adaptation by Percy Faith of an 18th century French song) and “The Rovin’ Kind” (based on an old English sea shanty) were released back to back and both sides made the Top 5, peaking at # 2 and # 4 respectively in early 1951. The record was the first of Mitchell’s six million sellers, also the first of 21 US Top 30 hits. Many of his hits were written by Bob Merrill, one of the most successful songwriters of the first half of the 1950s. Among them, in chronological order : “Sparrow in the Tree Top” (# 8), “My Truly Truly Fair” (# 2), “Belle, Belle, My Liberty Belle” (# 9), “Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania” (# 4), “Feet Up” (# 14 US, # 2 UK) and “She Wears Red Feathers” (# 19 US, # 1 UK). Mitchell's hits were mostly jaunty novelty numbers, usually with Miller arrangements that used French horns with considerable effect, along with a catchy chorus.
By the mid-fifties Guy Mitchell was a household name on both sides of the Atlantic. However, the year 1955 went by without any chart entries in the US and the UK and even a brief venture into film acting failed to enhance his popularity. Just when it looked as if the advent of rock and roll would put an end to his career, he scored his biggest hit. In September 1956, Mitch Miller gave him a song that had just entered the country charts, “Singing the Blues” by Columbia labelmate Marty Robbins. Backed by the Ray Conniff orchestra and some effective whistling, Mitchell transformed the country song into a pure pop number, with great success. “Singing the Blues” spent ten weeks at the top of the Billboard pop charts and also topped the UK charts, despite stiff competition from a carbon copy by Tommy Steele, whose version also went to # 1.
(As an aside : Marty Robbins was understandably annoyed that his chance of pop success was thwarted by his own company. Miller told him : ‘It would have been covered by a pop singer anyway, so it might as well be someone on Columbia'. Soon Robbins would be making successful pop records himself with Mitch Miller and Ray Conniff in New York City, first of all the # 2 hit “A White Sport Coat”.)
Mitchell’s follow-up to “Singing the Blues" was a pop version of the subsequent Marty Robbins single, “Knee Deep in the Blues" (again written by Melvin Endsley and again covered by Tommy Steele), which went to # 16 in the US and # 3 in the UK. The next single was an even bigger success : “Rock-A-Billy” was another number one in the UK and also reached # 10 in the US, though the song (written by Woody Harris, who later wrote songs for Bobby Darin) was anything but rockabilly.
There followed a rather quiet period, chart-wise, until Mitch Miller came up with the idea of covering another country song by a Columbia artist, in this case Ray Price. Lightning struck twice : “Heartaches By the Number” gave Guy Mitchell another number one pop hit, in December 1959. He went on to cover two other previous # 1 country hits by Ray Price, “The Same Old Me” (# 51) and “My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You” (# 45). These turned out to be Mitchell’s last chart entries, both in 1960. His Columbia contract was not renewed in 1961. He would next record for Joy (1962), Chalice (1965), Reprise (1966) and Starday (1967-68) but his days as a hitmaker were over.
Mitchell re-emerged in the 1980s, on the nostalgia circuit, and made several appearances in the UK, where he was always welcome to tour. In 1982 he re-recorded his old hits for an Arcade album. In 1997 he was diagnosed with leukemia and started a course of treatment. Complications of this treatment eventually led to his death in 1999, at the age of 72.
More info : http://www.belle49.freeserve.co.uk/guy/guyhome.htm
Discography / sessionography :
CD : Probably the best value-for-money compilation is “The Hits And More : The Ultimate Collection” (Jasmine, 2009, UK). 55 Columbia tracks on two CDs. Liner notes by Ossie Dales.
Acknowledgements : Bruce Eder, Fred Bronson, several encyclopedias.
Dik, February 2016
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