GUY MITCHELL

He was a singer, an actor, a cowboy, a cancer survivor and saddle maker (not necessarily in that order) who sometimes drank to excess. Guy Mitchell also recorded some of the biggest hit songs of the 1950s, his best-known originating from the world of country music. Born Albert Cernik in Detroit in 1927, his career in entertainment began at age three when he sang at a wedding reception. His parents, who had emigrated from Yugoslavia, knew right then and there he had the talent to be a star...and they were right!

The family moved around quite a bit, living in Los Angeles for a couple of years starting in 1938. Albert auditioned for the Warner Bros. movie studio, which led to a steady job singing on KFWB radio as Al Cernik. His Hollywood hopes were put on hold with a move to San Francisco in 1940. After working a summer job in the San Joaquin Valley as an apprentice saddle maker, the 16-year-old spent some time singing on Dude Martin's radio show (Martin, real name Stephen McSwain, was a popular singer and radio personality in the Bay Area heading up Dude Martin's Round Up Gang on KYA radio; he and his band later made records for RCA Victor).

Al did some time in the Navy near the end of World War II, then rejoined the Round Up Gang, leaving soon after to sing with Carmen Cavallaro's orchestra; in 1948 he made his first recording, "Dream Girl," with Cavallaro for Decca. Two discs followed, then he put out a couple of 78s with The Buddy Kaye Quintet (and Kaye regulars The Tune Timers) for MGM. In '49 he signed as a solo act with Cincinnati's King Records, changed his name to Al Grant and gained some attention for his version of Joel Cowan and Al Russell's "Cabaret." While at King he teamed with The Satisfiers Foursome, singer Louise Carlyle (who had served as bandleader for her brother Russ Carlyle during World War II) and Barbara Cameron (a singer at WLW in Cincy who joined the King roster), but success was elusive; money was so tight that Al sometimes slept at the record company's offices.

Following a first place appearance on the Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts radio show, Cernik/Grant had a job making demo recordings, but he needed better promotion for his own work. Music publisher Eddie Joy became his manager, helping to get him in the door at Columbia Records in the spring of 1950. Mitch Miller, a specialist at pinpointing an artist's strengths and promoting them with the label's many resources, was calling the shots by then. Mitch saw in Al an opportunity to play "puppet master," molding the young singer in his own image (or rather the more handsome version of the image he saw for himself). So Al Grant became a guy named "Mitch"...or, more specifically, Guy Mitchell.

Something wasn't clicking at first, as his Columbia debut with Percy Faith's orchestra, the gimmicky western-flavored "Giddy-Ap!," met with indifference, as did the next four releases. Miller took a more hands-on approach near the end of the year, producing Guy's next project after Frank Sinatra rejected both proposed single sides. The sentimental "My Heart Cries For You," adapted from an 18th century French song, "Chanson de Marie Antoinette," by songwriters Carl Sigman and Percy Faith (using the pseudonym Peter Mars), was paired with "The Roving Kind," a more rousing number based on a European folk song, "The Pirate Ship." "My Heart" entered the national top ten in January 1951, outpacing cover versions by Dinah Shore, Vic Damone and several others. "Roving" reached the top ten in February ahead of versions by folk sensation The Weavers and C&W singer Rex Allen; sales of the two-sided hit easily topped the million mark. Success had found Cernik/Grant/Mitchell after what seemed like a long struggle, though he was barely 24 years old.

Guy generated more attention than just about anyone on the '51 music scene. An earlier duet with Rosemary Clooney, "You're Just in Love" (from the Broadway musical Call Me Madam) hit the charts, though Perry Como's version was already established as a top seller. Mitch had prominently featured French horns in "Roving Kind" and retained them as a signature sound on other offerings including "My Truly, Truly Fair" and "Belle, Belle, My Liberty Belle," both written by Bob Merrill and both major hits; Guy's success prompted King Records to rerelease the Cernik single "Cabaret" under the Mitchell name. Later in the year, Guy's take on Hank Williams' "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)" gave a hint of the country influence that was to become increasingly important to his career down the road.

Merrill's "Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania" became Mitchell's fifth top ten hit in the spring of '52 amid criticism that alleged he had a less-than-polished presence at stage shows. A tour of the U.K. in 1952 resulted in a different reaction from fans and critics; he was simply a sensation, mobbed by fans at one sold out venue after another. The cutesy "Feet Up (Pat Him on the Po-Po)," a minor hit in the U.S., was a top seller in England, then 1953 went much as '51 had in America. "She Wears Red Feathers" and "Look at That Girl" topped the U.K. charts, while "Pretty Little Black Eyed Susie," "Chicka-Boom" and "Cloud Lucky Seven" had top ten peaks. Back home in the U.S., after a minor hit in late '52, "('Cause I Love You) That's A-Why," a duet with Joy's wife Mindy Carson, Guy went through a two-year drought before scoring another hit. His incredible success overseas essentially kept his singing career from collapsing.

His movie career, launched at Paramount in early 1953, provided hope that he would retain a high profile despite a lack of radio airplay. Those Redheads From Seattle, a musical set during the Alaska gold rush of the 1890s, starred Rhonda Fleming, Gene Barry, Agnes Moorhead and Teresa Brewer, with Guy in a supporting role. He teamed with Clooney for another musical, 1954's Red Garters (he sang "A Dime and a Dollar" in the film and it was a U.K. hit), but both films performed below expectations and Paramount passed on using him again. More than a year went by until "Ninety Nine Years (Dead or Alive)" became a hit in early '56; a humorous tale of murder, a stretch in the pen and a hoped-for 2055 parole, the song returned him to the top 40 for the first time since late '52. Soon after, Guy's second round of success kicked into high gear with one of the biggest hits of the entire decade.

"Singing the Blues," a song by Melvin Endsley, was first released by rising Columbia star Marty Robbins and topped the country charts in November 1956. Miller immediately identified it as the perfect vehicle for Guy Mitchell, getting it out quickly, thus suppressing any possibility of Robbins crossing over with a pop hit. Ray Conniff led the orchestra this time, with a new hook to replace the trademark French horns: whistling! One of the decade's biggest hits, the record held the number one spot for over two months from December '56 to February '57, racking up more weeks at the top than any of Elvis Presley's songs at a time when Elvis was the biggest thing in music. Guy's follow-up hit, "Knee Deep in the Blues," was another Endsley song recorded first by Robbins, who complained openly against this practice (he'd been aiming for his own crossover into the larger realm of pop stardom) but backed off when his own huge pop hit, "A White Sport Coat," made the leap from C&W to pop a few months later.

Mitchell dabbled in rock and roll with the B sides "Crazy With Love" and "Take Me Back Baby." "Rock-A-Billy," written by Woody Harris and Eddie V. Deane, set out to define an entire musical subgenre (with a pop arrangement) but fell short of achieving any sort of anthem status, though it sold well, nearly reaching the top ten (it did better in Britain, where it hit number one). Guitar-based follow-up "Sweet Stuff" came closest to rock and roll of any of Guy's efforts. A year before, a weekly TV gig would have seemed unthinkable given his struggles on the charts; suddenly it became a reality with ABC's The Guy Mitchell Show. Singer Dolores Hawkins was a semi-regular on the short-lived half hour series that ran from October '57 to January '58.

This second round of Guy's career ran its course much like the first; records stopped selling, his TV career fell flat much as his earlier film career had, then after the darkness came a dawning phase three. "Heartaches by the Number," written by emerging songwriter Harlan Howard, was a major '59 hit for country superstar Ray Price. Mitchell's cover version, this time with orchestra leader Joe Sherman, became his second number one pop hit in December, closing the up-and-down but overall very successful decade on a high note. Mitchell dipped into Ray's repertoire twice more in 1960 with "The Same Old Me" and "My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You."

Guy resumed acting in the new decade, popping up on the small screen several times in '60 and '61 with dramatic and comedic turns in Overland Trail, The Ann Sothern Show, Perry Mason and Boris Karloff's Thriller, in addition to a regular role on the NBC series Whispering Smith, a western detective show set in 1870s Colorado starring Audie Murphy; basing its stories on actual crime files from the Denver Police Department, it ran from May through September 1961. He left Columbia that year and recorded for Eddie Joy's logically named Joy label, receiving some airplay and marginal sales in 1962 with "Charlie's Shoes" (covering Billy Walker's number one country hit) and "Go Tiger, Go!" (a sad, sappy tale of unfulfilled romance between a high school football player and a cheerleader); the latter single's flip side, "If You Ever Go Away," is worth noting for its credited use of The Mitcheletts, female backing singers that were likely hired for just the one session.

There was one final movie role in the summer '62 release The Wild Westerners (its cast including twangy guitar man Duane Eddy). Guy recorded for a small label, Chalice, and a big one, Reprise (where producer Jimmy Bowen made an unsuccessful attempt at reviving his career). He achieved some success as a country singer in 1967 and '68 with "Traveling Shoes," "Alabam" and "Frisco Line" on the King subsidiary label Starday; all three singles had brief runs on the country charts. In the 1970s he opted to live a quieter life on his ranch in Wendell, Idaho. He struggled with alcohol but overcame it, returning to the studio in 1982 to record an album that was popular in the Netherlands, of all places. Despite struggling with cancer, Guy Mitchell performed regularly in the U.S. and made several tours of Europe during the 1980s, finally calling it quits in the early '90s. He passed away in 1999 at age 72.

- Michael Jack Kirby

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