Monday, December 14, 2009
To modify an anonymous quote that has become famous: "Never judge an album by its cover".
Earlier this year, I was surfing through the holiday album listings at eBay when I discovered this album. I was shocked two different ways - the first being that I was able to track this album down at a reasonable price, the second was that stupefying cover.
Let's start at the beginning to fully understand this.
George Mitchell had come from a musical family - his grandfather was a well-known Scottish choir master and both of his parents were singers as well. He learned piano at an early age and during World War II, he organized military choirs and made a name for himself throughout the armed forces.
After the war, Mitchell went to work for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and organized radio choirs and shows utilizing his own handpicked glee club entitled "The George Mitchell Choir". As television began its ascent in popularity over radio, Mitchell began working on variety shows and specials for the new medium.
In 1957, the BBC decided to run a special entitled "The 1957 Television Minstrels" and called in Mitchell. With female dancers called "The Television Toppers" and a rechristened male choir called "Mitchell's Minstrels", the basis was formed for the show. It was a ratings winner.
The following year, the BBC and Mitchell decided to expand the special into a regular weekly series. The newly named "Black And White Minstrel Show" began broadcasting on Saturday nights, featuring a Mitch Miller-type singalong format for the home audiences.
In addition to solo and group minstrel numbers (complete with red make-up which looked black on camera), folk, foreign, and country/western songs were featured as well. The show was an instant hit and became a Saturday night tradition in England.
It was around this time that the Minstrels began a successful recording career. Their first album, "The Black and White Minstrel Show", was released in 1960. Other top-selling albums were "Another Black and White Minstrel Show" from 1961, and "On Stage with the Black and White Minstrels" in 1962.
If this wasn't enough, Mitchell began a stage show in 1960 that featured live performances by the Minstrels. It ran successfully throughout the entire decade and beyond. By 1964, the BBC TV audience had reached a staggering 16.5 million viewers each week - the same year the civil rights movement here in America was reaching its peak.
In 1967, the BBC decided that "The Black And White Minstrel Show" would be one of the first shows to shown in colour. Bad mistake.
John Lennon described it as "a stupid show". A group called "The Campaign Against Racial Discrimination" regarded the show as "insulting" and delivered a petition to the BBC requesting that it be taken off the air. Mitchell's solution to the problem was inviting actual black performers onto the show to sing with the others in blackface.
The controversy never fully went away and the show remained on the air. However, it began a long, slow slide in popularity and its regular viewership was now around eight million every Saturday night.
In 1970, Mitchell decided the time was right for a full-blown Christmas album. Rounding up his minstrels and his talented soloists John Boulter, Margaret Savage, and Dai Francis, they recorded the album you see before you.
When you drop the needle on this album, all controversies and preconceived notions instantly disappear. This is a remarkable album that grabs you from note one and doesn't let up until the very end. There's not one bad track in the lot.
Each side contains two amazing medleys of Christmas songs and each soloist is given plenty of room to shine. Mitchell's exceptional arrangements really come across well in each song. This is, by far, the album I'm most proud of presenting this Christmas.
The George Mitchell Minstrels - The Magic of Christmas
As the show entered the 1970s, the format remained the same and the once-acceptable blackface aspect of the show was dropped in an effort to qualm the controversy. It didn't matter - the ratings still were dropping slowly thanks to raised racial awareness. The fact they were playing music that dated back to the American Civil War undoubtedly hurt as well.
The stage show ended its run in 1972 after an amazing 6,477 performances and went onto the road, touring the English countryside with live shows. On one such tour, a young British comedian named Lenny Henry appeared with the troupe and has regretted the move ever since.
In 1975, George Mitchell was made an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) by Queen Elizabeth II and continued with "The Black And White Minstrel Show" for three more years on TV. The BBC finally decided to cancel the show in 1978 - an incredible twenty year run for the program.
Mitchell handed the reins of the "Minstrel" show empire to his son Rob, and retired to America. The Minstrel show was kept alive on tour for another decade or so. One Internet source claims the final show was in 1987. Another source puts the date around 1992. It might still be running somewhere (who knows?).
Never judge an album by its cover... How true, how true.