Robert Merrill (June 4, 1917 – October 23, 2004) was an American operatic baritone. While there has been dispute regarding his birth year (some[who?] claim he was born in 1919), the Social Security Death Index, his family, and his gravestone state that he was born in 1917.
Merrill was born Morris (Moishe) Miller in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, to tailor Abraham Miller, originally Milstein, and his wife Lillian, née Balaban, immigrants from Warsaw, Poland. Lillian claimed to have had an operatic and concert career in Poland (a fact denied by her son in his biographies) and encouraged her son to have early voice training: he had a tendency to stutter, which disappeared when singing. Merrill was inspired to pursue professional singing lessons when he saw the baritone Richard Bonelli singing Count Di Luna in a performance of Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera, and paid for them with money earned as a semi-professional pitcher.
In his early radio appearances as a crooner he was sometimes billed as Merrill Miller. While singing at bar mitzvahs and weddings and Borscht Belt resorts, he met an agent, Moe Gale, who found him work at Radio City Music Hall and with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. With Toscanini conducting, he eventually sang in two of the famous maestro’s NBC broadcasts of famous operas, La traviata (with Licia Albanese, in 1946), and Un ballo in maschera (with Herva Nelli, in 1954). Both of those broadcasts were eventually released on both LP and CD.
Merrill’s 1944 operatic debut was in Verdi’s Aida at Newark, New Jersey, with the famous tenor Giovanni Martinelli, then in the later stages of his long operatic career. Merrill, who had continued his vocal studies under Samuel Margolis made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1945, as Germont in La Traviata. Also in 1945, Robert Merrill recorded a 78rpm record set with Jeanette MacDonald featuring selections from the operetta Up In Central Park; MacDonald and Merrill did two duets together on this album. In 1952, his role in the musical comedy film Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick led to conflict with Sir Rudolf Bing and a brief departure from the Met in 1951. Merrill sang many different baritone roles, becoming, after the on-stage death of Leonard Warren in 1960, the Met’s principal baritone. In the late 1950s and early 1960s he appeared under the direction of Alfredo Antonini in performances of arias from the Italian operatic repertoire for the open air Italian Night concert series at Lewisohn Stadium in New York City.    . He was described by Time as “one of the Met’s best baritones”. The tenor-baritone duet “Au fond du temple saint” from the opera The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet, which he recorded with Jussi Björling, was always top of listener’s polls for the BBC’s Your Hundred Best Tunes. It was also No 1. in ABC’s “The Classic 100 Opera”, a poll in which Australians voted for the one moment in opera they could not live without. It is regarded as one of the most perfect tenor/baritone performances of all time. Merrill also continued to perform on radio and television, in nightclubs and recitals. In 1973, Merrill teamed up with Richard Tucker to present a concert at Carnegie Hall–a first for the two “vocal supermen” (as one critic dubbed them), and a first “for the demanding New York public and crtics” Merrill recalled. The event marked a precedent that would lead eventually to the “Three Tenors” concerts many years later. Merrill retired from the Met in 1976. For many years, he led services, often in Borscht Belt hotels, on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
In honor of Merrill’s vast influence on American vocal music, on February 16, 1981 he was awarded the prestigious University of Pennsylvania Glee Club Award of Merit. Beginning in 1964, this award “established to bring a declaration of appreciation to an individual each year that has made a significant contribution to the world of music and helped to create a climate in which our talents may find valid expression.”
In 1996, at a reception at Lincoln Center, Merrill was presented with The Lawrence Tibbett Award from the AGMA Relief Fund, honoring his fifty years of professional achievement and dedication to colleagues. (The AGMA Relief Fund, award sponsor, provides financial assitance and support services to classical performing artists in need.)
Relatively late in his singing career, Merrill also became known for singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Yankee Stadium. He first sang the national anthem to open the 1969 baseball season, and it became a tradition for the Yankees to bring him back each year on Opening Day and special occasions. He sang at various Old Timer’s Days (wearing his own pinstriped Yankee uniform with the number “1 1/2” on the back) and the emotional pre-game ceremony for Thurman Munson at Yankee Stadium on August 3, 1979, the day after the catcher’s death in a plane crash. A recorded Merrill version is sometimes used at Yankee Stadium today. He preferred a traditional approach to the song devoid of additional ornamentation, as he explained to Newsday in 2000, “When you sing the anthem, there’s a legitimacy to it. I’m extremely bothered by these different interpretations of it.” Merrill appeared as himself in a cameo role, singing the national anthem, in the 2003 film Anger Management. Merrill joked that an entire generation of people know him as “The ‘Say-Can-You-See’ guy!” (Agmazine, April 1996).
Merrill received the National Medal of Arts in 1993.
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