Robert Merrill was born Morris (Moishe) Miller on 4 June, 1917 in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, USA and died on 23 October, 2004 at home in New Rochelle, NY, while watching Game 1 of the 2004 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals. Robert Merrill is interred at the Sharon Gardens Cemetery in Valhalla, NY, which is a subdivision of the Kensico Cemetery. Robert Merrill’s headstone features an opera curtain that has been drawn open. In keeping with Jewish tradition, small rocks rest on top of the headstone.
Robert Merrill was an American operatic baritone. While there has been dispute of his birth year (some claim he was born in 1919), the social security index, his family, and his gravestone state that he was born in 1917.
Robert Merrill was born 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. Robert 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 Arturo Toscanini conducting, he eventually sang in 2 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.
Robert Merrill’s 1944 operatic debut was in Verdi’s Aida at Newark, New Jersey, with the famous tenor Giovanni Martinelli, then at the end of his long stage career.
Robert 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 Robert Merrill did 2 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. Robert 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. Robert Merrill 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 Bjorling, 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. Robert Merrill also continued to perform on radio and television, in nightclubs and recitals. Robert 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 honour of Robert Merrill’s vast influence on American vocal music, on 16 February,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.”
Relatively late in his singing career, Robert Merrill also became known for singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Yankee Stadium. Robert Merrill 1st 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. Robert Merrill 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 3 August, 1979, the day after the catcher’s death in a plane crash. A recorded Robert Merrill version is sometimes used at Yankee Stadium today. Robert Merrill 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.” Robert Merrill received the National Medal of Arts in 1993.
Robert Merrill married soprano Roberta Peters in 1952. They parted amicably; he had 2children, a son David and a daughter Lizanne, with his second wife, Marion, née Machno, a pianist. Robert Merrill liked to play golf and was a member of the Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York, for many years.
Robert Merrill wrote 2 books of memoirs, Once More from the Beginning (1965) and Between Acts (1976), and he co-authored a novel, The Divas (1978). Robert Merrill toured all over the world with his arranger and conductor, the world famous Angelo DiPippo who wrote most of his act and performed at concert halls throughout the world. Robert Merrill always donated his time on the Cerebral Palsy telethon with Dennis James.
The opera show “La Traviata” inspired Robert to become an opera singer, this meant fighting his stuttering problems. Robert Merrill found that while he was singing his speech disorder would go away.
Robert Merrill’s epitaph states:
Like a bursting celestial star, he showered his family and the world with love, joy, and beauty.
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