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Music Man

From backing up Elvis to singing with Toscanini, a former Midwestern farm boy came to know the score

From backing up Elvis to singing with Toscanini, a former Midwestern farm boy came to know the score

By Joe Levine

At Merrill Staton’s doctoral defense in 1949, his Teachers College examiners wondered aloud: just how did he know that modern choral ensembles were performing certain 16th century madrigals at tempos different from those originally specified by the composers?

Staton’s answer: he’d just finished singing the pieces in recording sessions conducted by Toscanini and Koussevitzky. He’d jotted the running times down on his score.

During his 50-year career, Staton—who passed away in 2000—accompanied, conducted and produced just about everyone in the business. He sang background for Elvis Presley’s TV debut, performed at JFK’s inauguration with the Count Basie Orchestra, soloed with Paul Whiteman’s orchestra and chorus on national radio, backed up Nat King Cole, Dinah Shore, Bobby Darin, Bobby Vinton and numerous rock singers, and worked with, among many others, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Ethel Merman, Myrna Loy, Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, Robert Goulet and Maurice Chevalier (the latter four as part of the Lerner & Lowe TV Special, which is available at the National Museum of TV & Radio in New York City under “Merrill Staton”). He also regularly appeared with his choral group, The Merrill Staton Voices, on TV shows hosted by Whiteman, Ernie Kovacs, Jack Benny, Rudy Vallee, George Burns, Phil Silvers, Alan Funt and Merv Griffin. To top it off, Staton and his second wife, Barbara, won a score of gold and platinum LPs for their pioneering series of music teaching records for children.

“Merrill always wanted to be in music, and he had the versatility to play all the roles—producer, conductor and soloist,” says Barbara Staton, a talented music educator whose brother, Robert “Bud” McFarlane, served as National Security Advisor under President Reagan. “He didn’t just want to pitch, he wanted to be the catcher, too.”

Merrill Joseph Ostrus was born in 1919 on an Iowa farm and didn’t acquire his performing moniker until the 1950s. (“Staton” was the maiden name of the mother of his producer at Columbia Records.) His parents were musicians who led regional bands but, during the Depression, they couldn’t afford to provide Merrill with formal training. He went to Northwest Missouri State University on a basketball scholarship, albeit with the understanding that he would major in music. Later, he scored 32 points for the U.S. Navy Officer’s All-American basketball team in beating Stanford’s 1942 NCAA championship squad.

After conducting the 75-voice Navy Cadet choir in California, Staton moved to New York City in 1945. He landed work as a tenor soloist at Norman Vincent Peale’s church and performed works by Beethoven and Bach at Carnegie Hall under the baton of Robert Shaw, the dean of American choral conductors. Shaw and Staton appeared on the cover of Newsweek’s December 29, 1947 issue, headlined “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

Staton enrolled at TC because his first wife, Sherry—a soprano who also earned a master’s degree at the College before she died in 1971—wanted him to have an academic career as a fallback. He studied with H.A. Murphy, Harry Robert Wilson, James Mursell and Lilla Bell Pitts.

“These were the founders of music education in America, and they taught Merrill so much that he used later on,” Barbara Staton says. “But he didn’t tell anyone he was working on his doctorate, because it sounded too square.”
In fact, Staton had his old-fashioned side. When the invitation came to back up Elvis in 1956 (trivia fact: the King of Rock and Roll made his TV debut on “Stage Show,” hosted by Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey), he opted to sing off stage.

“He didn’t want to be seen with this gyrating guitar player,” Barbara says, laughing. “But he said Elvis was a really nice guy. They went to Tower Records together to hear Elvis’s record, and Elvis said, ‘This is how I want you to sound.’ And Merrill said, ‘OK, but I can’t do those moves.’”

Not that he was uptight—which was good, because both TV and studio work in those days demanded spontaneity.

“Ernie Kovacs actually wouldn’t let people rehearse,” Barbara says. “The singers would practice out on the fire escape, and somehow it always worked out. And when Merrill made recordings, they’d have three hours to finish four songs, and no one had seen the music before. People came in with pencils behind their ears, and it was ‘Breathe here, eight parts here’—and the sound was wonderful. When he’d hear about rock groups taking a year to do a record, he’d just laugh.”

In the early 1960s, Staton invented the Pick and Track system—records for classroom use that enabled teachers, with a turn of the balance knob, to provide students with either instrumental-only or instrumental-plus-vocal accompaniment.

“He was also the first to exclusively record children’s voices for use in the classroom,” Barbara says. “So you wouldn’t have an operatic soprano singing ‘Do You Know the Muffin Man.’ It made such a difference for the kids.”

Staton distributed his records through Silver Burdett, now part of Pearson. He subsequently produced all audio/visual products for the company, before switching his series to MacMillan/McGraw Hill. For a stretch in the 1980s, working out of a studio in their home in Alpine, New Jersey, Merrill and Barbara Staton also produced “Music and You,” which became a top-selling music education series in the United States and Canada.

“We produced a full LP of material every two weeks for four years—it was like being under house arrest,” Barbara says. “We had to bring in children to sing, train them, do it in five foreign languages, and then make the recordings. Thank goodness we had good co-authors and consultants.”

Just for good measure, the Statons also made demos for top New York-based musicians, wrote music for the “Captain Kangaroo” Show and recorded background tracks for Harper & Rowe’s books on tape.

In today’s music world, it’s hard to imagine someone making his mark on quite so many fronts.

“I often think, my gosh, he was in the right place at the right time for so many doors opening,” Barbara says. But over the years, she came to understand the essence of her husband’s talent: “He made everyone look and sound good.”

To hear a sampling of Staton’s music, visit

Published Tuesday, Dec. 14, 2010


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