THE MILLS BROTHERS (By Steve Walker)
Herbert Bowles Mills: born 2 April, 1912, in Piqua, OH, died 12 April, 1989, in Las Vegas, NV (tenor)
Harry Flood Mills: born 19 August, 1913, in Piqua, OH, died 28 June, 1982, in Los Angeles, CA (baritone)
Donald Friedrich Mills: born 29 April, 1915, in Piqua, OH, died 13 November,1999 in Los Angeles, CA (tenor)
Regarded more as a pop mainstream vocal group than an r&b conglomeration, the Mills Brothers nevertheless deserve to be listed as important pioneers in the development of vocal group harmony. Along with the Ink Spots, they were one of a select group of black vocal groups who "crossed over" into the pop hit parade before and during the Second World War.
Originally billed as "Four Boys and a Guitar," the group's early records came complete with a note assuring listeners that "No musical instruments or mechanical devices used on this recording other than one guitar." The caution was understandable, since the Mills Brothers were so proficient at recreating trumpets, trombones, and saxophones with only their voices that early singles like "Tiger Rag" and "St. Louis Blues" sounded closer to a hot Dixieland combo than a vocal group. And even after the novelty wore off, the group's intricate harmonies continued charming audiences for decades - to date they have made over 2,000 recordings over seven decades. The documented musical history of the family begins with William H. Mills. Born to Civil War hero Lewis Mills (1828-70) in 1847, William performed with Stinsons Jubilee Singers. His son, John H. (1882- 1967), learned to sing in a church choir and practiced in his father's barber shop. John H. then passed on the tradition to his own sons, who had no professional training, but a natural talent and dedication which would propel them into stardom against all odds. Ethel, the brother's mother, sang light opera until the brothers started school.
All four brothers were born in Piqua, Ohio - John, Jr. in 1910, Herbert in 1912, Harry in 1913, and Donald in 1915. Their father, John, Sr., in addition to owning the barber shop, also founded a barber-shop quartet, called the Four Kings of Harmony. As the boys grew older, they began singing in the choir of the Cyrene African Methodist Episcopal Church and in the Park Avenue Baptist Church in Piqua. After their lessons at the Spring Street Grammar School, they would gather in front of their father's barber shop on Public Square or at the corner of Greene and Main to sing and play the kazoo to passers-by.
They entered an amateur contest at Mays Opera House for the first time in 1926 and subsequently appeared there regularly. At one show, Harry Mills forgot his kazoo - the group's usual accompaniment - and ended up trying to emulate the instrument by cupping his hand over his mouth. The brothers were surprised to hear the sound of a trumpet proceeding from Harry's mouth and they began to work the novelty into their act. The innovation would help define their style of music - with John, who also accompanied the group on ukulele and guitar, mimicking tuba and bass trumpet, Donald the trombone and saxophone, and Herbert a second trumpet and saxophone.
They entertained at house parties, lawn fetes, music halls and supper clubs and also began radio broadcasts over the powerful (500,000 watts) WLW, Cincinnatti in the late 20's. In order to make it seem that there was more than one group doing all the singing, each sponsor of each show gave the group a different name. They were billed as the Steamboat Four when they sang for Sohio; they were the Tasty Yeast Jesters when they sang for Tasty Yeast and on Sundays, unsponsored, they went by the name of the Mills Brothers. They were eventually sponsored by the largest advertisers in early radio; Standard Oil, Procter & Gamble, Crisco, and Crosley Radio (owners of WLW Cincinatti).
Broadcasting executive William S. Paley, at CBS radio in New York, turned on his office speaker one day in September of 1930 at the urging of Ralph Wonders to listen to a broadcast of these four young men that had been performing under different names in Cincinnati on WLW. When Paley heard their performance, he immediately set about arranging for them to broadcast on network CBS radio. The Mills Brothers signed a three-year contract and became the first African- Americans to have a network show on radio.
At the instigation of none other than Duke Ellington, who had heard the brothers sing when his Orchestra played a date in Cincinnati, the boys were also signed to Brunswick Records. On 12 October, 1931, as the Mills Brothers, they recorded their debut record, "Tiger Rag"/"Nobody's Sweetheart"(Brunswick 6197), which rocketed to #1 in November 1931, stayed there for four weeks, and eventually became the first recording by a vocal group to sell one million copies. At that time, the boys' ages ranged from 16 to 21.
Perhaps trying to draw attention to the brothers' talent, Brunswick had its labels read: "No musical instruments or mechanical devices used on this recording other than one guitar." Though the rather primitive recording techniques of the time gave them a bit of latitude, the Mills Brothers indeed sounded exactly like they'd been backed by a small studio band. "Tiger Rag", originally a hit in 1918 for the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, had also been a 1929 Duke Ellington recording, on which the plunger mutes of Bubber Miley and Tricky Sam Nanton resulted in horns sounding just like voices. The Mills Brothers quickly became stars on the New York Broadway Theatre circuit, their salaries increasing 20-fold in six months since their days at WLW. Their first engagement was a 14-week run at the Palace with Bing Crosby.
More hit records followed in 1932, including "Dinah" (a duet with Bing Crosby) (Brunswick 6240), which also reached #1, "You Rascal, You" (Brunswick 6225), "I Heard" (Brunswick 6269), "Good-Bye Blues"/"Rockin' Chair" (Brunswick 6278), "Shine" (with Bing Crosby) (Brunswick 6276), "Chinatown, My Chinatown" (Brunswick 6305), "St. Louis Blues"/"Sweet Sue" (Brunswick 6330), "Bugle Call Rag" (Brunswick 6357) and "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)" (Brunswick 6377). The lead singer on most of their ballads was Donald Mills. Harry did the up-tempo/jazz solos, but they sometimes switched. Herbert only soloed on two recordings in their entire career and John, Sr., did one bass solo on "Asleep in the Deep". All four brothers were equally adept at any kind or genre of music.
They also began appearing in films. Their first, "The Big Broadcast" (Paramount, 1932) was an all star radio revue that included Bing Crosby, Cab Calloway, and the Boswell Sisters. In 1934, during which year they moved to Decca Records, the brothers broadcast with Crosby for Woodbury Soap, and recorded their classics "Lazy Bones" (Decca 176), "Sweet Sue, Just You" (Melotone 13181), "Sleepy Head" (Brunswick 6913), and "Shoe Shine Boy" (Decca 961). Further film appearances included "Twenty Million Sweethearts" for Warner Brothers in 1934, and "Broadway Gondolier", also for Warner Brothers in 1935. Also in 1934, they embarked on a tour of England, where they were selected to give a Command Performance before King George V and Queen Mary - the first African-American artists to do so. Soon after this, while performing in England, John Jr. became ill. He was months recovering from pneumonia. Before he was completely well, the brothers returned to England. John Jr. once again became sick, and then died in January, 1936, aged only 25. They were devastated and contemplating breaking up, when their mother told them that John Jr. would want them to continue. They followed her suggestion and their father, John Sr., as the baritone and tuba, replaced the deceased brother, John Jr. At this time, Norman Brown joined the Mills Brothers as their guitar player.
Soon they were back in Europe. Their phenomenal success overseas continued through 1939. Whilst in England, they recorded Basin Street Blues (5 July, 1939), which became another hit. Herbert recalls, "We left England for the last time just three days before war was declared on Germany and the only boat we could get was to Australia. We were overseas from then on, except for two months in 1940 and then we went back to South America. We didn't get back to the U.S.A. until 1941. In the meantime the Ink Spots were coming up, and people had sort of forgotten us."
In the period between John Jr.'s death and their return to the States, they re-recorded "Lazy River". It was followed by "Someday You'll Want Me to Want You", "Swing Is the Thing", "Long About Midnight", "Organ Grinders Swing", and "The Song is Ended". They honoured Duke Ellington with a swing version of "Caravan", and then produced a series of classic recordings; "South of the Border", which they performed in a tour of South America, along with "Ain't Misbehavin'", "It Don't Mean A Thing", "Jeepers Creepers", "Three Little Fishes", and "Basin Street Blues".
Their appeal had appeared to wear off by the late '30s. Despite duets with Ella Fitzgerald ("Dedicated to You") and Louis Armstrong ("Darling Nelly Gray"), the Mills Brothers' records weren't selling as well as they had earlier in the decade. After their return to the States, they needed a hit. In 1942 they recorded "I'll be Around". Donald Mills chose "Paper Doll" as the B-side of the record. "I'll Be Around" became a popular hit in 1943, then a disk jockey turned the record over. "Paper Doll", recorded in just fifteen minutes, sold six million copies and became the group's biggest hit - twelve weeks on the top of the charts.
The Mills Brothers recorded "Paper Doll" three other times during their career: in 1947, 1959 and in 1974. When the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment of the Arts released it's list of "Top 365 Songs of the Twentieth Century", "Paper Doll" was ranked at # 272, the only Mills Brothers' recording to be ranked.
The brothers also recorded a number of "Soundies," short musical feature films, that were popular in movie theatres from 1940-47. One of their more noted "Soundies" was "Paper Doll", in which a paper doll, played by a young Dorothy Dandridge, danced while the brothers sang their hit song.
The group made appearances in several movies during the early 1940's, and hit number one again in 1944 with "You Always Hurt the One You Love". The influence of middle-of-the-road pop had slowly crept into their material from the 1940s; by the end of the decade the Mills Brothers began recording with traditional orchestras (usually conducted by Sy Oliver, Hal McIntyre or Sonny Burke). Other Mills Brothers' hits to come out of the 1940's include "Till Then" (recorded Feb. 27, 1944), and "Someday (You'll Want Me To Want You)" (Feb. 10, 1949).
Not only were the Mills Brothers emulated by countless vocal groups, but many of their recordings would later be covered by other groups in the style that came to be known as rhythm and blues. In his book "American Singing Groups", Jay Warner writes that "the Ravens took their recording of "Loveless Love" and re-worked it into "Careless Love". The Mills Brothers recording of "Gloria" (1948) became the Cadillacs' classic in 1954 and the Passions mini- classic in 1960. The brothers' 1934 version of "Nagasaki" was done by the Five Chances in 1954, and 1932's "Sweet Sue" later became a great recording by the Crows in 1954."
By 1950, the group had had 50 chart hits. In 1952, "Glow Worm" (adapted from the German operetta "Lysistrata") became their last number one hit. Other 1950's recordings to sell well included "Opus One", an updated version to the Tommy Dorsey hit, "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You", "Yellow Bird", "Standing On The Corner", and "If I Had My Way".
In 1957, John Sr. reluctantly stopped touring with the group. He was seventy-five, but his retirement did not stop the brothers working. As a trio, the Mills Brothers were frequent guests on "The Jack Benny Show", "The Perry Como Show", "The Tonight Show", and "Hollywood Palace". They played theatres and clubs, touring forty weeks a year. A move from Decca to Dot Records brought a moderate 1958 hit, a cover of the Silhouettes' "Get a Job".
While many pop artists of the day were forced into "early retirement" because of the impact of the rock'n'roll revolution, The Mills Brothers never wavered. Throughout the 1960s they continued to crank out a diversified assortment of LP's for Dot. Their perseverance led them to yet another hit recording and subsequently, their last, in "Cab Driver" (Dot 17041, September 1967). Thus, John, Sr., was able to bask in the sunshine of his sons' successes one final time before passing away on 8 December, 1967, in Bellefontaine, OH, aged 85.
Their fiftieth anniversary in show business was celebrated in 1976 with a tribute at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Bing Crosby hosted this nostalgic tribute. Few in the audience realized that Harry was now almost blind because of diabetes. The brothers recorded together for the final time as a trio in 1981 on the album, "Command Performance" (Ranwood Records).
The following year, on 28 June, Harry died in Los Angeles from complications resulting from diabetes. He was 68. With only Herbert and Donald remaining, the two brothers asked Donald's son, John II, to step in to be the third member of the trio. Shortly after John II joined the group, Herb began suffering from back ailments which made standing on stage for an hour difficult. Subsequently, he retired and lived in Las Vegas until his death at age 77 on April 12, 1989.
Father and son, Donald and John H. Mills II, decided to make a go of the act together. On the third of June in 1990, the two were invited to return to their home town of Piqua to unveil a monument to the Mills Brothers on Public Square where the group had sung as children.
In 1999 , Donald Mills, the last remaining original Mills Brother passed away, aged 84.
The trademark of "The Mills Brothers" is now held by John H. Mills II - still performing and recording (with Elmer Hopper from the 70's Platters) as the Mills Brothers and keeping the music alive in the 21st century.
CD's - The Mills Brothers Chronological Volumes 1-6 will give you more than 140 original recordings. It's probably best to avoid their 1950's rehashing of their earlier glories.
You can listen to various Mills Brothers historic recordings in Real Audio by going to: http://www.group-harmony.com/ and typing Mills Brothers into the search engine - then follow the links.
A biographical site: http://www.piquaoh.org/mills.htm
The usual good All Music Guide page is at: http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=Brgke4jn70way~C
There are some early photos at: http://www.themillsbrothers.com/default.htm (click on "Historic Photo Tour"). Different pages of this website are accompanied by different Mills Brothers recordings from various times in their long career, so make sure your volume is turned up.
http://www.millsbrotherssociety.org/ - the page of the International Mills Brothers Society
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