Born: 1928 Primary Instrument: Vocal
The Mills Brothers were a major African-American jazz and pop vocal group of the 20th century producing more than 2,000 recordings that sold more than 50 million copies and garnered at least three dozen gold records. The Mills Brothers were inducted into The Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998
The group was originally composed of four brothers all born in Piqua, Ohio, just 25 miles north of Dayton: John Jr. (1911-1936) basso and guitarist, Herbert (1912-1989) tenor, Harry (1913-1982) baritone, and Donald (1915-1999) lead tenor.
Their parents were John H. and Eathel Mills. Their father, John Sr., owned a barber shop and founded a barbershop 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 barbershop on Public Square or at the corner of Greene and Main to sing and play the kazoo to passerbys.
They entered an amateur contest at Piqua's Mays Opera House. That fateful day, while on stage, Harry discovered he had lost his kazoo. He cupped his hands to his mouth and imitated a trumpet. The success of his imitation led to all the brothers taking on instruments to imitate and created their early signature sound. John Jr. accompanied the four-part harmony first with a ukulele and then a guitar. They practiced imitating orchestras they heard on the radio. John, as the bass, would imitate the tuba. Harry, a baritone, imitated the trumpet. Herbert became the second trumpet and Donald the trombone. They entertained on the Midwest theater circuit, at house parties, tent shows, music halls and supper clubs throughout the area and became well known for their close harmonies, mastery of scat singing, and their amazing ability to imitate musical instruments with their voices.
Then in 1928, after playing May's Opera House in Piqua between Rin Tin Tin features, they accompanied the Harold Greenameyer Band to Cincinnati for an audition with radio station WLW. The Band was not hired, but the Mills brothers were. With the help of Seger Ellis, WLW Cincinnati DJ and a music legend of the '20s, they quickly became local radio stars and got their major break when Duke Ellington and his Orchestra played a date in Cincinnati. When the youngsters sang for Duke, he was so impressed he called Tommy Rockwell at Okeh Records, who signed them and brought the group to New York.
In September of 1930, Ralph Wonders urged broadcasting executive William S. Paley, at CBS Radio in New York, to turn on his office speaker and listen to an audition of four young men. For the audition they were 'The Mills Brothers,' but they had been known by many other names. They were billed as 'The Steamboat Four' when they sang for Sohio. They were the 'Tasty Yeast Jesters' when they sang for Tasty Yeast. They had been called the 'Four Boys and a Guitar' on their Sunday shows. When Paley heard their performance, he immediately went downstairs and put them on CBS radio. The next day the Mills Brothers signed a three-year contract and became the first African-Americans to have a network show on radio.
Their very first record recorded for Brunswick, a cover of the Original Dixieland Jass Band standard Tiger Rag became a nationwide seller. <-- the only record at that time to sell more than a million copies Source please? Same claim made for many other records.--> Other hits quickly followed -- 'Goodbye Blues', their theme song, 'You're Nobody's Sweetheart Now,' 'Ole Rockin' Chair,' 'Lazy River', 'How'm I doin',' and others -- cementing them in the minds of the nation and making them national stars.
They were a sensation on CBS in 1930-1931, particularly when they co-starred on the widely popular 'Fleischman's Yeast Hour' hosted by Rudy Vallee. They had their own popular radio series in 1932-1933, one of the earliest built around a black act, billed as the Four Boys and a Guitar. Before their show announcers commonly explained to listeners that the only instrument was a guitar, as the vocal effects made many listeners think they were hearing a muted trumpet, saxophone, and string bass.
The Mills Brothers were sponsored by some of the largest advertisers in early radio; Standard Oil, Procter & Gamble, Crisco, and Crosley Radio. They 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, the Brothers starred with Crosby for Woodbury Soap, and recorded their classics Lazy Bones, Sweet Sue, Lulu's back in town, Bye-Bye Blackbird, Sleepy Head, and Shoe Shine Boy. Film appearances included Twenty Million Sweethearts for Warner Brothers in 1934, and Broadway Gondolier, also for Warner Brothers in 1935.
By now the brothers were highly successful and recognized all over the world. In 1934, The Mills Brothers became the first African-Americans to give a command performance before British royalty. They performed at the Regal Theatre for a special audience; King George V, Queen Mary, and their mother. While performing in England, John Jr. became ill. It took him months to recover from battling pneumonia. Before he was completely well, the Brothers returned to England. John Jr. once again became sick and died in the beginning of 1936.
This was a difficult time for the remaining brothers. They were considering breaking up, when their mother told them 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 Brothers as their guitar player.
Soon they were back in Europe. Through 1939 they enjoyed remarkable success in Europe. 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 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 honored Duke Ellington with a swing version of the 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.
Returning to the states, the Brothers were anxious for a hit. 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, 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.
The rise of rock and roll in the early fifties did little to decrease the Mills Brothers popularity. Glow Worm jumped to number one on the pop charts in 1952. Opus One, an updated version to the Tommy Dorsey hit was soon on the charts as well, followed by 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. As a trio, the Mills Brothers recorded for Dot Records and were frequent guests on The Jack Benny Show, The Perry Como Show, The Tonight Show and The Hollywood Palace. They played theatres and clubs, touring up to forty weeks a year.
A move from Decca to Dot brought a moderate 1958 hit, a cover of the Silhouettes' Get a Job that made explicit the considerable influence on doo-wop that the early Mills Brothers records had exerted.
Cab Driver, recorded in 1968, was their last great hit. It was written by songwriter C. Carson Parks.
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.
As a trio, Herbert, Harry and Donald continued performing on the oldies circuit until Harry's death in 1982, and Herbert's in 1989. Then, Donald began performing with the third generation of the family -- his son, John III. In 1998 the Recording Academy recognized the Mills family's contributions to popular music when it presented Donald, as the surviving member, with a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.
After Donald's death of pneumonia on November 13, 1999, John III began touring under the name The Mills Brothers with onetime Platters lead vocalist Elmer Hopper.
"Gems From George White's Scandals"
(with Bing Crosby & Boswell Sisters)
"Dinah"(with Bing Crosby)
"Can't We Talk It Over?"
(with Bing Crosby)
"You Rascal, You"
"Baby, Won't You Please Come Home"
"Shine"(with Bing Crosby)
"Chinatown, My Chinatown"
"St. Louis Blues"
"Bugle Call Rag"
"It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)"
"I Found a New Baby"
"Swing It, Sister"
"Money In My Pockets"
"Dedicated To You"
(with Ella Fitzgerald)
"Big Boy Blue"
(with Ella Fitzgerald)
"Darling Nelly Gray"
(with Louis Armstrong)
"Flat Foot Floogee"
(with Louis Armstrong) "Sixty Seconds Got Together" 8
"You Tell Me Your Dreams, I'll Tell You Mine"
"Old Black Joe"
(with Louis Armstrong)
"I'll Be Around"
"You Always Hurt the One You Love"
"Put Another Chair At the Table"
"Don't Be a Baby, Baby"
"I Don't Know Enough About You"
"There's No One But You"
"I Guess I'll Get the Papers and Go Home"
"Across the Alley From the Alamo"
"Dream, Dream, Dream"
"Oh! My Achin' Heart"
"When You Were Sweet Sixteen"
"Manana (Is Soon Enough For Me)"
"I Love You So Much It Hurts Me"
"I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm"
"Someday (You'll Want Me To Want You)"
"Who'll Be the Next One (To Cry Over You)"
"Daddy's Little Girl"
"Nevertheless (I'm In Love With You)"
"Be My Life's Companion"
"Twice As Much"
"Say Si Si"
"Who Put the Devil In Evelyn's Eyes"
"The Jones Boy"
"She Was Five and He Was Ten"
"You Didn't Want Me When You Had Me (So Why Do You Want Me Now)"
"A Carnival In Venice"
"Suddenly There's a Valley"
"All the Way 'Round the World"
"Standing On the Corner"
"Queen of the Senior Prom"
"Get a Job"
"My Shy Violet"
"The Ol' Race Track"
"The Jimtown Road"
"It Ain't No Big Thing"
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