THE MILLS BROTHERS Biography - Musicians


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Name: The Mills Brothers                                                                   
Origin: Piqua, Ohio, United States                                                         
The Mills Brothers were a major African-American jazz and pop vocal quartet 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 (40 km) north of Dayton: John Jr. (February, 1911 - January 23, 1936)             
basso and guitarist, Herbert (April 2, 1912 - April 12, 1989) tenor, Harry (August         
19, 1913 - June 28, 1982) baritone, and Donald (April 29, 1915 - November 13,               
1999) lead tenor.                                                                           
Their parents were John H. (February 11, 1889 - December 8, 1967) and Eathel               
Mills. 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 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 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. 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 remained on Brunswick until late 1934, when they signed with Decca, where             
they stayed well into the 1950's.                                                           
On all of their Brunswick records, as well as the early Decca's, the label                 
always stated:                                                                             
"No musical instruments or mechanical devices used in this recording other than             
one guitar"                                                                                 
They were a sensation on CBS in 1930-1931, particularly when they co-starred on             
the widely popular The Fleischmann'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 Pictures, 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". Their film appearances included           
Twenty Million Sweethearts (Warner Brothers, 1934) and Broadway Gondolier, (Warner         
Brothers, 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 considered 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                 
During this era, there was also a brief time when the group performed with a non family     
singer. Gene Smith served as a stand-in for one year when Harry was drafted into           
the Army. Although Smith's solo singing did not particularly resemble the group's           
usual sound, he was able to harmonize well in Harry's stead until the fourth               
brother's return. Smith is very noticeable in a number of the Mills Brothers'               
film appearances.                                                                           
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 Records 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 Elmer Hopper, who had previously sang             
lead with Paul Robi's Platters.