In Celebration of the Human Voice - The Essential Musical Instrument
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 an audition of four young men that had been performing under different names in Cincinnati on WLW radio. 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, but on Sundays and for this audition, they went by the Mills Brothers. 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.
This was the start of the National and International recognition, but their career started in the small town of Piqua, Ohio, just twenty-five miles north of Dayton. John Jr. was born in 1910, Herbert in 1912, Harry F. in 1913, and Donald F. in 1915, all in Piqua, Ohio. They were the sons of John H. and Ethel Mills. John Sr. was a barber in this small town and a member of a barbershop quartet called the "Four Kings of Harmony." Ethel, the brother's mother, sang light opera until the brothers started school.
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. On stage, Harry discovered he has lost his kazoo. He cupped his hands to his mouth and imitated a trumpet. It was the beginning of their '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 at house parties, lawn fetes, music halls and supper clubs.
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 brother's were.
Duke Ellington and Seger Ellis, WLW Cincinnati DJ and a music legend of the '20s, are credited for their national recognition. The brothers were local radio stars when Duke 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.
After signing the three-year contract with William S. Paley, they became a national sensation. Their first record recorded for Brunswick, a remake of their "Tiger Rag" became a nation wide seller, the only record at that time to sell more than a million copies. 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.
The Mills Brothers were sponsored by 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 stared 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.
The brothers were highly successful and well liked. They were recognized nationally, then internationally. 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 the very special woman sitting in a box seat, their mother. 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, then died in the beginning of 1936.
This was a bad period for the remaining brothers. They were contemplating 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. Their phenomenal success overseas continued through 1939. 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."
After their return to the States, they needed 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 diminish the Mills Brothers popularity. "Glow Worm" rose to number one on the pop charts in 1952. "Opus One," an updated version to the Tommy Dorsey hit was soon keeping it company 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 "Hollywood Palace." They played theatres and clubs, touring forty weeks a year.
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 death of Harry Mills in 1982 ended a long musical career that was as successful as any group in the country's history.For a few after Harry's death, Donald Mills and his son John H. Mills II, continued to perform under the name of the Mills Brothers. In 1999, Donald Mills, the last remaining original Mills brother passed away.
Today, John Mills is currently touring under the name "The Mills Brothers" with onetime Platters lead vocalist Elmer Hopper.
On the third of June in 1990, Donald and John H. Mills II were here in Piqua when the town unveiled a monument to their favorite sons on the public square where they had sung as children. The plaque is a fitting tribute to these artists:
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Review: The Greatest!! Did we get your attention? The Mills Brothers were sons of John Mills senior who had been a concert singer before retiring to become a barber. Among the pioneers of close harmony singing, they became one of the best known popular groups ever. They began their career in small time vaudeville as "Four Boys and a Kazoo" until one night they forgot the kazoo! John cupped his hands over his mouth and did a vocal imitation of the forgotten instrument for an enthusiastic audience. Thus began the vocal imitation of the trumpet, the trombone, the tuba, and saxophone. If you let your attention lapse for a moment while you are listening to the brothers you will not believe that these are just four singers and a slight accompanying acoustic guitar. The Greatest!! Did we say that yet?
Songlist: Glow Worm, Paper Doll, Dinah, You're Nobody 'Till Somebody Loves You, Yellow Bird, Tiger Rag, You Never Miss the Water Till the Well Runs Dry, You Broke the Only Heart (that ever loved), Cab Driver, I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Lazy River, You Always Hurt the One You Love, Coney Island Washboard, When You Were Sweet Sixteen, I'll be Around, Daddy's Little Girl, The Jones Boys, On the Banks of the Wabash, Opus 1, I Don't Know Enough About You, I don't mind being all alone (when I'm Alone with you), Nevertheless (I'm In Love With You)
Review: We wish all history sounded this good! The Mills Bros. started singing together in 1925, combining barbershop harmony with the jaunty rythms of the swing era. It was a sweet combination that led to a 70 year career! From 1942's "Paper Doll" to their 1968 rendition of "Cab Driver", these harmonious gentlemen had a string of top-40 hits and enjoyed enormous popularity. Warning for purists: all the songs are accompinied to some degree, usually lighty. But don't miss this CD because of that -these guys are under the directory under "debonair". Every song is a treat "Lazy River", "You Always Hurt the One You Love", "'Till Then,"I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm", "Someday", their marvelous hit "Glow Worm", "Standing on the Corner", and "Be My Life's Companion." Classic!
Songlist: Paper Doll, Lazy River, You Always Hurt the One You Love, Till Then, Across the Alley from the Alamo, I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, Someday (You'll Want Me to Want You), Nevertheless (I'm In Love With You), Be My Life's Companion, The Glow Worm, Standing On the Corner, Cab Driver
Review: This recording presents the fabulous Mills Brothers late in the trio's lengthy career, but their rhythmic sensibilities haven't aged, and a fresh buoyancy characterizes these 12 selections. Many of the songs are standards in the Mills's canon. "Some of These Days" feature Donald's vocal cornet simulation, a skill the brothers used with less frequency as the years went by. "Till Then," with its doo-wop overtones, features the languid soul the brothers so aptly displayed in their ballads. Of the later songs, "Cab Driver" and "Truck Stop" are distinctive C&W subjects; the guitar and drums are appropriately spare. This same guitar-and-drums accompaniment appears in other, less countrified songs, like the wistful "I Guess I'll Get the Papers and Go Home" and the spiritual "He Gives Me Love." The brothers unison crooning imbues these songs with heartfelt reality.
Songlist: The Jones Boy, I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Till Then, Some Of These Days, Truck Stop, I Guess I'll Get The Paper And Go Home, You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You, He Gives Me Love, Cab Driver, You'll Never Miss The Water Till The Well Runs Dry, I Don't Mind Being All Alone, I Can't Stop Loving You
Review: The four Mills Brothers had a style that combined the best elements of vaudeville, Negro minstrelsy and the barbershop quartet with elements of the new jazz sound. Their habit of cupping their hands over their mouths to create an orchestral sound (similar to effects created by Europe's Comedy Harmonists), was a sensational factor in their success story, and appearances on popular radio programs like "Rudy Vallee's Fleishmann's Yeast Hour" led to their first million-selling record, "Tiger Rag/Nobody's Sweetheart" in 1931. The Brothers endeared themselves to movie audiences the world over with appearances on such hits as "Big Broadcast of 1932" with Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, Cab Calloway and the Boswell Sisters.
Songlist: Tiger Rag, Dinah, You Always Hurt The One You Love, St. Louis Blues, Bugle Call Rag, Swing It, Sister, Sleepy Head, Across The Alley From The Alamo, You Rascal, You, I Heard, Nobody's Sweetheart, Rockin' Chair, I Wish, Shine, It Don't Mean A Thing, I Don't Know Enough About You, Be My Life's Companion, Sixty Seconds Got Together, Till Then, I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm, Put Another Chair At The Table, Goodbye Blues