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Mills Brothers History

Mills Brothers

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Based in: Piqua, United States.

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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