The Mills Brothers - Biography
By J Poet
The Mills Brothers were one of the first African American vocal groups to have a major impact on white audiences. They were the first Black entertainers to ever have their own radio show – The Mills Brothers Show on CBS radio in 1930. They are one of the most popular singing groups in history with 71 charted hits spanning 40 years. They were a major influence on the close harmony and do-wop groups of the 50s; the original brothers continued to perform until their deaths and today, John Mills III, grandson of John Mills, is on the road with Elmer Hopper, who once snag with The Platters, one of the group’s that emulated the Mills Brothers’ sound in the earl days of rock’n’roll. They were inducted into The Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998 the same year they received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.
The Mills Brothers were born at the turn of the last century in Piqua, Ohio, the sons of John Mills, Sr., a barbershop owner who sang with a group called the Four Kings of Harmony. Their mother sang light opera professionally. The brothers started singing in church, and in front of their father’s barbershop, with Harry playing kazoo. They entered an amateur contest at the local Opera House, and when Harry realized he’d forgotten his kazoo, he cupped his hands over his mouth and imitated a trumpet. They won first prize and the other joined him playing “mock instruments” – John on faux tuba, Herbert on faux trumpet, and Donald faux trombone.
Then in 1928, the auditioned for radio station WLW in Cincinnati and landed a regular show as The Steamboat Four. When Duke Ellington came through town, they auditioned for him and he sent them to New York and helped them get signed to Okeh Records. While rehearing for their first recording session, William S. Paley, at CBS radio in New York heard then and offered then a three-year contract on the CBS radio network. They were the first black entertainers to ever have their own national radio show.
Their faux orchestra sound made them a sensation. They moved to Brunswick and their first single there, “Tiger Rag”, was a #1 on the pop charts and one of the first gold records ever. The record’s flip side, “Nobody's Sweetheart” also was a hit, reaching #4 on the charts. Their scat singing on “Tiger Rag” was spectacular, something most white audiences had never heard at the time. Other Early hits included “Goodbye Blues”, “You're Nobody's Sweetheart Now”, “Ole Rockin' Chair”, “Up a Lazy River”, “Dinah” with Bing Crosby, “Dedicated to You” with Ella Fitzgerald, “Flat Foot Floogie” with Louis Armstrong and “How’m I Doin’?”. They made more than 100 78RPM singles in the 30s, all collected on the five disc boxed set The Mills Brothers: The 1930s Recordings (2000 JSP England).
In 1930 they costarred with Rudy Vallee on the CBS program The Fleischmann's Yeast Hour. In 1932 they started appearing in films like The Big Broadcast with Bing Crosby and Cab Calloway, Twenty Million Sweethearts (1934) and Broadway Gondolier (1935). In 1934, while touring Europe, they became first African-Americans to give a command performance for British royalty; at the Regal Theatre the performed for King George V and his family. While on tour in England, John Mills, Jr. got pneumonia. He died in 1936.
They almost stopped performing, but their father stepped in and they went on. In 1940 the Brothers signed with Decca and continued having hits, including “Paper Doll” which sold six million copies and stayed at #1 for three months and “You Always Hurt the One You Love.” During WW II they remained popular all over the world and continued having hits into the 50s with songs like “Be My Life's Companion”, “The Glow-Worm”, “Shine” another collaboration with Bing Crosby, “My Honey's Lovin' Arms”, “Opus One”, an updated version of an old Tommy Dorsey tune, “You're Nobody 'Till Somebody Loves You”, “Yellow Bird”, “Standing on the Corner”, and “If I had My Way”. The Brothers made dozens of albums for Decca (now MCA/Uni) including Barber Shop Ballads (1950 Decca) Wonderful Words (1950 Decca), Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers Decca (1954 Decca), Singin' and Swingin' (1956 Decca), One Dozen Roses (1957 Decca) and The Mills Brothers in Hi-Fi (1959 Decca). Most are long out of print, but available on reissues like The Mills Brothers 22 Great Hits (1985 Ranwood), Best of Mills Brothers (200 MCA), and Paper Doll (1992 MCA).
In 1957 John Mills, Sr. left and the Brothers continued on as a trio on Dot Records. They stayed on the road almost 40 weeks of every year, and stuck to their old time, jazzy harmonies while injecting a bit of the new sounds sweeping the music business. In 1958 they had a low charting hit with a cover of the Silhouettes’ “Get a Job” and in 1968 charted “Cab Driver”, their last hit. The made about a dozen albums for Dot including Yellow Bird (1961 Dot), Hymns We Love (1964 Dot, 1999 MCA), That Country Feeling (1966 Dot), The Board of Directors (1967 Dot) and Annual Report (1968 Dot) with Count Basie and his band, collected as The Mills Brothers and Count Basie: the Complete Recordings (2005 Gambit Spain), My Shy Violet (1968 Dot), and Fortuosity (1978 Dot).
The three Mills Brothers continued to play the nostalgia circuit. When Harry died in 1982 they were down to a duo. When Herbert passed in 1989, Donald enlisted his son John Mills III. When Donald passed, John III recruited former Platter Elmer Hopper and the family business continues on.