The Mills Brothers were not only the first black vocal group to have wide appeal among whites, they were the most successful American group of all time, with 71 chart singles (THE ANDREWS SISTERS had 113) spanning four decades.
Born in Piqua, Ohio, Herbert (1912), Donald (1915), Harry (1913), and John Mills Jr. (1911) began practicing in their father’s barbershop. John Sr. himself was an excellent light-opera stylist and sang with a group called the Four Kings of Harmony. Barbershop harmony was the Mills boys’ forte, and they never did bring much spiritual or gospel flavor into their sound (although they did ultimately do a few sides for Decca’s Faith series).
The brothers began performing at the local opera house (and even on street corners) while imitating instruments with kazoos. In one performance during the 1920s the teens forgot their kazoos and began improvising the sound of musical instruments with their voices while cupping their hands over their mouths. (This became a musical breakthrough for them.) John mastered the bass trumpet and tuba; Harry mimicked trumpet and sang baritone; Herbert did sax, trombone, and trumpet; and Donald was the tenor lead vocal. John Jr. played the guitar-the only actual instrument the group used.
In the late ‘20s the quartet was signed to perform in a variety of shows, on WLW-Cincinnati. In order to make it seem as if more than one group was doing all that singing, each sponsor of each show gave the act a different name. Hence they sang as the Steamboat Four, the Tasty East Jesters, and Will, Willie, Wilbur and William, among other names. They finally worked on a show (ironically unsponsored) under the name the Mills Brothers.
The group’s fame spread to New York. Agent Tommy Rockwell got the drift and brought the brothers east, where they wound up on the CBS radio network.
By 1931 they were recording for Brunswick Records. The brothers would go on to have five number on records of which the first was “Tiger Rag,” issued in December of 1931. The amazing brothers were still youngsters when they sat atop the musical world in 1931, ranging in age from 16 to 20. Brunswick then released their “Gems from George White’s Scandals” with Bing Crosby and the Boswell Sisters. It reached number three while “Tiger Rag’s” flip side, “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” held the number four spot. Their second chart topper came shortly after their first: “Dinah,” again with Bing Crosby, charted on January 9, 1932, and spent two weeks at number one.
Perhaps trying to draw attention to the Brothers’ talent, Brunswick had its labels all read, “No musical instruments or mechanical devices used on this recording other that one guitar.”
Film now became a big part of the group’s across-the-board exposure, as they performed in The Big Broadcast (1932), operator 133 (1933), and Twenty Million Sweethearts (1934).
Not only were the Mills Brothers destined to be emulated by hundreds of vocal groups, but many of their recordings would later be covered by other groups in the style that came to be called rhythm and blues. THE RAVENS took their recording of “Loveless Love” and reworked it into “Careless Love.” The Mills’s recording of “Gloria” (1948) became THE CADILLACS’ classic in 954 and THE PASSIONS’ mini-classic in 1960. The Brothers’ 1934 version of “Nagasaki” was done by the Fiver Chances in 1954, and 1932’s “Sweet Sue” later became a great recording for THE CROWS in 1954.
“Rockin’ Chair” (#4), issued in May of 1932, had what some historians consider to be the first talking-bass part in a black group record.
In 1934 the group went to Decca Records and to England. While Decca released new sides, Brunswick recordings were being reissued on the Melotone and Perfect labels as budget line issues. Since British tastes differed, Mills Brothers releases on British Decca (not all of which made it to the States) were generally more jazz and blues oriented than their domestic product.
After a royal command performance at the London Palladium in 1935, John Jr. became ill. He died in January of 1936 at the age of 25. John Sr. then took over for his son.
Hits like “Chinatown, My Chinatown” (#10, 1932), “Sweet Sue” (#8, 1938) kept the group touring the world from Europe to Australia.
The Brothers’ biggest hit came smack in the middle of World War II. Recorded February 18, 1942, and released in May, “Paper Doll” took more than a year to chart. When it did so on July 17, 1943, it reached number one and stayed there for a full 12 weeks, ultimately selling more than six million copies. Their fourth number one came in the summer of 1944 with “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” and its flip, “Till Then,” made it to number eight. “Till Then” was also their biggest R&B charter, going to number one. As the available listings only started in the early ‘40s, the Mills Brothers racked up only 11 recordings on the R&B hit lists between 1943 and 1949, indicating they may have been going over better with whites than blacks.
By 1950 the quartet had 50 chart hits. Their last number one was 1952’s “Glow Worm,” adapted from the German operetta Lysistrata. It also became their only hit in England, ranking number 10 at the beginning of 1953.
Up to 1950 almost every Mills Brothers recording featured only a guitar behind their voices in harmony and/or imitating instruments. It was a gutsy move to imitate trumpets behind Louis Armstrong and his real trumpet (“Marie” and “The Old Folks at Home,” among others), and on one cut, “Caravan” (1938), they didn’t sing at all, just parodied their instruments. The group dropped their instrumental mimicking in the earl ’50s, opting instead for backing bands and orchestras. To keep in step with the time the Brothers occasionally found themselves doing renditions of songs by groups who had learned from Mills Brothers’ own records of the ‘30s and ‘40s. They covered THE CHARMS’ “Gumdrop” in 1955, THE CLOVERS’ “Smack Dab in the Middle,” and a cover of THE SILHOUETTES’ rocker “Get a Job” in early 1958, though by now their pop barbershop sound was becoming passé.
John Sr. retired in the mid-‘50s, but the brothers stayed on the performing scene as a trio and continued to record for Dot. In 1959 “Yellow Bird” peaked at number 70, and it looked like the record buyers had moved on to other sounds. But nine years later the group, now in their mid-to late 50s, hit the charts three times in the midst of the soul and psychedelic era. “Cab Driver” (#23, 1968) was followed by “My Shy Violet” (#73) and “The Ol’ Race Track” (#83), their last charter ever.
Unfortunately, John Sr. never got to see the comeback: he died in 1967. Harry died in 1982 at the age of 68 while Herbert passed away in 1989 at the age of 77. In the early ‘90s, Donald and his son John III continued on as a duo.
The Mills Brothers’ influence was pervasive: they made black music acceptable to a wide audience and encouraged other black vocalists to carry on what they had started. And lest we forget, they did it with dignity and grace in difficult racial times, carried forward by their warmth of character and mellow sound.
– Jay Warner