A Tribute to the Mills Brothers

Harry Curtis Remembers the Mills Brothers …

This album is a tribute to one of the most musical group of male singers I have ever heard. Among the pioneers of close harmony singing, they became the most successful male American group of all time, with 71 chart singles (The Andrew Sisters has 113). The privilege we have of recorded music is that wonderful music never dies and will remain with us forever. Until recently I had never heard of The Mills Brothers and was so fortunate to listen to one of their many albums and was immediately taken in by their happy, warm and melodious voices and harmonies. The songs they sing are cheerful and uplifting and it is such a delight listening and watching them sing on numerous website video clips where it is evident that they enjoy performing and being in each others company. I have so enjoyed the journey through this album, right from the very first song, and I hope this rendition of songs sung by The Mills Brothers cheers your heart and puts a smile on your face. The Mills Brothers were an astonishing African-American vocal quartet producing more than 2,000 recordings that sold more than 50 million copies. They circled the globe more than 17 times over their performance history. They were active for 54 years from 1928 to 1982 and were the first vocal group in history to sell a million records.
The four brothers were all born in Piqua, Ohio – John Jr. in 1910, Herbert in 1912, Harry in 1913 and Donald in 1915. Their father, John Sr. was a concert singer before he retired to become a barber. He founded a barbershop quartet called the Four Kings of Harmony. His sons obviously learned their close harmonies first-hand. They began singing in the church choir and after school classes they would sing in front of the barber shop and play the kazoo to passersby. They began performing around the area and at one show, Harry Mills forgot his kazoo, and ended up trying to emulate the instrument by cupping his hand over his mouth. The brothers were surprised to hear the sound of a trumpet proceeding from Harry’s mouth, so they began to work the novelty into their act – with John taking tuba, Donald trombone and Herbert a second trumpet.
The group got their major break when they sang for Duke Ellington in 1928 when he and his orchestra played in Cincinnati. The Duke arranged that they be signed up with a record company who brought them to New York. In 1930 they signed a three year contract with CBS radio and became the first African Americans to have a network show on radio. They became a sensation and hit it big during 1931 and early 1932 with the singles “Tiger Rag” and “Dinah”. Dumb-founded listeners hardly believed the notice accompanying the records: “No musical instruments or mechanical devices used in this recording other than one guitar.” The Mills Brothers sounded exactly like they’d been backed by a small studio band. The amazing brothers were still youngsters when they sat atop the musical world in 1931 ranging in age from 16 to 20. The exposure continued during 1932, with appearances in the film The Big Broadcast that included Bing Crosby and the Boswell Sisters, and more hits including “St. Louis Blues” and “Bugle Call Rag.” 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. 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 in 1935, 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 at the age of 25. The remaining brothers 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 John Jr. At this time, Norman Brown joined the Brothers as their guitar player.


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.” The Mills Brothers’ records weren’t performing as well as they had earlier in the decade but all that changed in 1943 with the release of “Paper Doll,” which became one of the biggest hits of the decade, being twelve weeks on the top of the charts, more than a year on the charts and selling more than six million records. The group made appearances in several movies during the early 40’s, and hit number one again in 1944 with “You Always Hurt The One You Love.”
The rise of rock and roll in the early fifties did little to decrease the Mills Brothers popularity. They began recording with traditional orchestras and in 1952 “Glow Worm” became a number one hit. “Opus One”, an updated version to the Tommy Dorsey hit, was soon on the charts as well, followed by “You’re Nobody ‘Till Somebody Loves You”, “Yellow Bird”, “Standing On The Corner” and “If I Had My Way”. In 1957, John Sr. who was 68, retired from the group. 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. “Cab Driver”, recorded in 1968, was their last great hit. In the late 1960’s, Dean Martin, hosting The Dean Martin Show, booked the Mills Brothers on the show, later explaining that Harry Mills was in fact his greatest musical influence, more influential than Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. The Brothers’ performances with Dean of Paper Doll and Lazy River were among the musical highlights of the show’s ten year run. The Bee Gees have also stated the Mills Brothers as an early influence.
Their fiftieth anniversary in show business was celebrated in 1976 with a nostalgic tribute in Los Angeles hosted by Bing Crosby. Few in the audience realised 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. Herbert and Donald continued until Herbert’s death in 1989. Then, Donald began performing with the third generation of the family – his son, John III. In 1998 the Recording Academy recognised 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”. 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. References: Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopaedia, Jay Warner