Wednesday, July 17, 2013
THE MILLS BROTHERS: AN APPRECIATION
The group was originally composed of four brothers born in Piqua, Ohio, 25 miles (40 km) north of Dayton: John Jr. (1910-1936) bass vocalist and guitarist, Herbert (1912 – 1989) tenor, Harry (1913-1982) baritone, and Donald (1915–1999) lead tenor. Their parents were John Hutchinson (1882-1967) and Eathel Mills. John Sr. owned a barber shop and founded a barbershop quartet, called the '"Four Kings of Harmony"'. John Hutchinson Mills senior was the son of William Hutchinson Mills and Cecilia Simms who lived in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.
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 passersby. They entered an amateur contest at Piqua's Mays Opera House, but while on stage, Harry discovered he had lost his kazoo. He cupped his hands to his mouth and imitated a trumpet. The success of his imitation led to all the brothers taking on instruments to imitate and created their early signature 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 on the Midwest theater circuit, at house parties, tent shows, music halls and supper clubs throughout the area and became well known for their close harmonies, mastery of scat singing, and their ability to imitate musical instruments with their voices.
The Mills Brothers started making records around 1930, and it is nearly impossible to capture their magic abilities in a little article like this. Their first records for Brunwick Records were light years ahead of what was being recorded at the time. Even though the song "Shine" has racial lyrics, the recording the Mills Brothers made of it with Bing Crosby is one of the best records I have ever heard. They made a series of recordings with Crosby including "Dinah" which was another one of their best records of the early 1930s. Other hits followed – "Goodbye Blues," their theme song, "Nobody's Sweetheart," "Ole Rockin' Chair," "Lazy River," "How'm I Doin'," and others. They remained on Brunswick until late 1934, when they signed with Decca, where they stayed well into the 1950s. Unfortunately, while at Decca they did not make any records with Bing, who was the number one recording artist there. It was really a crime.
I feel that every period of the Mills Brothers career is worth listening to. I remember in 1989, I was still a young music collector, and I borrowed from the library an LP box set of the Mills Brothers on the Longines Symphonette Society label. If I remember correctly, it features songs the brothers recorded in the late 1960s. As I got to the librarian, and older gentleman stopped me to tell me that Herbert Mills had died that very day. I did not even know, and even though it was just a coincidence it has stuck with me to this day. All of the brothers are gone now, but their music lives on. When I dsicovered their sound in the early 1980s, I was just a naive kid who liked their sound. Now that I am a music collector, when I listen to the Mills Brothers now I realize that I am still a music lover first and a collector second - and always will be...