The Mills Brothers Biography

The three permanent members of this vocal group were Herbert Mills (2 April 1912, d. 12 April 1989, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA), Harry Mills (b. 19 August 1913, d. 28 June 1982, Los Angeles, California, USA) and Donald Mills (b. 29 April 1915, d. 18 November 1999, Los Angeles, California, USA). John Mills Jnr. (b. 19 October 1910, d. 24 January 1936, Bellefontaine, Ohio, USA), added vocal notes in string bass form and played guitar. All the brothers were born in Piqua, Ohio, USA, sons of a barber who had been a successful concert singer. By the mid-20s, they were singing in sweet, close harmony in local vaudeville, providing their own backing by accurately imitating saxophones, trumpets, trombones and bass. With the main trio still teenagers, they had their own show on Cincinnati radio before moving to New York in 1930.

The brothers signed to Brunswick Records and had a hit in 1931 with their first disc, ‘Tiger Rag’, which they also sang in the following year’s movie The Big Broadcast, featuring Bing Crosby and many other stars of US radio. They appeared in several other musical montage movies such as Twenty Million Sweethearts (1934), Broadway Gondolier (1935) and Reveille With Beverly (1943), Rhythm Parade (1943), Cowboy Canteen (1944) and When You’re Smiling (1950). In the early 30s, Crosby featured on several of the brothers’ record hits, including ‘Dinah’/‘Can’t We Talk It Over’, ‘Shine’ and ‘Gems From George White’s Scandals’, which also included the Boswell Sisters. On later tracks, the Mills Brothers were also joined by Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway. Their early records were labelled: ‘No musical instruments or mechanical devices used on this recording other than one guitar’. Other 30s hits included ‘You Rascal, You’, ‘I Heard’, ‘Good-Bye, Blues’, ‘Rockin’ Chair’, ‘St. Louis Blues’, ‘Sweet Sue’, ‘Bugle Call Rag’, ‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’, ‘Swing It Sister’, ‘Sleepy Head’ and ‘Sixty Seconds Together’.

In 1936, John Mills died suddenly and the brothers’ father, John Snr. (b. 11 February 1882, Bellafonte, Pennsylvania, USA, d. 8 December 1967, Bellafontaine, Ohio, USA), took over as bass singer, and ex-band leader Bernard Addison joined the group on guitar. During the late 30s, the Mills Brothers toured the USA and abroad, appearing in two UK Royal Command Performances. Their popularity peaked in 1943 with the record ‘Paper Doll’, which sold over six million copies. They had consistent chart success throughout the 40s with titles on the Decca Records label such as ‘You Always Hurt The One You Love’, ‘Til Then’, ‘I Wish’, ‘I Don’t Know Enough About You’, ‘Across The Alley From The Alamo’, ‘I Love You So Much It Hurts’, ‘I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm’, ‘Someday (You’ll Want Me To Want You)’ and ‘Put Another Chair At The Table’.

By 1950, the instrumental impressions having generally been discarded, the brothers were accompanied by ex-Tommy Dorsey arranger Sy Oliver’s orchestra on their hit ‘Nevertheless (I’m In Love With You)’ and again in 1952 on ‘Be My Life’s Companion’. That same year, ‘Glow Worm’, gave them another blockbuster. This was a 1908 song from the German operetta Lysistrata, with a new lyric by Johnny Mercer. Other 50s favourites from the brothers included Sy Oliver’s own composition ‘Opus Number One’, ‘Say Si Si’, ‘Lazy River’ and ‘Smack Dab In The Middle’. In 1956, John Snr. retired, and the brothers continued as a trio. Their last hit on Decca was ‘Queen Of The Senior Prom’ in 1957. The switch to the Dot Records label gave them two US Top 30 entries, ‘Get A Job’ and their final chart success, ‘Cab Driver’, in 1968. After Harry Mills’ death in 1982, Herbert and Donald continued to perform their brand of highly polished, humorous entertainment with a substitute singer. However, when Herbert died seven years later, Donald, now walking with a cane, gained excellent reviews and favourable audience reaction when he played nightclubs with his son John, using mainly the old Mills Brothers catalogue, but with additional new material.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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