The Life and Times of the Mills Brothers
The Mills Brothers
In the year nineteen eighty-eight The Mills Brothers were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of fame. The Mills Brothers were a pop and jazz quartet in the USA for the Twentieth Century who sold a combined fifty million copies or more and made over two thousand recordings and garnering gold records at least thirty six.
In the year nineteen seventy-six it was their 50th anniversary in show biz and this was commemorated with a tribute that Bing Crosby hosted at LA’s Dorothy Chandler Pavillion. Due to diabetes, Harry at this point was almost blind. Until the death of Harry in ’82, Harry, Herbert and Donald had performed continuously and Donald and Herbert continued to sing until Herbert met his demise in ’89. A Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award was presented to the sole survivor Donald in ’98, recognizing the family of the Mills pop music contributions. When Donald died, John III started touring under The Mills Brothers name with Elmer Hopper.
They founded a barbershop quartet as their father owned a barber shop and The Four Kings of Harmony was the name of the quartet. Originally the group was made up of 4 brothers born in the Ohio town of Piqua including guitarist and bass vocalist John Jr, the tenor Herbert, the baritone Harry and the lead tenor Donald and Eathel Mills and John Hutchinson were their parents.
Early Choir Singers
After taking lessons at the grammar school in Spring Street, they gathered in front of the barbershop of their dad and play the kazoo while singing to passersby. As they grew up the boys started singing in Piqua’s Park Avenue Baptist Church as well as the church choir of Piqua as well.
For their close harmonies they became well known in the area and also rose in popularity for scat singing and the way they did musical imitations. Their signature sound was developed when Harry misplaced his kazoo when they entered a Piqua May Opera House amateur contest and covered his mouth as he did a trumpet imitation. His imitation success resulted in all the boys imitating instruments creating their unique sound. Bassist john imitated tubas, baritone Harry did the trumpet, with Donald on trombone and Herbert on the 2nd trumpet. This harmony was accompanied by a guitar or a ukulele by John Jr. They did this for entertainment in supper clubs, music halls, tent shows and house parties.
In the year nineteen twenty eight they auditioned for the WLW radio station in Cincinnati and rapidly turned out to be local stars on the radio, getting their big break when in Cincinnati, Duke Ellington and his Orchestra did a show. When they sang for Ellington, he called Okeh Records’ Tommy Rockwell who brought them to NYC after signing them. When CBS Radio executive of broadcasting William S Paley heard them sing he signed a contract of three years with them and they became the first Afro-American singers to achieve a radio network show. Later, in nineteen thirty-four they became the first African American giving a performance on command before the royalty of Britain.