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Members include Norman Brown, guitar; Donald Mills (born April 29, 1915, in Piqua, OH), vocals; Harry Mills (born August 19, 1913, in Piqua, OH; died June 28, 1982), vocals; Herbert Mills (born in April 1912, in Piqua, OH), vocals; John Mills, Jr. (born in Piqua, OH; died in 1935), vocals and guitar; John Mills, Sr. (born in Bellefonte, PA, in 1882; died in 1967), vocals.
Upon hearing the name "The Mills Brothers," parents of the baby-boom generation are apt to smile fondly. A puzzled look and the question "Is that group anything like the Ink Spots?" is a more common reaction from young people. Even young people familiar with a few Mills Brothers tunes from easy-listening stations are often surprised to learn that the Mills Brothers are black. According to The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups, the Mills Brothers are the most popular male vocal group ever, having charted 71 times over 40 years. This is all the more impressive considering that the Mills Brothers achieved their success when most black performers were excluded from entertainment media.
The four Mills Brothers--Herbert, Donald, Harry, and John, Jr.--began singing in their father's barbershop in Piqua, Ohio, in the late 1920s. Their father had been successful with a barbershop quartet called the Four Kings of Harmony. The boys' good-natured four-part harmony retained a barbershop quartet flavor until the end of their careers. That the Mills Brothers took up a mainstream musical form no doubt partly accounted for their tremendous appeal to white audiences during the first half of the 1900s.
Another musical influence on the Mills Brothers that did not have a traditionally black cultural heritage was opera. Their father, John Sr., sang in the light opera style. It was at the local opera house that the Mills Brothers began performing publicly, though they were not adverse to a little street corner harmonizing.
The Mills Brothers claimed that their trademark vocal imitation of musical instruments began during a 1920s concert when they "forgot" their kazoos. This trick proved popular and they soon added impressive imitations of other instruments, mostly wind, including saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and bass. They kept the practice up through the 1950s. During these early years the brothers changed their group name to please various sponsors, singing as "The Steamboat Four" for Soho Motor Oil and, for Tasty Yeast, as the "Tasty Yeast Jesters." In addition, the group secured their own radio show on WLW in Cincinnati, Ohio. John, Jr., sang bass and accompanied the singing on guitar, the group's only real instrumentation at the time. By 1930 the lure of Big Apple clubs and theaters moved the quartet to New York. There they recorded with big-name orchestras, including the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1932 and later with Benny Carter.
The Mills Brothers did not limit themselves to harmonizing, and some authorities consider them to have played a role in jazz history. Mark Tucker wrote in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz of "their spectacular forays into scat singing, as on their quartet recording of 'Tiger Rag/Nobody's Sweetheart.'" This record was one of the Mills Brothers' many singles to reach the Top Ten with both sides charting separately; "Tiger" went to Number One and "Nobody's Sweetheart" reached Number Four.
During the Depression the Mills Brothers switched from the Brunswick label to the Decca label. Decca remained the brothers' label into the late 1950s, after which time they recorded on Dot Records. During the 1930s the Mills Brothers cut some songs with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. In 1935 the band suffered the death of their eldest brother, John. After auditioning replacement candidates without success, the surviving sons settled on their father, John, Sr., who sang bass until retiring in 1956. Norman Brown was hired to play guitar.
In 1943 the Mills Brothers had their biggest hit, "Paper Doll," which sold six million copies, an astonishing number back then. The song sat at Number One for three months. About a year later the group hit the top slot again with "You Always Hurt the One You Love," and these two songs became Mills Brothers staples.
The 1952 tune "Be My Life's Companion" became the Mills Brothers's first successful song using a band for accompaniment instead of simply a guitar. Also orchestrated that same year was the Mills Brothers' top-charting Johnny Mercer rewrite of an old German operetta song, "The Glow-Worm." And in 1952 the group cut a single on Harmony Records with Bing Crosby, Shine" backed with "My Honey's Lovin' Arms." A Variety concert review from October 14, 1959, suggests the flavor of Mills Brothers shows in this era. The group had played the Riverside in Reno, Nevada, performing for 25 minutes. According to the writer, the group sang in "the same polished manner, and the voices still hold that perfect blend."
Most of the 1960s were a quiet time for the Mills Brothers. The group's popularity was revived somewhat, oddly enough, during the turbulent, rock-saturated late years of the decade. It is doubtful that the young people of that era, however, put tunes with names like "My Shy Violet" and "The Ol' Race Track" on the charts. "Race Track" was the last such success for the Mills Brothers. The following year, 1969, the vocalists, now in their late fifties, performed for the first time in their 43-year career at the legendary Coconut Grove, on Christmas and New Year's Eve. Singing along was encouraged at the shows.
During the 1980s German filmmakers made an English-language documentary about the Mills Brothers entitled The Mills Brothers Story. Available on video, the documentary is an excellent portrait of the group through its many decades of performing. In the film Harry Mills emerges as a warm, even somewhat jolly man, who traditionally took the role of spokesperson, introducing songs and maintaining an amusing though dignified patter. Other members of the quartet were more shy--Herb avoided the limelight even to the extent of shunning solos.
A touching moment in the film occurs during a 1971 concert when Harry quietly tells the audience how the band, then a trio, had lost first their brother 36 years before, then their father four years before, and only two years later, their longtime guitarist, Norman Brown. The trio then sang a feeling rendition of "Yellow Bird," with the heavyset Harry making surprisingly gentle yet comic bird-like gestures. Shortly thereafter, Harry would suffer blindness due to a longtime battle with diabetes. He continued to perform in his traditionally pleasant and mobile fashion so that audiences often failed to realize his condition. Harry Mills died in 1982. By the late 1980s, only Donald Mills was left singing. Donald carried on with a cane, successfully touring with his son John as a duo, still singing Mills Brothers tunes of another era.
by Joseph M. Reiner
Mills Brothers, The's Career
Began singing in their father's barbershop, late 1920s; moved to New York City to sing with well-known orchestras, c. 1930; signed with Brunswick label; recorded hit songs "Tiger Rag" and "Nobody's Sweetheart," 1931; recorded over 70 hit songs, including "You Always Hurt the One You Love," "Paper Doll," and "The Glow Worm," 1931-late 1960s; signed with Decca label, c. 1934; signed with Dot Records, late 1950s.
- Selective Works
- Singles "Tiger Rag"/"Nobody's Sweetheart," Brunswick, 1931.
- "Dinah"/"Can't We Talk It Over," Brunswick, 1932.
- "Smoke Rings"/"My Honey's Loving Arms," Brunswick, 1933.
- "Miss Otis Regrets"/"Old Fashioned Love," Decca, 1934.
- "Good Bye Blues"/"Sweet Sue, Just You," Decca, 1937.
- "Georgia On My Mind"/"S-H-I-N-E," Decca, 1941.
- "Paper Doll"/"I'll Be Around," Decca, 1942.
- "Till Then"/"You Always Hurt the One You Love," Decca, 1944.
- (With Ella Fitzgerald) "Dedicated to You"/"Big Boy Blue," Decca, 1948.
- "Love Lies"/"Be My Life's Companion," Decca, c. 1951.
- "The Glow-Worm"/"After All," Decca, 1952.
- (With Bing Crosby) "Shine"/"My Honey's Lovin' Arms," Harmony, 1952.
- "How Blue"/"Why Do I Keep Loving You?," Decca, 1954.
- "Baby Clementine"/"Yellow Bird," Dot, 1961.
- "Bye Bye Blackbird"/"Chum Chum Chittilum Chum," Dot, 1965.
- "My Shy Violet"/"The Flower Road," Dot, 1968.
- "But for Love"/"The Ol' Race Track," Dot, c. 1969.
- "Coney Island Washboard"/"Nevertheless," Ranwood, 1976.
- Albums Greatest Hits, MCA, 1987.
- Kernfeld, Barry, New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, Macmillan, 1988.
- Guiness Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Guiness, 1992.
- Warner, Jay, The Billboard Book of American Singing Groups, Billboard, 1992.
- Periodicals Variety, October 14, 1959; January 1, 1969.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from the video The Mills Brothers Story, Storyville Films, 1986.
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