William S. Paley, at CBS radio in New York, turned on his office
speaker one day in September of 1930 at the urging of Ralph
Wonders to listen to an audition of four young men that had been
performing under different names in Cincinnati on WLW radio.
They were billed as The Steamboat Four when they sang for Sohio. They were
the Tasty Yeast Jesters when they sang for Tasty Yeast.
|They had been called the Four Boys and a Guitar, but on Sundays
and for this audition, they went by the Mills Brothers. When
Paley heard their performance, he immediately went downstairs
and put them on CBS radio. The next day the Mills Brothers
signed a three-year contract and became the first
African-Americans to have a network show on radio.
L - R Herbert, John
C. Don, Harry
This was the start of the National and
International recognition, but their career started in the small
town of Piqua, Ohio, just twenty-five miles north of Dayton.
John Jr. was born in 1910, Herbert in 1912, Harry F. in 1913,
and Donald F. in 1915, all in Piqua, Ohio. They were the
sons of John H. and Ethel Mills. John Sr. was a barber in
this small town and a member of a barbershop quartet called the
"Four Kings of Harmony." Ethel, the brother's
mother, sang light opera until the brothers started school.
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 passerbys.
They entered an amateur contest
at Piqua's Mays Opera House. On stage, Harry discovered he
has lost his kazoo. He cupped his hands to his mouth and
imitated a trumpet. It was the beginning of their '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 at house
parties, lawn fetes, music halls and supper clubs.
Then in 1928, after playing May's
Opera House in Piqua between Rin-Tin-Tin features, they
accompanied the Harold Greenameyer Band to Cincinnati for an
audition with radio station WLW. The Band was not hired,
but the brother's were.
Duke Ellington and Seger Ellis,
WLW Cincinnati DJ and a music legend of the '20s, are credited
for their national recognition. The brothers were local
radio stars when Duke and his Orchestra played a date in
Cincinnati. When the youngsters sang for Duke, he was so
impressed he called Tommy Rockwell at Okeh Records, who signed
them and brought the group to New York.
|After signing the three-year
contract with William S. Paley, they became a national sensation.
Their first record recorded for Brunswick, a remake of their
"Tiger Rag" became a nation wide seller, the
only record at that time to sell more than a million copies.
Other hits quickly followed -- "Goodbye blues", their
theme song, "You're Nobody's Sweetheart Now,"
"Ole Rockin' Chair," "Lazy River", "How'm
I doin'," and others.
|The Mills Brothers were sponsored
by the largest advertisers in early radio; Standard Oil, Procter
& Gamble, Crisco, and Crosley Radio. They began
appearing in films. Their first, The Big Broadcast
(Paramount, 1932) was an all star radio revue that included Bing
Crosby, Cab Calloway, and the Boswell Sisters. In 1934,
the Brothers stared with Crosby for Woodbury Soap, and recorded
their classics "Lazy Bones," " Sweet Sue,"
"Lulu's back in town," "Bye-Bye Blackbird,"
"Sleepy Head," and "Shoe Shine Boy." Film appearances included Twenty Million Sweethearts for
Warner Brothers in 1934, and Broadway Gondolier, also for Warner
Brothers in 1935.
The brothers were highly
successful and well liked. They were recognized
nationally, then internationally. 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 the very special woman sitting in a box seat, their mother.
Soon after this, while performing in England, John Jr.
became ill. He was months recovering from pneumonia.
Before he was completely well, the Brothers returned to England.
John Jr. once again became sick, then died in the beginning of
This was a bad period for the
remaining brothers. They were contemplating 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 the deceased
Brother, John Jr. At this time, Norman Brown joined the
Brothers as their guitar player.
they were back in Europe. Their phenomenal success
overseas continued through 1939. 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."
In the period between John Jr.'s death
and their return to the States, they re-recorded "Lazy
River." It was followed by "Someday You'll Want
Me to Want You," "Swing Is the Thing," "Long
About Midnight," "Organ Grinders Swing, " and
"The Song is Ended." They honored Duke Ellington
with a swing version
of the "Caravan," and then produced a series of
classic recordings; "South of the Border," which
they performed in a tour of South America, along with "Ain't
Misbehavin," "It Don’t Mean a Thing,"
"Jeepers Creepers," "Three Little Fishes,"
and "Basin Street Blues."
clockwise, from upper left:
Father John H., Donald, Harry, Herbert.
1936 - 1957
After their return to the States,
they needed a hit. They recorded "I'll be
Around." Donald Mills chose "Paper Doll" as
the B-side of the record. "I'll Be Around"
became a popular hit, then a disk jockey turned the record over.
"Paper Doll," recorded in just fifteen minutes, sold
six million copies and became the group's biggest hit.
|The rise of rock and roll in the
early fifties did little to diminish the Mills Brothers
popularity. "Glow Worm" rose to number one on
the pop charts in 1952. "Opus One," an updated
version to the Tommy Dorsey hit was soon keeping it company
followed by "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You,"
"Yellow Bird," "Standing on the Corner," and
"If I had My Way."
1957, John Sr. reluctantly stopped touring with the group.
He was seventy-five, but his retirement did not stop the
Brothers. 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 "Hollywood Palace." They
played theatres and clubs, touring forty weeks a year.
L - R : Herb, Harry, Don
"Cab Driver," recorded
in 1968, was their last great hit.
Their fiftieth anniversary in
show business was celebrated in 1976 with a tribute at the
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Bing Crosby
hosted this nostalgic tribute.
Few in the audience realized that Harry was now almost blind
because of diabetes.
The death of Harry Mills in 1982 ended a long
musical career that was as successful as any group in the
For a few after Harry's death, Donald
Mills and his son John H. Mills II, continued to perform under the
name of the Mills Brothers. In 1999, Donald Mills, the last
remaining original Mills brother passed away.
Today, John Mills is currently touring
under the name "The Mills Brothers" with onetime
Platters lead vocalist Elmer Hopper.
John II and Donald Mills
the third of June in 1990, Donald and John H. Mills II
were here in Piqua when the town unveiled a monument to their
favorite sons on the public square where they had sung as
children. The plaque is a fitting tribute to these
greatest singing group… and musical ambassadors to the