Mills Brothers, The

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Mills Brothers, The

Mills Brothers, The, American vocal group. membership: The initial quartet consisted of the four sons of John Mills (b. Bellefonte, Pa., 1882; d. there, Dec. 8, 1967), a barber who sang light opera, and his wife Ethel, a pianist: John Mills Jr. (b. Piqua, Ohio, Feb. 11, 1911; d. Bellefontaine, Ohio, Jan. 24, 1936); Herbert Mills (b. Piqua, Ohio, April 2, 1912; d. Las Vegas, Nev, April 12, 1989); Harry R Mills (b. Piqua, Ohio, Aug. 19, 1913; d. Los Angeles, Calif., June 28, 1982); Donald E Mills (b. Piqua, Ohio, April 29, 1915; d. Los Angeles, Calif., Nov. 13, 1999). The Mills Brothers were the prototype for all the African-American male vocal groups that followed them, their close harmonies set off by the early use of imitations of musical instruments, especially horns and reeds. Their prime period of popularity was the 1940s, but they scored hits from the 1930s to the 1960s, the biggest of them being “Tiger Rag,” “Dinah,” “Paper Doll, “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” and “The Glow-Worm.” They were the first black entertainers to have a sponsored, nationally broadcast radio series; they also appeared in a series of motion pictures.

They began singing as children, eventually developing an approach in which Herbert and Donald sang first and second tenor, Harry was a baritone, and John sang bass and accompanied the group on guitar. After performing locally they were hired by a local Cincinnati radio station in the late 1920s.

In 1931 the group joined the CBS radio network and signed to Brunswick Records; they moved to N.Y. in September. Their Oct. 9 recording session produced a single that revived “Tiger Rag” (music by Edwin B. Edwards, Nick La Rocca, Tony Spargo, and Larry Shields, lyrics by Harry De Cost) and “Nobody’s Sweetheart” (music and lyrics by Elmer Schoebel, Ernie Erdman, Gus Kahn, and Billy Meyers).

The Mills Brothers’ CBS radio show gained a sponsor in December 1931, and they broadcast two 15-minute programs a week for the next 16 months. Their fourth single, containing “Dinah” (music by Harry Akst, lyrics by Sam M. Lewis and Joe Young) and “Can’t We Talk It Over?” (music by Victor Young, lyrics by Ned Washington), teamed them with Bing Crosby; “Dinah” became a best-seller in January, and “Can’t We Talk It Over?” was also a hit.

The Mills Brothers continued to score major hits over the next three years, notably “St. Louis Blues” (music and lyrics by W. C. Handy; July 1932), “Bugle Call Rag” (music by Jack Pettis, Billy Meyers, and Elmer Schoebel; August 1932), “Swing It, Sister” (June 1934), and “Sleepy Head” (music by Walter Donaldson, lyrics by Gus Kahn; June 1934). They appeared in the films The Big Broadcast (October 1932), Twenty Million Sweethearts (April 1934), Operator 13 (June 1934), Strictly Dynamite (July 1934), and Broadway Gondolier (July 1935). After the end of their own radio series they were regulars on The Bing Crosby Show from 1933 to 1934. They toured Europe in 1934 and 1935. In 1934 they switched recording affiliations to the recently formed American Decca label.

The Mills Brothers suffered a serious setback in January 1936 when John Mills Jr. died of tuberculosis. John Mills Sr. replaced his son as the group’s bass singer, and Norman Brown became their non-singing guitar accompanist. They had a transcribed radio series in 1936 and appeared in the British film The Sky’s the Limit in 1937. In December 1938 they reached the hit parade with “Sixty Seconds Get Together” (music by Jerry Livingston, lyrics by Mack David). The group mounted a major comeback starting in 1943. They had recorded “Paper Doll” (music and lyrics by Johnny S. Black [real name, John Huber]) in February 1942 and released it in May, but the record did not begin to catch on until a year later, when it reached the R&B charts. It entered the pop charts in August 1943 and hit #1 in November, eventually selling a reported six million copies, which made it second only to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” as the best-selling record of the 1940s.

Unable to record due to the musicians’ union strike in 1942 and 1943, the Mills Brothers returned to Hollywood where they appeared in five films released during 1943:He’s My Guy, Reveille with Beverly, Rhythm Parade, Chatterbox, and Cowboy Canteen. Back in the recording studio in 1944, they produced the single “You Always Hurt the One You Love” (music by Doris Fisher, lyrics by Allan Roberts)/ “Till Then” (music and lyrics by Eddie Seiler, Sol Marcus, and Guy Wood). “Till Then” topped the R&B charts in August, while the million-seller “You Always Hurt the One You Love” went to #1 in the pop charts in October.

The group also reached the Top Ten of the pop charts with “I Wish” (music by Doris Fisher, lyrics by Allan Roberts) in June 1945; “I Don’t Know Enough about You” (music and lyrics by Peggy Lee and Dave Barbour) in August 1946; “Across the Alley from the Alamo” (music and lyrics by Joe Green) in June 1947; both sides of the single “I Love You So Much It Hurts” (music and lyrics by Floyd Tillman)/ “rve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” (music and lyrics by Irving Berlin) in early 1949; and “Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)” (music and lyrics by Jimmie Hodges) in October 1949. The albums Barber Shop Quartet (1946) and The Mills Brothers Souvenir Album (1949) reached the Top Ten on the album charts.

The Mills Brothers’ popularity continued into the early 1950s. Famous Barbershop Ballads was a Top Ten album in January 1950, and during that year they also hit the Top Ten of the pop singles chart with “Daddy’s Little Girl” (music and lyrics by Bobby Burke and Horace Gerlach) in May and “Nevertheless (I’m in Love with You)” (music by Harry Ruby, lyrics by Bert Kalmar) in December; in August they appeared in the film When You’re Smiling.

The Brothers augmented their one-guitar backup with big band arrangements, initially with encouraging commercial results. “Be My Life’s Companion” (music and lyrics by Bob Hilliard and Milton DeLugg), backed by Sy Oliver and His Orch., hit the pop Top Ten in February 1952, and “The Glow-Worm” (music by Paul Lincke, new English lyrics by Johnny Mercer) featuring Hal Mclntyre and His Orch. topped the charts in December, becoming their third million-seller. “The Jones Boy” (music by Vic Mizzy, lyrics by Mann Curtis) was a Top Ten pop hit in February 1954.

The Mills Brothers faded from widespread popularity in the mid-1950s. John Mills Sr. retired from the group, which continued as a trio. They reached the pop Top 40 with “Queen of the Senior Prom” (music and lyrics by Ed Penney, Jack Richards, and Stella Lee) in June 1957. Switching to Dot Records in 1958, they had a Top 40 hit with “Get a Job” (music and lyrics by Earl T. Beai, Raymond W. Edwards, William F. Horton, and Richard A. Lewis) in March and appeared in the film The Big Beat in June. They were off the charts for nearly a decade before “Cab Driver” (music and lyrics by C. Carson Parks) made the pop Top 40 in March 1968 along with the LP Fortuosity, which spent six months in the album charts.

The group last reached the charts with the LP Dream in May 1969. After Harry Mills died following surgery for a tumor in 1982, Herbert Mills retired and Donald Mills teamed with his son, John Mills III, to continue performing the group’s music. Donald was performing with his son up to six months before his death following brain surgery in April 1999.


Barber Shop Ballads (1950); Wonderful Words (1951); Meet the Mills Brothers (1954); Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers (1954); Singin’ and Swingin’ (1956); One Dozen Roses (1957); The Mills Brothers in Hi-Fi (1958); Mmmm, The Mills Brothers (1958); Harmonnï with the Mills Brothers (1959); Barber Shop Harmony (1959); Yellow Bird (1961); The End of the World (1963); Hymns We Love (1964); That Country Feeling (1966); These Are the Mills Brothers (1966); The Board of Directors (1967); Annual Report (1968); My Shy Violet (1968); The Mills Brothers Live (1968); Glow with the Mills Brothers (1978); Fortuosity (1978).

—William Ruhlmann