The sons of a Piqua, Ohio barber, The Mills Brothers started out as a barbershop quartet: The Four Kings of Harmony. No other vocal group was to turn out hit records over a longer period of time – the 37 years between 1931 and 1968. The Mills Brothers scored over 70 hits and make more than 2,000 recordings which cumulatively sold over 50 million copies.
Donald, Harry, Herbert and John Mills Jr. entered an amateur contest at Piqua’s May’s Opera House. Onstage, after discovering he had forgotten his kazoo. Harry cupped his hands to his mouth and imitated a trumpet. From that grew the gimmick of the boys both singing in close harmony and successfully imitating multiple instruments on stage while actually only being accompanied by a single guitar. In 1928 WLW in Cincinnati made The Mills Brothers local radio stars. When Duke Ellington heard them, he helped the young quartet land their first record deal. Three years later CBS Radio signed them, making The Mills Brothers the first African-Americans to have their own coast-to-coast network series.
“Tiger Rag,” The Mills Brothers’ first Brunswick single, became a #1 hit in 1931 while its flip side (and the group’s theme song), “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” reached #4. An avalanche of hits followed, including some which teamed The Mills Brothers with stars like Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and The Boswell Sisters. Among them: “Dinah” (#1 in 1932), “Swing It Sister” (1934), “You Always Hurt The One You Love” (#1 in 1944), “Across The Alley From The Alamo” (1947), “Daddy’s Little Girl” (1950), “The Glow Worm” (#1 in 1952) and “Cab Driver” (1968). The Mills Brothers recorded for Brunswick through 1934 and then Decca through 1957, when the switched to Dot. Printed on the labels of their Brunswick records and all their early Deccas was the startling notation “No musical instruments or mechanical devices used on this recording other than one guitar.” And that was true – even though many listeners were convinced that they had to be hearing muted trumpets, saxophones, a string bass or tuba.
In 1934, The Mills Brothers became the first African-Americans to give a command performance before British royalty. However, during their tour of England, John Jr. fell ill and died early in 1936. Rather than break up the act, John Sr. stepped into his son’s place and The Mills Brothers rolled on – on stage, on radio, on records and in several films.
In 1942, the group recorded “I’ll Be Around” – and for a flip side, spent 15 minutes working up and recording a song Donald had found, “Paper Doll.” DJs played “I’ll Be Around” for a couple of weeks and then flipped the record over. “Paper Doll” wound up spending 12 weeks at #1 and became not only the group’s but the decade’s largest-selling non-holiday hit.
After John Sr. retired in 1957, the three-man Mills Brothers soldiered on and were frequent guests on TV variety shows, such as Dean Martin’s. (Dean referred to Harry as his “greatest musical influence.”) The Mills Brothers’ fiftieth anniversary in show business was celebrated in 1976 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles via an all-star tribute hosted by Bing Crosby. Harry died in 1982; Herbert in 1989. In 1998 the Recording Academy recognized the Mills family’s contributions to popular music when it presented Donald, the sole surviving member, with a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.