The Mills Brothers!

Tonight I’d like to cover a popular vocal group that started out in the 1930’s, yet had an influence in R&B / Doo-Wop of the 1950’s.  Originally billed as “Four Boys and a Guitar,” they were quite innovative.  With just their voices they imitated trumpet, trombone, tuba and string bass to sound like a full band, and their listeners became enthralled.

As my partner Gary said:

The people like us remember their songs – my dad played them all of the time. Who knew they where Black, boy I’m surprised.

The Mills Brothers

The group was originally four actual brothers, all born in Piqua, Ohio, just 25 miles north of Dayton:

  • John Jr. (1911-1936) basso and guitarist
  • Herbert (1912-1989) tenor
  • Harry (1913-1982) baritone
  • Donald (1915-1999) lead tenor.

Their parents were John and Eathel Mills.  John Sr. owned a barber shop and founded a barbershop quartet.

Gene Smith served as a stand-in for one year when Harry Mills was drafted into the Army.


Tiger Rag

I Heard

Caravan (From a motion picture) Notice the Rapping, Break-Dancing and Beat-Boxing before the 80’s!!

Paper Doll

‘Till Then

Basin Street Blues (with the Boston Pops in the 80’s)

A Sample of Their Many Big Hits:

1. Tiger Rag (1931) #1 US

2. Good-Bye, Blues (1932) Brunswick 6278 #4 US

3. I Heard (1932) #3 US

4. You Rascal, You (1932) #3 US

5. Paper Doll (08/1943) #1(12) US, #2 R&B

6. You Always Hurt the One You Love (06/1944) #1 US, #5 R&B

7. Till Then (06/1944) #8 US, #1 R&B

8. Gloria (11/1948) #62 US – lead to other R&B covers

9. Daddy’s Little Girl (02,1950) #5 US

10. Be My Life’s Companion (01,1952) #7 US

11. The Glow Worm (09/1952) #1 US

12. Queen of  The Senior Prom (05,1857) #39 US

13. Get A Job (03,1858)  #21 US (A great Doo-Wop song)

14. Cab Driver (01,1968) #23 US, #3 AC

The Mills Brothers were a very popular African-American vocal group of the 20th century, that produced more than 2,000 recordings, sold more than 50 million copies and garnered at least three dozen (36) Gold Records. As “Four Boys and a Guitar,” the group’s early records were sold with a note, assuring:

“No musical instruments or mechanical devices were used on this recording other than one guitar.”

This caution was understandable, since the Mills Brothers were so proficient at sounding like a full band with only their voices.

After a brief time of singing on Cincinnati radio station WLW under various group names, a broadcasting executive, Wm Paley at CBS radio in New York, discovered them on the air waves and signed them to a three-year contract. They became the first African-Americans to have a network radio show.

When Duke Ellington and his orchestra were playing a date in Cincinnati, Duke heard the brothers singing on the radio, he was very impressed; so much so that he became instrumental in having the boys signed to Brunswick Records.

On 12 October, 1931, as “The Mills Brothers”, they recorded their debut record, “Tiger Rag”/”Nobody’s Sweetheart”(Brunswick 6197), which rocketed to #1 in November 1931. It stayed there for four weeks, and eventually became the first recording by a vocal group to sell one million copies. At that time, the boys’ ages ranged from 16 to 21.

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, they embarked on a tour of England, where they were selected to give a Command Performance before King George V and Queen Mary – the first African-American artists to do so.

John Sr., their father, took the place of John Jr. about a year after John Jr. succumbed at only 26 to pneumonia.

After their return to the States, they needed a hit, so in 1942 they recorded “I’ll Be Around”. For the B-side, Donald Mills chose “Paper Doll”. Initially, “I’ll Be Around” became a popular hit in 1943. But then a disk jockey turned the record over and “Paper Doll” (which had hastily been recorded in just fifteen minutes) sold six million copies and became the group’s biggest hit ever – twelve weeks on the top of the charts.

The brothers also recorded a number of “Soundies,” – short musical feature films, that were popular in movie theatres from 1940-47.  One of their more noted “Soundies” was “Paper Doll”, in which a paper doll, played by a young Dorothy Dandridge, danced while the brothers sang their hit song. As you may gather, “Soundies” could be compared to television’s MTV Music Videos.

The group made several movie appearances during the early 1940’s, and hit #1 again in 1944 with “You Always Hurt the One You Love”. But the influence of middle-of-the-road pop had slowly crept into their material from the 1940s; and by the end of that decade they began recording with traditional orchestras.

An R&B Influence

Not only were the Mills Brothers emulated by countless vocal groups, but many of their recordings would later be covered by other groups in a style that came to be known as Rhythm and Blues.  One good example is the Mills Brothers’ 1944 recording of “‘Till Then” which got covered 10 years later in an R&B style by Sammy Til & The Orioles.

Another Mills Brothers song, “Gloria” (1948) became an R&B classic by The Cadillacs  in 1954.

In 1957, John Sr., who was 68, stopped touring with the group. As a trio, the Mills Brothers were frequent guests on The Jack Benny Show, The Perry Como Show, The Tonight Show, The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom, and The Hollywood Palace.

A move from Decca to Dot Records brought a moderate 1958 hit, a cover of the Silhouettes‘ “Get a Job” that made explicit a considerable influence on Doo-Wop that the early Mills Brothers records had exerted.

Thus we see that the Mills Brothers and other groups such as the Ink Spots and the Ravens produced some great fodder for  R&B. Many of their songs from the 1930s and 40s were later rejuvenated by cover artists in the 1950s, leading to the explosion of Doo-Wop and R&B  with emphasis on smooth, rich vocal harmony and slow, pulsating tempos.

The Mills Brothers were inducted into The Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998.



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