Today (in 1882) is the birthday of John Mills, Sr. – -the FATHER of the Mills Brothers. It might be a stretch to make that a peg for this post but for the fact that when John Mills, Jr. died in 1934, the father joined the act thus becoming a “brother”.
The father was well qualified to join the act. It was his barbershop quartet, and his wife’s abilities as an opera singer, that had inspired the boys to begin singing as children. The brothers began in amateur shows, and came up with an amusing angle that made audiences remember them — each member of the group could do an impression of a different brass instrument. In the mid 1920s they got on local radio (they were from Piqua, Ohio) and a record deal emerged. They were stars of CBS radio before they got their first vaudeville gig, which was at the Palace Theatre in 1932…just in time for the very end of vaudeville. But it was just the beginning for the Mills Brothers. Hollywood films and international tours followed. Hit songs for them included “Paper Doll” , “You Always Hurt the One You Love”, “It Don’t Mean a Thing”, and “Lazy Bones”.
Various incarnations of the Mills Brothers remained in circulation (with increasingly fewer genuine Mills Brothers) through the 1980s. Indeed a version of “the Mills Brothers” continues to this day, with a grandson of one of the original brothers as the only real connection.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, including acts like the Mills Brothers, please consult my critically acclaimed book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and many other fine establishments.
For a fun example of how these old vaudeville stars can transcend time & technology–I discovered the Mills Brothers via a computer game made in 2002!
“Mafia” is set in the 1930s and features a lot of vintage pop and jazz, including the Mills Brothers singing “Chinatown, My Chinatown”, “Caravan” and others.
Before the Mills Brothers began impersonating instruments ( and they were wonderful at it) they worked as a kazoo quartet with the father on guitar.
Prof. Douglas Fraser