Music Publisher, Orchestra Leader, Booking Agent, Recording Company Owner, Lyricist, Vocalist
Irving Mills , the son of immigrant parents, rose to entrepreneurial heights in various aspects of the music business despite minimal formal education. He had an instinct for assessing both music and musicians, honed during his youth working in New York restaurants that featured the latest songs and best performers. Although not a musician, he had a good singing voice and hired on as a song-plugger.
He established a music publishing business in 1919 and signed many then unknowns like Hoagy Carmichael and Dorothy Fields. Mills also created orchestras from the best players of the time to record his material. He formed a booking agency and ran a recording company for all of his bands, even opening the Hotsy Totsy Club in New York named for one of them. His first success as a lyricist was his collaboration with Jimmy McHugh and Gene Austin on “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street” (1924).
Mills was instrumental in forging the early careers of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, who opened at the Cotton Club with a song that he and Mills wrote with Clarence Gaskill, “Minnie the Moocher” (1931). Mills recorded Cab who became an international success with his “Hi-De-Ho” signature phrase.
From 1926 to 1939 Mills managed the Duke Ellington Orchestra, sang on some of their recordings, and wrote lyrics to several songs: “Mood Indigo” (1931), “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” (1932), “Sophisticated Lady” (1933), “Solitude” (1935), and “Caravan” (1937). In 1943 he produced the film Stormy Weather but returned to the business of discovering and promoting artists and music.
The extent to which Mills contributed to the lyrics and music of Ellington’s compositions is a hot topic and is discussed in most Ellington biographies. Some Ellington musicians have been quoted as saying Mills contributed virtually nothing to many of the over fifty songs for which he took credit as well as royalties. Although the practice was common among publishers and promoters of that time, it was still considered unethical. Mills’ view was that he deserved credit even if only for his suggestions during the development process. Interestingly Ellington sided with Mills, agreeing with his views in principal or out of indebtedness for his long and energetic promotion of the Ellington orchestra.
-- Sandra Burlingame
Courtesy of JazzStandards.com
Role: Non-Classical Artist