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8.120680 - MILLS BROTHERS: Swing Is The Thing (1934-1938)
THE MILLS BROTHERS Vol.2
‘Swing Is The Thing’ Original 1934-1938 Recordings
Combining the traditional elements of vaudeville and barbershop with more recent developments in the jazz idiom, with their ‘Four Boys And a Guitar’ billing the Mills Brothers elevated Negro minstrelsy to new heights.And while their ‘No Other Instruments except comb and paper…’ may at times have been less than accurate, for versatility in contrived orchestral imitation (albeit derivative – it owed something to the Comedy Harmonists) was nothing less than sensational.They were prolific recording artists whose catalogue of seventy hit records between 1931 and 1968 (including the estimated equivalent of five No.1s between 1931 and 1954) places them high among the most popular vocal groups of all time.
During the mid-1920s the trio of brothers Herbert, (1912-1989), Harry (1913-1982) and Donald (1915-1999) would harmonise for their own enjoyment at home in their native Piqua, Ohio. Encouraged by their ballad-singer-turnedbarber father John Mills Senior (1882-1967) they were joined by their elder brother John (1911-1936), a talented guitarist who doubled with vocal imitations of bass and tuba, and appeared together in the Piqua area in dances and vaudeville shows. Billed as ‘Four Boys And A Kazoo’ they improvised their own backing with lifelike imitations of saxophones, trumpets, trombones and a variety of other instruments.
In 1928 the Mills Brothers secured a WLW Radio (Cincinnati) two-year contract for their own show. However, they were only with the station for ten months before a performance at a Piqua Opera House gala prompted an extended tour of Ohio and neighbouring states. In 1930 they were heard and admired by A & R man Tommy Rockwell, through whose influence they became household names through regular appearances on the national commercial network in New York’s CBS programme Rudy Vallee’s Fleishmann’s Yeast Hour. By 1931 the Brothers had signed their initial contract with Brunswick Records and their first disc combined two instant US bestsellers (in the pre-Top 30 days, their sales in records, sheet music and radio airings made them the estimated equivalent of the chart positions shown):“Tiger Rag” at ‘No.1’and “Nobody’s Sweetheart” at ‘No.4’.
By 1932, the sales of that record had brought them their first Golden Disc and during that year the Brothers followed through with “Dinah” (another estimated ‘No.1’, in partnership with Bing Crosby) in addition to other hit titles, both of contemporary numbers and revivals of vaudeville favourites such as “Chinatown, My Chinatown”(‘No.10’), the more recent “Sweet Sue, Just You” (at ‘No.8’; they would resurrect this later, in the 1942 film Rhythm Parade),“It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” (‘No.7’), the bestsellers “Rockin’ Chair” and their early signature tune “Goodbye, Blues” (jointly at ‘No.4’),“I Heard” and “You Rascal,You” (both at ‘No.3’) and “St Louis Blues” and “Bugle Call Rag” (both at ‘No.2’). (For these and other early hits, see Naxos 8.120546: ‘Mills Brothers Early Classics’.)
The Mills Brothers’ hit records sold globally in large numbers and, like other entertainers of the early talkie era, they also endeared themselves to world audiences via radio and films, beginning with Big Broadcast Of 1932 (for Paramount, 1932; co-starring Bing Crosby, Kate Smith, Burns and Allen, Cab Calloway and the Boswell Sisters) in which they reintroduced “Tiger Rag”. By mid-decade, while their smooth close-harmony treatment of such time-honoured American ‘father’s favourites’ as Darling Nellie Gray (composed in 1856 and a Mills Bros ‘No.19’ hit in 1937) and Carry Me Back To Old Virginny (composed in 1878) was widely appreciated via discs and the airwaves by more mature listeners, they were pandering also to the up-tempo demands of Swing with Swing Is The Thing and similar fare.At the cinema meanwhile their adoring fans could also view their heroes on the big screen in a short series of B-movies. In Strictly Dynamite they introduced the expresslycomposed “Swing It, Sister” and in Twenty Million Sweethearts (1934, for Warners) they revived “Nagasaki”, while in Operator 13 (1934; for MGM/Cosmopolitan) they featured “Jungle Fever” and the US ‘No.2 hit’“Sleepy Head”. The Brothers’ by now global following led to European appearances during the summers of 1934, 1937 (Organ Grinder’s Swing dates from their London session during that tour) and 1939, while on records they scored further hits, including I Found A New Baby (‘No.19’, 1934) and, after their 1937 transfer to the main Decca label, Flat Foot Floogie (‘No.20’, 1938, with Louis Armstrong).
In 1935 the Brothers had made another successful screen appearance (in Broadway Gondolier, a Warner Bros musical starring Dick Powell) but in 1936 John Mills Jr. suddenly and prematurely died and their first instinct was to disband. However, John Sr. soon filled the breach and remained with the group until he retired, in 1956, and Herbert, Harry and Donald continued the group as a trio until the 1970s. After 1937, the effects of the Depression had abated and the Brothers made regular tours and appeared on radio and records with Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and others.Throughout the war years they retained their popularity, not least through their Golden Disc versions of “Lazy River”,“You Always Hurt The One You Love” and “Paper Doll” (their biggest hit of all, with sales over six million, after ‘White Christmas’ this last ranks as the major smash of the 1940s).
During the immediate post-War period the Mills Brothers struck gold with other hits in the US Top Ten, including “Across The Alley From The Alamo” (No.2, 1947), a 1950 No.4 revival of the 1931 Harry Ruby standard “Nevertheless” and one final No.1 with “Glowworm” (a 1952 Johnny Mercer updating of an already familiar tune first heard in a 1902 Paul Lincke operetta).After that (again for the statistically minded) they cut no more Top 10 hits and only “Say ‘Sí, sí’”,“Twice As Much” and “The Jones Boy” (all 1953) made the US Top 15. However, by updating the material – if not the formula – they survived the onslaught of rock-n-roll (albeit their last actual hit (for Decca) was “Queen Of The Senior Prom”, in 1957) and subsequent changes in pop to retain a substantial nostalgia following into the 21st century. By 1958 the Brothers had switched to the Dot label and subsequently gained two more US Top 30 entries:“Get A Job” and “Cab Driver” in addition to various albums in the Top 200 charts. Following Harry’s death in 1982, Herbert and Donald enlisted a new singer to maintain the trio, and when Herbert died, in 1989, Donald formed a successful duo with his own son John III.
Peter Dempsey, 2005
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