MILLS BROTHERS: Swing Is The Thing
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THE MILLS BROTHERS Vol.2
'Swing Is The Thing' Original 1934-1938 Recordings
Combining the traditional elements ofvaudeville and barbershop with more recentdevelopments in the jazz idiom, with their 'FourBoys And a Guitar' billing the Mills Brotherselevated Negro minstrelsy to new heights.Andwhile their 'No Other Instruments exceptcomb and paper...' may at times have been lessthan accurate, for versatility in contrivedorchestral imitation (albeit derivative - it owedsomething to the Comedy Harmonists) wasnothing less than sensational.They wereprolific recording artists whose catalogue ofseventy hit records between 1931 and 1968(including the estimated equivalent of fiveNo.1s between 1931 and 1954) places themhigh among the most popular vocal groups ofall time.
During the mid-1920s the trio of brothersHerbert, (1912-1989), Harry (1913-1982) andDonald (1915-1999) would harmonise for theirown enjoyment at home in their native Piqua,Ohio. Encouraged by their ballad-singer-turnedbarberfather John Mills Senior (1882-1967)they were joined by their elder brother John(1911-1936), a talented guitarist who doubledwith vocal imitations of bass and tuba, andappeared together in the Piqua area in dancesand vaudeville shows. Billed as 'Four Boys AndA Kazoo' they improvised their own backingwith lifelike imitations of saxophones,trumpets, trombones and a variety of otherinstruments.
In 1928 the Mills Brothers secured a WLWRadio (Cincinnati) two-year contract for theirown show. However, they were only with thestation for ten months before a performance ata Piqua Opera House gala prompted anextended tour of Ohio and neighbouring states.
In 1930 they were heard and admired by A & Rman Tommy Rockwell, through whoseinfluence they became household namesthrough regular appearances on the nationalcommercial network in New York's CBSprogramme Rudy Vallee's Fleishmann's YeastHour. By 1931 the Brothers had signed theirinitial contract with Brunswick Records andtheir first disc combined two instant USbestsellers (in the pre-Top 30 days, their salesin records, sheet music and radio airings madethem the estimated equivalent of the chartpositions shown):\Tiger Rag" at 'No.1'and"Nobody's Sweetheart" at 'No.4'.
By 1932, the sales of that record hadbrought them their first Golden Disc andduring that year the Brothers followed throughwith "Dinah" (another estimated 'No.1', inpartnership with Bing Crosby) in addition toother hit titles, both of contemporary numbersand revivals of vaudeville favourites such as"Chinatown, My Chinatown"('No.10'), themore recent "Sweet Sue, Just You" (at 'No.8';they would resurrect this later, in the 1942 filmRhythm Parade),"It Don't Mean a Thing If ItAin'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 "StLouis Blues" and "Bugle Call Rag" (both at'No.2'). (For these and other early hits, seeNaxos 8.120546: 'Mills Brothers Early Classics'.)The Mills Brothers' hit records sold globallyin large numbers and, like other entertainers ofthe early talkie era, they also endearedthemselves to world audiences via radio andfilms, beginning with Big Broadcast Of 1932(for Paramount, 1932; co-starring Bing Crosby,Kate Smith, Burns and Allen, Cab Calloway andthe Boswell Sisters) in which they reintroduced"Tiger Rag". By mid-decade, whiletheir smooth close-harmony treatment of suchtime-honoured American 'father's favourites' asDarling Nellie Gray (composed in 1856 and aMills Bros 'No.19' hit in 1937) and Carry MeBack To Old Virginny (composed in 1878)was widely appreciated via discs and the airwavesby more mature listeners, they werepandering also to the up-tempo demands ofSwing with Swing Is The Thing and similarfare.At the cinema meanwhile their adoringfans could also view their heroes on the bigscreen in a short series of B-movies. In StrictlyDynamite they introduced the expresslycomposed"Swing It, Sister" and in TwentyMillion Sweethearts (1934, for Warners) theyrevived "Nagasaki", while in Operator 13(1934; for MGM/Cosmopolitan) they featured"Jungle Fever" and the US 'No.2 hit'"SleepyHead". The Brothers' by now global followingled to European appearances during thesummers of 1934, 1937 (Organ Grinder'sSwing dates from their London session duringthat tour) and 1939, while on records theyscored further hits, including I Found A NewBaby ('No.19', 1934) and, after their 1937transfer to the main Decca label, Flat FootFloogie ('No.20', 1938, with Louis Armstrong).
In 1935 the Brothers had made anothersuccessful screen appearance (in BroadwayGondolier, a Warner Bros musical starring DickPowell) but in 1936 John Mills Jr. suddenly andprematurely died and their first instinct was todisband. However, John Sr. soon filled thebreach and remained with the group until heretired, in 1956, and Herbert, Harry and Donaldcontinued the group as a trio until the 1970s.
After 1937, the effects of the Depression hadabated and the Brothers made regular toursand appeared on radio and records with BingCrosby, Ella Fitzgerald and others.Throughoutthe war years they retained their popularity, notleast through their Golden Disc versions of"Lazy River","You Always Hurt The One YouLove" and "Paper Doll" (their biggest hit of all,with sales over six million, after 'WhiteChristmas' this last ranks as the major smash ofthe 1940s).
During the immediate post-War period theMills Brothers struck gold with other hits inthe US Top Ten, including "Across The AlleyFrom The Alamo" (No.2, 1947), a 1950 No.4revival of the 1931 Harry Ruby standard"Nevertheless" and one final No.1 with "Glowworm"(a 1952 Johnny Mercer updating of analready familiar tune first heard in a 1902 PaulLincke operetta).After that (again for thestatistically minded) they cut no more Top 10hits and only "Say 'Si, si'","Twice As Much" and"The Jones Boy" (all 1953) made the US Top15. However, by updating the material - if notthe formula - they survived the onslaught ofrock-n-roll (albeit their last actual hit (forDecca) was "Queen Of The Senior Prom", in1957) and subsequent changes in pop to retaina substantial nostalgia following into the 21stcentury. By 1958 the Brothers had switched tothe Dot label and subsequently gained twomore US Top 30 entries:"Get A Job" and "CabDriver" in addition to various albums in theTop 200 charts. Following Harry's death in1982, Herbert and Donald enlisted a newsinger to maintain the trio, and when Herbertdied, in 1989, Donald formed a successful duowith his own son John III.
Peter Dempsey, 2005"