Obituary: Donald Mills

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WHEN DONALD Mills, the last surviving member of the Mills Brothers, unveiled a statue of the group in his hometown of Piqua, Ohio, in 1990, the plaque read, "The Mills Brothers . . . America's greatest singing group . . . and musical ambassadors to the world." That was overstating the case, but the Mills Brothers were one of the most important musical acts to come from America and, significantly, they were the first black group to become popular with white audiences.

The brothers' grandfather, William Mills, was the founder of the McMillan and Sourbeck Jubilee Singers and had a barber's shop. His son, John, was also a barber and he formed his own quartet, the Four Kings of Harmony. John and his wife, Ethel, who sang light opera, encouraged their children's talents. The children, John (born 1910), Herbert (1912), Harry (1913) and Donald (1915), would gather in front of their father's shop and entertain passers-by by singing to a kazoo accompaniment.

In 1922, they entered a talent contest as Four Boys and a Kazoo at the Mays Opera House in Piqua. As they forgot the kazoo, John put his hands to his mouth and imitated the instrument. From this, they developed an act in which they could imitate a jazz combo as well as sing. Donald, a tenor, was also the group's trombone. They relied upon a guitar when they were actually singing the words.

When Donald was only 10, they were performing on the radio station WLW in Cincinnati. By then, they were Four Boys and a Guitar and if they were advertising, say, Tasty Yeast they became the Tasty Yeast Boys. Duke Ellington heard them when he was playing in Cincinnati and recommended them to the New York label Okeh for their first records. They made radio programmes for CBS in New York, thus becoming the first black group to front a radio show, and they also signed a recording contract with the successful Brunswick label.

In 1930 they had their first hit record with "Tiger Rag". When Rudy Vallee booked them for his radio variety show, he expected them to arrive with a group, little realising that they sang the instrumental passages themselves. "Tiger Rag" was the only record in 1930 to sell over a million copies. Their follow-up, "Goodbye Blues", became their theme tune and it made a novel stage piece as Don, Herb and Harry cupped their hands to make the instrumental noises while John sang in his deep voice.

The Mills Brothers appeared in the 1932 film The Big Broadcast, which starred Bing Crosby, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and also made cameo appearances in Twenty Million Sweethearts (1934), Operator 13 (1934) and Broadway Gondolier (1935). Bing Crosby recorded "Dinah", "Shine" and "Can't We Talk It Over" with the group, and was the first of many celebrities to record with them including Louis Armstrong ("Carry Me Back to Old Virginny"), Ella Fitzgerald ("Big Boy Blue", "Dedicated to You"), Al Jolson, Cab Calloway and, as late as 1968, Count Basie.

For several years, the Mills Brothers had no rivals in their field. The white vocal groups were mostly music hall acts, while the black groups concentrated on harmonies, and the Mills Brothers were something in-between. They starred at the London Palladium and appeared on the 1934 Royal Variety Performance. After that performance, John contracted tuberculosis and had to leave the group. When he died in 1936, the Mills Brothers considered disbanding, but their mother, Ethel, persuaded them to continue, with their father, John, taking his son's place. In John junior's memory, they retained the name the Mills Brothers.

They were in England in September 1939 when war was about to be declared, and could not find a ship to return to America. Undeterred, they went to Australia and arranged a spontaneous tour. By the time they returned to America, they had serious competition from another black harmony group, the Ink Spots. In 1942, when the Mills Brothers recorded "I'll Be Around" for their new Decca release, Don suggested "Paper Doll" for the B-side. They recorded it in 15 minutes but it was so catchy that radio DJs started playing "Paper Doll" instead of "I'll Be Around" and it sold six million records.

The Mills Brothers followed "Paper Doll" with two further gold records, "You Always Hurt The One You Love" (1944) and "Up A Lazy River" (1948). The record labels read, "No musical instruments or mechanical devices used on this recording other than one guitar." The Mills Brothers' ability to mimic instruments meant that they were in demand during a Musicians' Union strike and, indeed, the union checked that they were only using their voices. Today, it is hard to imagine how anyone could think otherwise. They simulated the instruments very well and their timing and harmonies are exquisite, but it is quite obviously voices mimicking instruments. Still, their sound enabled them to stand out from other groups of the day.

By 1950 the Mills Brothers realised that their gimmick was wearing thin and decided to record with orchestras. They teamed up with Tommy Dorsey's arranger, Sy Oliver, and had hits with "Nevertheless (I'm In Love With You)" (1950) and "Be My Life's Companion" (1952). Donald Mills commented modestly on their success, "It's just simple melodies and good lyrics. As long as people can understand the words and can tap a foot to our music, that's all we've ever needed."

They also had the knack of picking the right songs. The 1902 German operetta Lysistrata seems an unlikely source, but the master lyricist Johnny Mercer was asked to restructure one of the songs and "Glow Worm" reached No 2 in the US in 1952 and also made the UK Top Ten.

"Glow Worm" sounds like a record from 10 years earlier, and the advent of doo-wop meant that the style of vocal harmony groups was changing and the Mills Brothers had more competition. In 1956, with the popularity of rock'n'roll, their father, John, by then 75 years old, decided to quit. The Mills Brothers continued as a trio, appearing in the rock'n'roll film The Big Beat (1957) and even making the US Top Thirty with a cover version of the Silhouettes' "Get a Job" (1958). They had a hit with "Cab Driver" in 1968 and two years later were on the US country charts with "It Ain't No Big Thing".

The Mills Brothers released over 2,000 recordings, which is about three times Elvis Presley's output. They welcomed the introduction of the LP and recorded albums of Hawaiian music, country songs and hymns. With the current passion for Latin music, some enterprising company should reissue "Say `Si Si' " and Other Great Latin Hits (1964). Dean Martin acknowledged his debt to the Mills Brothers: he adopted the easy, casual style of their lead vocals and recorded "Paper Doll".

Harry Mills suffered from diabetes and he retired in 1981, when he was almost blind. He died the following year and Herb and Don continued with the addition of Don's son, John. Don's wife, Sylvia, died in 1988 and Herb the following year, but Don and his son continued to perform the Mills Brothers' repertoire. In 1998, Don accepted a Grammy award on behalf of the Mills Brothers. The father and son recorded a CD, Still There's You, in 1994 and were headlining in Palm Springs only last April.

By the time of his death, Don Mills had been singing in eight different decades, a remarkable achievement, but he was just as proud of his extended family of 21 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.

Spencer Leigh

Donald Friedlich Mills, singer: born Piqua, Ohio 29 April 1915; married (three sons, three daughters); died Los Angeles 13 November 1999.