L-R Herbert Mills, John Mills Jr, Donald Mills and Harry Mills were the four original Mills Brothers. Influenced by their father, John Sr., a barber who actually had a barbershop quartet, the four brothers started performing together on the sidewalk in front of his shop, and as teenagers in their Piqua Ohio AME and Baptist churches.
The oldest brother, John Jr, played guitar and sang bass, middle brothers Herbert sang tenor, and Harry sang lead baritone, while youngest brother Donald sang lead tenor. Their four part harmonies are so perfectly blended that they could only be the product of four singers linked by shared parentage.
Their original act featured solos by Harry on kazoo, but during one of their early showcases he neglected to bring his "instrument" and faked it by cupping his hands together and singing through them. Thus was born their truly unique "orchestral" sound. Harry would simulate a trumpet, Donald a trombone, Herbert a second trumpet or clarinet while John simulated a tuba bass. So authentic was their sound that for years their recordings featured the label: No musical instruments or mechanical devices used on this recording other than one guitar.
Their break came when Duke Ellington heard them on an amateur show and brought them to New York where they became one of the first major acts on CBS radio working beside such stars as Bing Crosby, Rudy Vallee, Cab Calloway and The Boswell Sisters.
Their best recordings were in the 1930's like the songs below It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing. First lead is taken by Harry, who then follows it with a simulated trumpet solo while his brothers play orchestral accompaniment. The second verse is sung and skatted by brother Donald.
The eldest brother, John Jr. died of pneumonia in 1936 (after a command performance for the King and Queen of England), and his vocal role was filled by their father, John Sr. who joined the group and stayed with them until his death in the 1960's. They recorded over 2000 songs, but my favorites are the ones from the 1930's like Paper Doll, Chinatown, Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland, and Swing Is The Thing. Their music is timeless, and never fails to amaze.
Watch the videos below like their "instrumental" Caravan to experience their incredible musicianship.
Lead vocal by Donald, "Trumpet" by Harry.
Amazing orchestra done with vocals.