Jazz and chorus
|(2) Barbershop Chorus and
the Mills Brothers
The pioneer of male Jazz chorus is the Mills Brothers. From their hometown of Piqua, Ohio, they went to New York City, and made their record debut in 1931. This year, "Tiger Rag" and "Dinah" became a big hit and was a great sensation.
The father of the four brothers, John Mills Sr. was a barber in real life, but also sang as a member of The Four Kings of Harmony, so this group literally was a barbershop chorus.
The history of traditional barbershop chorus is old, and goes back into the 1870s. It started as quartets by the African Americans of the South. When in 1910, a song titled “Play that Barbershop Chord” was published, the word "Barbershop" came into use for the first time.
Of course, as in Japan where the ancient name was ukiyo-toko, meaning life's alcove (barber shop in present day Japanese is toko-ya, toko meaning alcove), barbershops all over the world are places where people gather so the name of this type of chorus actually comes from barbershops. There were times when every barbershop in the US boasted a quartet.
A specific singing style of male quartets came to be called by this name, and there are associations of barbershop choruses all over the world, but according to these members, they state in no uncertain terms that barbershop chorus and jazz chorus are two entirely different things. Also, a cappella is the rule, singing without instrumental accompaniment. It is correct to think that the chorus of the Mills Brothers differs from barbershop choruses per se.
The sons of John Hutchinson Mills Sr. (1882-1967) grew up hearing their father's barbershop chorus from the cradle. The four brothers are the following.
Donald joined his brothers and started singing with them when he became 7 years old. This is the beginning of the Mills Brothers. Some books list the start of the chorus as 1931, but this is the year that they went to New York and recorded their songs for the first time. Around the end of the 1920s, their songs were aired by Cincinnati Radio Station. The photograph above was taken about the time they started singing together, probably in 1922. From the left, the eldest, John Jr., the 2nd, Herbert, 3rd, Harry, and the 4th, Donald, all in a row. They continued to sing for over 60 years, but Donald died last in 1999.
The Mills Brothers sang along the line of barbershop choruses, but added swing, which had become popular at that time, to their songs, and established a type of Jazz chorus which made them famous. They call themselves, "Barbershop Swing Chorus."
There is no swing chorus as warm
as theirs. It may sound like simple harmony, but on the contrary,
the use of 6th and 9th chords and tension harmonies in a rustic but
effective way makes their sounds modern and fresh, even now. In their
early days, they used in place of a trumpet, an instrument called
Kazoo, which had paraffin pasted across so it would make a buzzing
sound when blown (like a toy), but one day, they forgot to bring it
along. So, Harry blew into his hands to imitate, rather than the Kazoo,
a trumpet. Talk about necessity being the mother of invention.
The photograph on the right is from the period that John Sr. sang with his sons because of the untimely death of John Jr. in 1936. Their vocal imitation of brass instruments was their patent act and gave their songs a unique feeling.
"Caravan" is especially famous. Satchmo started scat, but this style is unique to the Mills Brothers. The guy on the left is Donald whose imitation of the trombone is equaled by no other.
John Jr. played the guitar for the quartet, but with his death in 1936, they put out an advertisement in the newspaper for a new guitarist, which resulted in a long line of applicants.
They hired the first man in the line without any fuss, though. This guy was Norman Brown, who played with the Mills Brothers for 30 years. In whatever he did, his warm character was apparent. Actually, Norman Brown had brought a reference from the Count Basey Orchestra's famous guitarist, Freddie Green. No wonder he was hired immediately.
Later, when their father retired in 1958, the brothers continued to sing as a trio. They were singing as a trio when they came to Japan for the first time.
This is a snap shot from the heyday of the Mills Brothers as a trio.
When they came to Japan for the first time, it was around the time I was a sophomore in college. I went to their concert at Sankei Hall with my chorus group friends. The MC of this show was the great Masao Kojima. This was the show of one of his favorite singers. I suppose Mr. Kojima didn't want to leave it to anyone else. Ordinarily, either Yukio Shima or Teruo Isono would be the MC at concerts. These days, it is the norm for the performers to do all the talking, but in the old days, MCs came on stage to do the introductions and shop talk.
The audience included, as well as the Duke Aces, Lilio Rhythm Airs, the Dark Ducks whom Mr. Kojima had instructed, sat all in a row. If my memory is correct, another group that Mr. Kojima had instructed, Three Graces performed as the curtain raisers, but I am not sure.
Around 1990, at a CD store close
to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, I found three albums of the
Mills Brothers recorded at the beginning of their career. It was pressed
in England, but I was so happy that I found it before anyone else.
Though the title and the cover designs are different, there are US
versions in circulation now. Bing Crosby, Connie Boswell, the Boswell
Sisters and others sing together with them. The style is old but lots
Their latter day saga is as impressive. Harry died, Herbert retired, so only Donald was left. Donald began to tour with his son, John Mills II, and continued for 18 years into his old age. In 1999,
Donald’s last recording was done. He sings a song called "Still There's You", written by John II during the ‘80s, and it's impossible to listen to it without tears.
The lyrics go like this.
Yes, that's right. The Mills Brothers are still alive in our hearts.
I had to get hold of this CD no matter what. I looked up their web site, got in touch with the Webmaster, and sent a request. To this, I received a reply directly from John Mills II, and along with an accompanying letter, he sent me the CD as a gift.
The third generation of the Mills, John II, together with Elmer Hopper who joined in 1999 sing the Mills tunes, and have inherited the name, Mills Brothers.
Elmer Hopper was favored by Paul Robi and used to be the lead singer of The Platters for 21 years.
At the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee in 2001, John II’s nephew Eric joined them, and sang as a trio
The OZ SONS sing "Paper Doll", a Mills favorite, and in April 2004, they sang with the Orpheans, the oldest Japanese Jazz band at their Orpheans Dinner Show. On that day, tenor saxophone player Yasushi Ashida brought some treasured photographs. "Since you are going to sing Mills songs," he said. What wonderful words.
The photographs were from the times when Yasushi Ashida was the band leader of the Mellow Notes at the New Latin Quarter in Akasaka. It most certainly is Mr. Ashida's treasure, but I have borrowed them. They were taken some 40 years ago.
So you'd like to see them? Well, here they are. Mills Bros and Yasushi Ashida
This photo was taken at JZ Brat, Tokyo on Oct. 13, 2005.
Elmer Hopper sent me this photo after he came back to United States by e-mail attachment.
It is prohibited to take photos in this Jazz Club during performance. Elmer asked sombody to take their photo.
They performed beautiful Mills' sound by only two voices. We were so impressed by a nostalgic Mills' swing. It was a big fun!
by John Mills II and Elmer Hopper
Mail from John Mills II（2008/7/8）
Recent Mills Brothers Promotion Video
I found such a photo. A photo of the Mills Brothers Concert at Los Angels in August 2010. I saw Donald Jr. at first time, surprising figure looks like father. Gina is a daughter of Mr. B, Billy Eckstine.
Basin Street Blues in early 80s.
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2012 is a special year
They announced the Concert with Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra in November 2014.
Donald Mills Jr. died on July 23, 2015. （2015/7/23）
Elmer Hopper of the Platters. Mills Bros. Dies
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Elmer's death is reported on Obituaries of Culver City News. He had sung by the Paul Robi's and platters from 70 's to 90 's, and he has been a family of Mills Brothers from 1999.
He was 63 years old.
Elmer visited Japan several times when the platters age. He met Mr. Yasushi Ashida of a saxophone at that time. He sent me an e-mail "Tell me the phone number of Mr. Ashida" in November of 2004.". This was the first our contact. He had looked the story of Ashida in my site.
The present Mills Brothers visited Japan in 2006, first, I met. Elmer and Jone were so glad.
John would also feel lonely. A comforted word isn't found. R.I.P.
Official Site http://www.themillsbrothers.com/