Jubilee Quartets: The Mills Brothers Edition


  • A Jubilee Quartet includes an acapella ensemble of about 4 to 6 singers, either female or male with limited inclusion of instruments.
  • Jubilee Quartets began as an African-American musical phenomenon that was introduced by the “Fisk Jubilee Singers” in 1871.
  • During the 1880-1929 period, a plethora of Historically Black Colleges and Universities followed suit, by introducing their own Jubilee Quartets. These harmonious groups began touring across the U.S. to gain financial growth; further instilling a common tradition for HBCU’s to such musical groups. 
  • The Mills Brothers were one of the most exceptional Jubilee quartets in media because of their extraordinary aptitude in harmony and expertise in appealing to consumers.

The Beginning of the Mills Brothers

  • The Mills Brothers, also known as the Four Kings of Harmony, was a group of brothers from a Mills Family of nine in Piqua, Ohio.
  • The four brothers: Donald, Herbert, Harry, and John Jr. began singing at a young age in the Cyrene African Methodist Episcopal Church in Piqua. 
  • John Mills Sr. had his own barbershop and barbershop quartet. They followed in their father’s footsteps by singing on the steps of his establishment. 
  • One time during a talent show contest, one of the brothers forgot their kazoo instrument and improvised with making a the sound of the kazoo with their mouth. This began the acapella sounds of musical instruments that made the Mills Brothers rise to fame in 1925.

Rise to Fame

  • The Mills Brothers began their road towards popularity as they won an audition for a radio show becoming local radio phenomenons.
  • They also had the opportunity to sing for Duke Ellington, who believed in their talent and caused them to be signed by Okeh Records in New York City.
  • The Mills Brothers:
    • Sold more 50 million records
    • Recorded over 2,000 songs 
    • Were the first African-American artists to have their own show on national network radio in the 1930’s 
    • Were the first African American’s to have a no. 1 hit record on the Billboard’s with “Paper Doll”(1943)
    • Inducted into the Vocal group Hall of Fame in 1998. 

The Mills Brothers Sound

  • The Mills Brothers sang acapella all together and at times, they would sing with John Jr. playing the guitar. 
  • They also imitated different musical instruments with their mouths. Donald would be the trombone, John being the tuba, Harry and Herbert taking the trumpets. 


In most of the media presented above, the Mills Brothers were performing in front of a large white audience and were recorded on a national network radio show. Due to the time period of the late 1920’s to the late 1960’s, this was surprising for Ohio-raised black men to graduate from singing off the porch of their father’s barbershop to being primarily featured in white media spaces. Their talent and appeal to musical consumers is what built the group’s success; therefore, proving that the Mills Brothers were one of the most exceptional Jubilee quartet’s in media.

Works Cited

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