By: Jada Farley-Cook
The Mills Brothers were a quartet group of four brothers who broke racial barriers and paved the way for African-American music through their performances and hits.
All born in the city of Piqua, Ohio between 1910-1915, four brothers, Herbert, Harry, John Jr. and Donald Mills were all musically talented. Growing up in their father’s barbershop watching his shop’s quartet group perform, the boys quickly caught on to the act of harmonizing. It was not long before each boy gravitated towards an instrument that they could imitate vocally, and before they knew it, they had become an impressive quartet group performing on the Cincinnati radio by the 1920s.
The group moved to New York and took off, garnering multiple hits. All of these hits were composed of only the brothers’ voices and a guitar, to the astonishment of many, earning them the title “Four Boys and a Guitar”. They were also sometimes referred to as “The Steamboat Four”. The brothers soon made history and became the first African-Americans to attain a network show on the radio. This was rare and impressive to have happened during their time period. “Tiger Rag” became the group’s first hit in 1931, selling over a million copies, with many hits to follow.
The group had garnered lots of success by appearing in movies like “The Big Broadcast”, but tragedy soon struck. John Jr. suddenly died in 1936. Although the brothers’ father John Sr. took over for him and Bernard Addison joined as a guitarist, the group had noticeably changed. Their popularity was steadily declining and they were in need of a pick-me-up. Luckily, they soon had an immense hit, “Paper Doll”, earning them six million records sold and appearances in movies like “20 Million Sweethearts” and “Reveille With Beverly”.
The group continued to make music, incorporating pop into some of it and still producing a few hits. John Sr. later retired and the group became a trio, until Harry died in 1982 and Herbert in 1988. Donald continued the legacy by performing with his son, John II, until Donald’s own death in 1999. The group still has an incredible legacy today, being the first African-American group to perform before British royalty. They paved the way for us to see performances today, like the gospel performance by the Black choir at Prince Harry and Meghan’s royal wedding. The Mills Brothers still live on today, with John II performing under the group’s name.
Bush, John. “The Mills Brothers: Biography & History.” AllMusic, www.allmusic.com/artist/the-mills-brothers-mn0000403120/biography.