The Mills Brothers: Four Kings of Harmony

1..2..3..4... Jubilee Quartet?! Tell Me More!

The Jubilee Period was from 1880-1929. This genre or style of music was derived from the negro spirituals sung by African Americans during slavery. Jubilee quartets were a form of African American a cappella groups and were given the name because of the characteristics of their performance style. Quartets sang in barber shops and competed in the streets to show off their talent, and was commonly used as a way of funding for some HBCUs. Over time, the commodification of quartets led to radio broadcasting, touring, and other forms of media attention. In the twentieth century, the quartet evolved into a sub-genre of gospel music and even helped contribute to the evolution of secular and sacred music.

You gotta show them what you're made of!!

  • 4-6 voices or singersJubilee quartets consisted of 4 members, but some had a max of 6. These included a lead tenor, second tenor, baritone, and base singer.
  • Strophic style/ Call and Response: A strophic song uses the same repeated melody, with different text for each repetition. The song may include a chorus or a refrain. In the refrain, the same words are sung to the same melody for each repetition. This occurs frequently at the end of the song, but refrains may also be used at the beginning or in the middle of the song as well. In regard to call and response, usually the lead tenor leads certain parts of the songs and the rest of the quartet responds periodically throughout.
  • Respectable Image/ Uniform: Early quartets reinforced their respectable image by adopting uniforms such as suits, bowties, and collared shirts. They also wore their hair in a nice slick manner giving a very clean cut and neat presentation like that of their music.
  • Little to no instruments/ a cappella: Jubilee quartets sung a cappella. They used no instruments and if they did at most, they used a guitar. This is similar to the a cappella way in which negro spirituals were sung by slaves. Some members of the quartet would mimic musical instruments with their voices.
  • Harmony: Jubilee quartets used a formal arrangement of songs in close four-part harmony. This also included a rhythmic style of singing.

"Four Boys and a Guitar"

An astonishing vocal group that grew into one of the longest-lasting oldies acts in American popular music, the Mills Brothers quickly, moved from novelty wonders to pop successes and continued amazing audiences for decades. Originally known as “Four Boys and a Guitar,” the group’s early records came complete with a note assuring listeners that the only musical instrument they were hearing was a guitar. The caution was understandable, since the Mills Brothers were so skilled at re-creating instruments with only their voices. The four brothers were all born in Piqua, OH (John, Jr. in 1910, Herbert in 1912, Harry in 1913, and Donald in 1915). Soon rising to stardom the Mills Brothers signed a three-year contract and became the first African-Americans to have a network show on radio.


Awards and accomplishments

The Mills Brothers made more than 2,000 recordings that sold more than 50 million copies and garnered at least three dozen gold records. The Mills Brothers were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998.

Future Genre Influences

The vocal style of Jubilee quartets, established a beat that would become iconic and used widely in music today. This style had much influence on Elvis within the genre of rock and roll, as well as iconic groups such as “The Temptations” (featured in the photo to the right).

Author's Remarks

Jubilee quartets were inspired by negro spirituals and were very distinct due to their harmonic abilities. These quartets inspired some of my favorite groups such as the Temptations and gave the sorrow tone of some negro spirituals an upbeat feeling. The creativity of the African American is still unmated in my opinion, and jubilee quartets help validate this.


“Jubilee Quartet.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 10 Aug. 2018,

Bush, John, and John Bush. “The Mills Brothers | Biography & History.” AllMusic,

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