Friday, February 10, 2012

Piqua, Piqua, Will Rock You - The Mills Brothers!

Growing up and getting their start in Piqua OH in churches and other local venues in the late 1920's, The Mills Brothers, Herbert, Donald, Harry, and John Jr., were a popular jazz and pop vocal quartet for several decades. They created their unique vocal style of imitating musical instruments when one of the brothers forgot his harmonica and he was forced to improvise without it. Later, when they were on Brunswick Records the label boasted “No musical instruments or mechanical devices used on this recording other that one guitar”. I couldn't help but be reminded that 40 years later, the rock band Queen, also known for their unique vocal style, would make a similar brag of "no synthesizers were used on this record" because people mistook their multi-multi-tracked guitar sound to be synthesizers. (I make several more Queen references. If you enjoy that keep reading.)

Herbert, Donald, Harry, and John Jr. performed on Cincinnati's 5000 watt WLW radio which allowed them to reach audiences as far away as Chicago and New York City. The brothers were billed under various other names for these shows such as Four Boys and a Kazoo and the peculiar Tasty Yeast Jesters, which sounds like some modern Indie rock band but this name came from the sponsor of the show, Tasty Yeast.

After a broadcasting executive heard them in late 1930 on WLW, CBS Radio signed them to a three year deal becoming the first African-Americans to have a network radio show. After this they became national stars and their version of the jazz standard Tiger Rag went to #1 in 1931, which became the first recording by a vocal group to sell one million copies.
They followed up with a string of hit songs. In 1934, they became the first African-Americans to perform for British Royalty including the Queen (Mary, not the band). During the War Years they continued churning out the hits and touring worldwide to great acclaim and delight.

Mills Brothers monument in Piqua
In 1943 The Mills Bros had their biggest song with Paper Doll going to #1 and selling 6 million copies. Not bad for a song that was recorded in 15 minutes. The group remained active up though the rock and roll era still topping the charts and appearing on popular TV variety shows such as Jack Benny, Perry Como and the Tonight Show.

After four decades and 71 chart singles (Queen only had 18), The Mills Brothers disbanded after their final hit Cab Driver in 1968 which happened to be the same year Brian May met Roger Taylor forming the basis for the rock band Queen.

Over the years since, The Mills Brothers performed reunion shows with different members. The last original Mills Brother, Donald passed away in 1999 at the age of 84. The son of John Jr, John Mills III and Elmer Hopper of the Platters currently tour as a version of "The Mills Brothers" much in the same way Brian May and Roger Taylor still perform without Freddie Mercury or John Deacon as a version of "Queen".

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