5/14/16 – The Mills Brothers: Combined Genres, Influenced More
The Mills Brothers combined genres and styles of their time, particularly melding European-sounding pop music with African-American influence, and as reflected in their movie role in "20 Million Sweethearts," they were the progenitors of many more.
5/14/16 – The Mills Brothers: Combined Genres, Influenced More
The Mills Brothers, often considered the greatest and most influential jazz and pop harmony group, originally comprised of three brothers from a family of nine; John Jr. singing bass and playing guitar, Herbert and Harry singing tenor, and Donald on baritone. Coming from a musical family, the brothers first learned to sing when they were exposed to jubilee quartet music, which essentially is the African-American barbershop quartet, when their parents John Jr and Eathel owned a barbershop.
Learning and singing these harmonies, the boys would sing around their native Piqua, Ohio, which is 25 north of Dayton. On the street, they would sing the jazz and pop standards of their time with their own flair. They developed not only their own vocal style, but they learned to imitate instruments. John Jr. imitated the tuba, Herbert and Harry swung the trumpet sounds, and Donald slid into the sound of the trombone. With these new skills and an incredible proficiency of scat singing, the Mills Brothers were able to sing pop and jazz in vocal harmony, as well as perform instrumental standards and provide instrumental-style accompaniment to their own work.
The Mills Brothers got their big break in 1928, when they accompanied a local Ohio act on WLW radio in Cincinnati. They were hired, and with the help of local radio legend Seger Ellis, the Four Boys and a Guitar became Ohio radio staples, and would eventually sing for Duke Ellington when we was playing in Cincinnati. Ellington made a call to Oken Records, and the Brothers recorded many albums, and would eventually become icons, selling 50 million album copies, and setting the standard for the great entertainers of the time and those to follow. Their early albums needed a disclaimer stating that no other instruments besides a guitar were used, because their ability. “Paper Doll,” “Glowworm,” and “Basin Street Blues,” became three of the Brothers’ standards, which they formed into iconic tunes.
One of the aspects of the Brothers that perhaps isn’t discussed as much is their influence not only on the some of the biggest pop stars ever, such as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin, but on the evolution of pop, jazz, and vocal harmony music thereafter.
I mentioned that the Mills Brothers learned to sing in the style of jubilee, which is the African-Americanized barbershop quartet. In terms of style and harmony, they are very similar. Both use the tenor, lead, baritone, and bass style of harmonization, and focused on using the dominant seventh tonality. However, there were some differences.
Both jubilee and barbershop emphasized popular song, but jubilee also sang gospel, blues, and African-American folk tunes. The style of the “pumping bass,” which has the bass singer imitate a double bass or tuba and can be heard today in gospel groups like the Fairfield Four, no doubt influenced John Jr. and the sound of the group.
There is actually a movie that the Mills Brothers performed in called 20 Million Sweethearts, starring Dick Powell, that has many scenes of the Mills Brothers performing. Through the miracle of YouTube (find the links below), I watched all of these, and it inspired me to write this piece. I thought it was such a great confluence of styles, and I heard how the Mills Brothers changed the landscape of music.
In these clips, the Brothers were in a semi-circle just like a jubilee quartet, and sang popular tunes of the time of the movie, which was released in 1934. The harmony was Great American Songbook, but the Brothers added their own attitude. Donald’s lead vocals were lack back with subtle sass, Harry’s spoken back and forth was reminiscent of a conversation between a pastor and his congregation, and everyone’s ability to scat and imitate instruments. Once the star of the movie joined them, I was stunned to hear the difference between the stylings, and why everyone was so blown away.
From these recordings, I heard how many African-American styles came into being. I already mentioned gospel quartets borrowing from the same tradition as the Mills Brothers, but the Brothers moved forward other styles. This is the analysis I gleaned from this.
The style of the Brothers, four African-American men singing in harmony with limited instrumental accompaniment, clearly carried over into The Ink Spots. This group, and its many iterations, carried a similar style of pop tunes with a jazz and blues fair, but added their own quirks and the spoken, smooth, and seductive bridge sections by their bass singer. The Ink Spots, like the Mills Brothers and many black performers before them, made their bones by playing for white audiences. From the Ink Spots, we move into doo wop.
Doo wop came around in the fifties, with influences of black music and harmony. The Ink Spots are considered this bridge between the Mills Brothers and doo wop, as they moved from European style pop to American blues. Doo wop sounded much more like rock compared to the two previous groups, and groups like The Temptations moved the genre forward and kept in popular.
Then about fifteen years later, while black groups were getting together and singing these doo wop tunes in public and private places, a group called the The Persuasions came along. They formed from a large group of guys who got together to play ball, and eventually narrowed it down to a lead singer, two tenors, a baritone and a bass. The original plan was to sing with a guitarist, but when the guitarist didn’t show for rehearsals or gigs, they became an a cappella group.
Twenty albums later, they became one of the most influential a cappella groups of all time, inspiring Boyz II Men, Take 6, The House Jacks, and Rockapella, who then would take their ability to harmonize and imitate instruments, and reached great heights. From there, with the help of the father of contemporary a cappella Deke Sharon, college a cappella became a staple of vocal harmony everywhere.