Books for Everyone!

Mid-June 2022

The Mills Brothers: Genetic Harmony

It is very likely that I would not have heard of, and listened to, and wonderfully experienced The Mills Brothers during my adolescence were it not for the atrocious acoustical noise that my peers listened to — with excitation and drooling reverence.

Following with bated breath the reverberations of The Who (which used to be a rock band); the endless chord pings of Yes, the nasally packaged monotony of Chicago, the zealously electrified zings of Led Zeppelin, the misogynistic and rhythmic mopings of T-Rex: that pastime was not for me. My fellow teens made it their full-time . . .whatever.

They glommed onto those frenetic sounds as if the cacophony had come from a Rock-Star-Zeus. Like a frenzied firebolt of metallica, that AC/DC psychedelic juice was sent to them from among the clap-tons of guitar gods, who were climbing that ear-piercing staircase to the seraphic chord-maker.

Me, I was trying to get away from the sonic assault to my eardrums. I quite pragmatically made use of the hyper-wired weirdness to better tune my ears to the true sounds of harmony:

The Mills Brothers.

I will confess that I did make use of the wretched records of many of those rock bands, T-Rex in particular, to write a thesis-like term paper on the view of woman in the lyrics of rock music. I got an A for the effort, and a few encouraging notes from my history teacher about my take on the intersection of history and culture.

My take today on the intersection of history and culture is that it does not exist. Each element has been obliterated on the public airwaves, in the public square, and, perhaps, for public sale.

There are nonetheless those vintage CDs, not the monetary kind, which have predictably and horrifically plummeted in value — but the musical variety. The Mills Brothers fill the bill whenever melody, harmony, romance, and lyrics with lovely meanings are desired by a music lover.

I owe my encounter with the Brothers to my voice lessons, as well as choir class, in high school. Hermited up in the cherished attic of my childhood house, I’d faithfully and diligently complete my vocal homework as assigned: 20-25 minutes of doing scales and practicing the songs for an upcoming concert performance.

I’d then close that dutiful session, and the red folder filled with sheet music. I set those serious compositions on a table, and I headed straight for my brown box radio. That historic wireless was secured in a cubbyhole adjacent to a built-in knotty pine desk — where I wrote that illustrious term paper — actually, all of my term papers, lustily typing them on a vintage Underwood typewriter.

I’d pull the radio out of its storage location to a prime spot where it garnered better reception. I’d then turn on the knob and tune into the radio station in NYC that played the Hits of the 1940s and 1950s. My preference was for the 1940s, and the DJ rarely disappointed me.

It took about five minutes for the tubes to warm up. I then was able to soothe my tempestuous teenaged soul with the smooth, silky euphonic voices of The Mills Brothers. Their music was melodic nectar, coming from that celestial sphere which I’ve no doubt they presently inhabit:

Cab Driver, Paper Doll, You Always Hurt the One You Love, Glow Worm, Lazy River.

The group known as The Mills Brothers was founded in Piqua, Miami County, Ohio, United States; it was vocally active for 54 years, from 1928 until 1982. Over the course of those years, decades, really, this jazz and pop quartet consisted of:

Donald (lead tenor, 1915-1999)

Herbert (tenor, 1912-1989)

Harry (baritone, 1913-1982)

John Jr. (guitar, double bass, vocals, 1910-1936)

John Sr. (replacing his deceased son, 1936-1957).

There is a unique textural quality of harmony that often exists among blood relatives: sisters, brothers, sometimes parent and child. I call it “genetic harmony”, but there may also be, at wondrous play, an emotional affinity that siblings may innately enjoy for the psychic understanding of one another on that extra-sensory continuum which is music.

Brother and sister harmonic singing acts were extremely successful during the 1940s and 1950s, well into the 1960’s; but none was as closely blended, with its own amalgamation of tones and textures and harmonies as The Mills Brothers. Each member not only possessed a singing voice worthy of the polyphony, he’d arrived at his signature tonality by imitating a musical instrument.

This unusual approach to your own instrument was initially arrived at through the necessity of improvisation. Harry was on-stage during the brothers’ performance in an amateur contest at Piqua’s Opera House in Miami, Ohio. He’d lost his kazoo and knew automatically what to do!

He cupped his hands to his mouth and created a very fine facsimile of the timbre of a trumpet. All the other brothers joined in, each choosing his own instrument to mimic.

Voilà: The distinctive harmonic sound of The Mills Brothers. The human instrument — the voice — was adjusted to that of a musical instrument.

This auditory translation is not all that unusual. Nat King Cole was a fantastically original pianist, the piano player for the Nat King Cole Trio. When he decided to use his voice, instead of his fingers to promote the key notes, he basically transformed tickling the ivories into melodically making of a tune one of the most expressive and refined placements of notes by the human instrument.

John Hutchinson Mills, father of the Mills boys, had been a barber with his shop and quartet. One can readily hear the tight harmonies that his sons achieved from the form of the barbershop quartet, but these vocal musicians originated a singing kinship and a performing technique that were rare, wonderful, and best-selling.

John, the bass voice, imitated the tuba. Harry, the baritone, was the first to reproduce the resonance of the trumpet. Herbert produced his own vocal version of a second trumpet. Donald performed his trombone intonation. This simulation of other instruments that naturally fit their own internal instrument — the voice — was pure genius.

The Mills Brothers could not profitably be duplicated, copied, or ripped off. They’d hit upon a way to hit their notes, or, more aptly, to caress them, with a combination of natural prowess and learned tune-smithing. Their intimate harmonies seemed to meld within the music, making jazz more than just a fusion. Theirs was a personal merging of the verve of each brother.

I’ve read that Dean Martin wanted to be able to sound like the combined effect of The Mills Brothers. What’s more probable is not that he wanted to be The Fifth Mills Brother, but he strove to place his warmly flowing voice wherever he wanted to put it, in a manner that sounded natural, unforced, flexible and fluid, right where the tone should be.

By the late 1920s, these four youngsters became local radio stars in their home town of Piqua. Their big break came when they sang for The Duke, Duke Ellington. He promptly arranged for their first recording contract in New York City. And off went The Mills Brothers, to the Big Apple, in 1930. There, William Paley, the big cheese at CBS Radio, heard the brothers, and immediately put them On the Air. The day after this radio-play, The Mills Brothers signed a 3-year contract with this network for their own radio show.

The Brothers attained a level of success that was equivalent to their talents. They “happened” at a time, during the 1930s and 1940s, when the radio emissions of that era almost magically brought those warm, rich, silken mellow tones into the homes of Americans, and of people around the world.

This highly accomplished singing group eventually produced more than 2,000 recordings, sold over 50 million copies, and garnered in excess of 36 gold records.

The melodies and harmonies that The Mills Brothers crafted out of their imitations of instruments, and transmuted into their own splendid instruments: that music is a phenomenally priceless gift to humanity.

That intersection of history and culture just might get rebuilt by The Mills Brothers, one instrument, and one classic song at a time.