I’ve occasionally written about doo-wop, either spotlighting some of the best of the smooth close-harmony groups of the Fifties and Sixties, or reviewing newly-released compilations, but to understand the origins of the genre you have to start with the Mills Brothers. The legendary group (along with their contemporaries the Ink Spots) helped pave the way for all who came later.
Piqua, Ohio, was the birthplace of the four original Mills Brothers — John, Jr. was the oldest, followed by Herbert, Harry, and Donald. The sons of a singing barber who had himself been part of a barbershop quartet, they’d naturally learned close-harmony singing and the boys began appearing professionally at an early age. But as they approached adulthood they adopted something new.
They’d been performing as ‘Four Boys and a Guitar’ but began experimenting with their ability to mimic other musical intruments as they sang — everything from trumpet to sax, and from trombone to tuba. It made for a great stage act, and was so successful that it became one of their best-known characteristics.
By the early Thirties they were beginning to hit the big time, moving to New York and showing up on records, in clubs, and even in musical movies. At one time or another, they appeared with Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald, and had a number of hits that included “Tiger Rag” and “Dinah.” They also began to spend a lot of time on tour, and in 1936 tragedy struck while the group was appearing in England. Oldest brother John, Jr. died of complications from pneumonia.
Father John, Sr. joined the group, taking over the deep notes for his late son, and the group continued successfully for a while, but as the Forties began their popularity began to lessen. However, in 1943 they recorded a song that would become their biggest hit. Their recording of “Paper Doll” sold six-million platters – an amazing total for that time – and put them firmly back into the spotlight. They soon followed up with another top hit, “You Always Hurt the One You Love.”
Throughout the Forties and Fifties, the Mills Brothers continued as popular performers, gradually and wisely shaping their music to fit the popular tastes of the time, including the use of more traditional musical instrumentation behind them. They had a big-seller with “Glow Worm” in 1952, and even after John pretty much retired in 1956 the others continued as a trio.
For the next couple of decades the Mills Brothers found a comfortable niche with steady record sales of tunes such as “Standing On The Corner” and “Cab Driver,” and also some appearances on the burgeoning oldies circuit. In the Eighties, brothers Harry and Herbert died, but the sole surviving brother, Donald, kept the group going with younger family members filling in. He died in 1999 and his son John now leads the group, which is still performing some eighty years after ‘Four Boys and a Guitar’ started it all.