Brothers in Jazz

June 30, 2015

A word of warning: a wave of nostalgia is approaching. Why? Because this post is about the Mills Brothers. In my life there was music before jazz (that came in at about age 14) and it was quite a mixture, including as it did music listened to on radio and records by parents, sister and brother (both older than me), grandparents, friends and neighbors. Thus there was grand opera alongside music hall ribaldry, musical comedy segueing into brass band music (this was in the north of England), there was operetta, dance band and chamber music, and intertwined with all of this were popular songs of the day. All of this perhaps explains why, even today, I know the words to many songs popular in British music halls many decades before I was born. My brother was a jazz fan and he and his pals crept secretly from house to house, 78s under their arms, to indulge themselves in whatever corner happened to be temporarily free of supervising and disapproving grown-ups. It was a few years before I was admitted to this secret society and began my own journey into the world of jazz. Until then, I followed most of those other musical paths and I recall some instances where an artist or perhaps a particular song would overcome the artificial boundaries we imposed and appeal to all of us. Among these artists and songs, Paul Robeson’s Old Man River comes to mind; the singer being something of a hero for factors that lay outside his musical life. Surprisingly, from time to time there were touches of jazz. Ella Fitzgerald’s A-Tisket, A-Tasket is one example; another is the vocal group, The Mills Brothers, especially with their versions of Paper Doll and The Glow-Worm. It was therefore with delight that I found among recent releases that came to me for review in Jazz Journal a double CD:

The Mills Brothers Paper Doll (Retrospective RTS 4263/4)

For those whose memories do not go back so far, the Mills Brothers formed their singing group in Piqua, Ohio, around 1925.mills1 They were real-life brothers, Herbert, Harry, Donald and John Jr., and they soon gained popularity and began making records at the start of the 1930s. Sadly, John died in 1936 and was replaced by the brothers’ father, John Sr., who stayed on until 1957 when he retired and thereafter the group was a trio. Perhaps a side effect of the need to make themselves self-sufficient, from the outset the group did not need accompaniment. In their original format, John Jr. played guitar while some of his brothers imitated musical instruments, creating vocal representations of trumpet or trombone or bass. Following John Jr.’s death, Bernard Addison played guitar for the group for about two years, and was succeeded by Norman Brown. This double album, which covers the years 1931 to 1952, includes all the Mills Brothers’ hits and they had many. In addition to Paper Doll and The Glow-Worm there are also Sleepy Head, Lazy River, Chinatown, My Chinatown and You Always Hurt The One You Love. The unmistakeable vocal sounds of the group is a beguiling melding of many vocal styles, notably early minstrelsy and barbershop singing, but all cloaked in sophisticated harmonization. The brothers sings with a relaxed swing and a strong feeling for jazz. This last quality meant that many leading jazz artists of the day were happy to join them in the recording studio or on radio shows, while their broad appeal brought in artists from the wider world of popular music. Among examples on this release are Louis Armstrong on Carry Me Back To Old Virginny, Cherry and Marie; Duke Ellington on It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing; Ella Fitzgerald, Dedicated To You; Tommy Dorsey, Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone; Sy Oliver, Be My Life’s Companion; Bing Crosby Dinah and Shine; Al Jolson, Is It True What They Say About Dixie?.

As mentioned, after John Sr.’s retirement, Herbert, Harry and Donald continued as a trio, touring and recording with remarkable success through succeeding decades. Harry died in 1982 and another singer was brought in for a while, the first time that a non-family member was in the group. Even Herbert’s death, in 1989, was not the end as Donald teamed up with his son, John III, to sing on as a duo. Early hit singles by the quartet notwithstanding, in my view, the best of the Mills Brothers’ recordings come from 1967 and 1968, the years in which the surviving trio made two albums with Count Basie and his orchestra. These are outstanding recordings and richly deserve their regular reissue.

The Mills Brothers and Count Basie The Board Of Directors & Annual Report (Universal MCLD 19366)

and Complete Recordings (Gambit 69223)

To be clear, small differences in track sequencing apart, these releases are the same, the Universal appearing in 1998 and the Gambit in 2005.mills2 Any doubts anyone might hold about the jazz content of the Mills Brothers’ work must surely go out the window on hearing these swinging sets. All the qualities the group had demonstrated consistently through the preceding three-plus decades are evident in abundance. Indeed, the brothers are clearly invigorated by the Basie band as they swing through old and new favorites, injecting newly-sparked enthusiasm into familiar songs and reveling in songs rarely if ever sung before.mills3 Among the 21 tracks are Lazy River, Cherry, Sunny, The Glow-Worm, April In Paris, The Whiffenpoof Song, Cielito Lindo, Blue And Sentimental, I’ll Be Around, Release Me, April In Paris and Gentle On My Mind. Several Basie soloists can be heard while the charts, Dick Hyman on Annual Report, Chico O’Farrill on The Board Of Directors, match the best of Basie. Altogether, this a meeting of minds and the resulting music is wonderful.

The Mills Brothers Story (Storyville Films)

This 2007 film documentary is a real treat.mills dvd Mixing insightful interviews with numerous vocal performances, this film allows today’s audience to see as well as hear these remarkable singers. Indeed, it is inspiring to see excerpts from one of the last concert performances by the trio of brothers, Donald, Herbert and Harry. This was filmed in Copenhagen in 1981 and with the backing of a big band they turn in exceptional versions of You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You and Bye Bye Blackbird.

So, the Retrospective double or the Basie set? Hard to choose, but if forced into a corner I would take the later brothers in company with the Count. Then again, maybe not. I know quantity is no way to judge but the overall quality is so good that it is hard to turn away from the 56 tracks that trace the Mills Brothers through their earlier years. Maybe go for both. You won’t be disappointed. Oh, and don’t forget the unmissable film, available on DVD.

All these CDs and the DVD can be easily found, not least at Amazon.

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