Jazz and chorus

(2) Barbershop Chorus and the Mills Brothers
Japanese version

The Mills Brothers

The pioneer of male Jazz chorus is the Mills Brothers. From their hometown of Piqua, Ohio, they went to New York City, and made their record debut in 1931. This year, "Tiger Rag" and "Dinah" became a big hit and was a great sensation.

The father of the four brothers, John Mills Sr. was a barber in real life, but also sang as a member of The Four Kings of Harmony, so this group literally was a barbershop chorus.

The history of traditional barbershop chorus is old, and goes back into the 1870s. It started as quartets by the African Americans of the South. When in 1910, a song titled gPlay that Barbershop Chordh was published, the word "Barbershop" came into use for the first time.

Of course, as in Japan where the ancient name was ukiyo-toko, meaning life's alcove (barber shop in present day Japanese is toko-ya, toko meaning alcove), barbershops all over the world are places where people gather so the name of this type of chorus actually comes from barbershops. There were times when every barbershop in the US boasted a quartet.

A specific singing style of male quartets came to be called by this name, and there are associations of barbershop choruses all over the world, but according to these members, they state in no uncertain terms that barbershop chorus and jazz chorus are two entirely different things. Also, a cappella is the rule, singing without instrumental accompaniment. It is correct to think that the chorus of the Mills Brothers differs from barbershop choruses per se.

The sons of John Hutchinson Mills Sr. (1882-1967) grew up hearing their father's barbershop chorus from the cradle. The four brothers are the following.

John Mills Jr. (1910-1936)
Herbert Mills (1912-1989)
Harry Mills (1913-1982)
Donald Mills (1915-1999)

Donald joined his brothers and started singing with them when he became 7 years old. This is the beginning of the Mills Brothers. Some books list the start of the chorus as 1931, but this is the year that they went to New York and recorded their songs for the first time. Around the end of the 1920s, their songs were aired by Cincinnati Radio Station. The photograph above was taken about the time they started singing together, probably in 1922. From the left, the eldest, John Jr., the 2nd, Herbert, 3rd, Harry, and the 4th, Donald, all in a row. They continued to sing for over 60 years, but Donald died last in 1999.

The Mills Brothers sang along the line of barbershop choruses, but added swing, which had become popular at that time, to their songs, and established a type of Jazz chorus which made them famous. They call themselves, "Barbershop Swing Chorus."

There is no swing chorus as warm as theirs. It may sound like simple harmony, but on the contrary, the use of 6th and 9th chords and tension harmonies in a rustic but effective way makes their sounds modern and fresh, even now. In their early days, they used in place of a trumpet, an instrument called Kazoo, which had paraffin pasted across so it would make a buzzing sound when blown (like a toy), but one day, they forgot to bring it along. So, Harry blew into his hands to imitate, rather than the Kazoo, a trumpet. Talk about necessity being the mother of invention.

The photograph on the right is from the period that John Sr. sang with his sons because of the untimely death of John Jr. in 1936. Their vocal imitation of brass instruments was their patent act and gave their songs a unique feeling.

"Caravan" is especially famous. Satchmo started scat, but this style is unique to the Mills Brothers. The guy on the left is Donald whose imitation of the trombone is equaled by no other.

John Jr. played the guitar for the quartet, but with his death in 1936, they put out an advertisement in the newspaper for a new guitarist, which resulted in a long line of applicants.

They hired the first man in the line without any fuss, though. This guy was Norman Brown, who played with the Mills Brothers for 30 years. In whatever he did, his warm character was apparent. Actually, Norman Brown had brought a reference from the Count Basey Orchestra's famous guitarist, Freddie Green. No wonder he was hired immediately.

Later, when their father retired in 1958, the brothers continued to sing as a trio. They were singing as a trio when they came to Japan for the first time.

This is a snap shot from the heyday of the Mills Brothers as a trio.

When they came to Japan for the first time, it was around the time I was a sophomore in college. I went to their concert at Sankei Hall with my chorus group friends. The MC of this show was the great Masao Kojima. This was the show of one of his favorite singers. I suppose Mr. Kojima didn't want to leave it to anyone else. Ordinarily, either Yukio Shima or Teruo Isono would be the MC at concerts. These days, it is the norm for the performers to do all the talking, but in the old days, MCs came on stage to do the introductions and shop talk.

Mills Brothers and Mr. Masao KOJIMA on a TV Show, 11PM

The audience included, as well as the Duke Aces, Lilio Rhythm Airs, the Dark Ducks whom Mr. Kojima had instructed, sat all in a row. If my memory is correct, another group that Mr. Kojima had instructed, the Three Graces performed as the curtain raisers, but I am not sure.

Around 1990, at a CD store close to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, I found three albums of the Mills Brothers recorded at the beginning of their career. It was pressed in England, but I was so happy that I found it before anyone else. Though the title and the cover designs are different, there are US versions in circulation now. Bing Crosby, Connie Boswell, the Boswell Sisters and others sing together with them. The style is old but lots of fun.

Their latter day saga is as impressive. Harry died, Herbert retired, so only Donald was left.

Donald began to tour with his son, John Mills II, and continued for 18 years into his old age. In 1999, Donaldfs last recording was done. He sings a song called "Still There's You", written by John II during the e80s, and it's impossible to listen to it without tears.

The lyrics go like this.
"Still there's you
When I close my eyes
Late at night deep in my dreams
There's something time can't change"
Yes, that's right. The Mills Brothers are still alive in our hearts.

I had to get hold of this CD no matter what. I looked up their web site, got in touch with the Webmaster, and sent a request. To this, I received a reply directly from John Mills II, and along with an accompanying letter, he sent me the CD as a gift.

The third generation of the Mills, John II, together with Elmer Hopper who joined in 1999 sing the Mills tunes, and have inherited the name, Mills Brothers.

Elmer Hopper was favored by Paul Robi and used to be the lead singer of The Platters for 21 years.

At the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee in 2001, John IIfs nephew Eric joined them, and sang as a trio

The OZ SONS sing "Paper Doll", a Mills favorite, and in April 2004, they sang with the Orpheans, the oldest Japanese Jazz band at their Orpheans Dinner Show. On that day, tenor saxophone player Yasushi Ashida brought some treasured photographs. "Since you are going to sing Mills songs," he said. What wonderful words.

The photographs were from the times when Yasushi Ashida was the band leader of the Mellow Notes at the New Latin Quarter in Akasaka. It most certainly is Mr. Ashida's treasure, but I have borrowed them. They were taken some 40 years ago.

So you'd like to see them? Well, here they are.@Mills Bros and Yasushi Ashida

Elmer Hopper

This time, an email came from Elmer Hopper. (2004.11) He wrote asking the whereabouts of Mr. Ashida. I immediately sent him his address and phone number. Elmer had seen this site.

In his next email, he wrote that it seems I, the Webmaster here, is good friends with Salena Jones, and she is one of Elmer's favorites also, so when he had come to Japan, he got her cassette tape recording to take home. When he lent the tape to one of the original members of The Platters, Paul Robi, Paul wouldn't return it to him, so he had to buy another one.

He also asked about Sleepy Matsumoto (Hidehiko Matsumoto) whether he was still around or not. I wrote back that he died in January 1999, but that I, Shakushigakudo Master had had the chance to talk with him, and when I saw him the year before his death, he gave me his autograph, with the words, "I Love Jazz" written alongside.

[J to E by my friend Sanae, November 2004]

Mills Brothers is coming toJapan in October, 2005. http://www.ozsons.com/MBinfo05.htm

I went to the Reception of 30 years Anniversary of Mon-Production held at STB 139, Roppongi, Tokyo to meet the current Mills Brothers. They sang three songs accompanied by the J-Line Jazz Orchestra to ceebrate Mr. Nishikage.

This photo was taken at JZ Brat, Tokyo on Oct. 13, 2005.

Elmer Hopper sent me this photo after he came back to United States by e-mail attachment.

It is prohibited to take photos in this Jazz Club during performance. Elmer asked sombody to take their photo.

They performed beautiful Mills' sound by only two voices. We were so impressed by a nostalgic Mills' swing. It was a big fun!

Friends of OZ SONS

Mills Brothers 2007 Video

Paper Doll
Glow Worm
Till Then

by John Mills II and Elmer Hopper

Right lick the title and save it before you see it.

This video had been in You Tube, but it was removed.@I downloaded this one before revoved.

Recent Mills Brothers Promotion Video