The Mills Brothers were four young men from Ohio. Grew up singing and playing kazoo outside their father’s barbershop. Naturally they entered the vocal group contest at the local Opera house. But when they got on stage, they realized they’d lost the kazoo they’d planned to play. That’s when the magic happened. One brother cupped his hands in front of his mouth to imitate a trumpet.
And the crowd went wild.
So the brothers began to practice copying the instruments they heard in orchestras on the radio. They got so good that you couldn’t tell their voices from the real thing. And when the Mills Brothers hit it big, their music came with a disclaimer.
Before every show, and on most of their albums, was the message:
So here you go. Nothin’ but a guitar and four incredible voices. From 1930, the Mills Brothers and “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
The Mills Brothers are a pop vocal quartet comprised of four brothers from just north of Dayton, Ohio. John C. Jr. was bass vocalist and guitarist, Herbert was tenor, Harry was baritone and Donald lead tenor.
Active between 1928 and 1982, the group was formed originally as a barbershop quartet called “the Four Kings of Harmony,” who performed outside their father’s barbershop. When they lost their kazoo prior to a performance at the local music hall, they were forced to imitate their misplaced instrument. It was that happy accident that led to the Mills Brothers we know today. The brothers began to imitate the instruments they heard on the radio, soon becoming multi-instrumentalists—with just their vocal chords.
Soon they’d landed a gig on the radio in Cincinnati, which is where they got their big break. Duke Ellington and his Orchestra heard the brothers and called up Okeh records, who signed the group and led them to New York.
In 1930, a radio broadcasting executive hosted an audition for them, and immediately sent them from the audition room to the recording studio and on air. The very next day the Mills Brothers signed a three year contract and became the first African Americans to have their own network radio show.
Their early recordings were massive hits. Songs like Tiger Rag, Good Bye Blues and Lazy River made them famous. They were sponsored by the biggest brands, made film appearances and scored animated films. Meanwhile, on all of their records was a little disclaimer “No musical instruments or mechanical devices used on this recording other than one guitar.”
In the post-war years, the Mills Brothers managed to secure a longevity not known to other pre-war vocal groups. They had to start recording with a band to keep up with the new taste of rock n’ roll. The full band helped them top the charts yet again with songs like Glow Worm and You’re No One Till Somebody Loves You.