The Mills Brothers, sometimes billed as The Four Mills Brothers, were an American jazz and pop vocal quartet of the 20th century who made more than 2,000 recordings that combined sold more than 50 million copies, and garnered at least three dozen gold records. The Mills Brothers were inducted into The Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998.
The group was originally composed of four African-American brothers born in Piqua, Ohio, 25 miles north of Dayton: John Jr. bassist and guitarist, Herbert tenor, Harry baritone, and Donald lead tenor. Their parents were John H. and Eathel Mills. John Sr. owned a barber shop and founded a barbershop quartet, called the ‘”Four Kings of Harmony”‘.
As the boys grew older, they began singing in the choir of the Cyrene African Methodist Episcopal Church and in the Park Avenue Baptist Church in Piqua. After their lessons at the Spring Street Grammar School, they would gather in front of their father’s barbershop on Public Square or at the corner of Greene and Main to sing and play the kazoo to passersby.
They entered an amateur contest at Piqua’s Mays Opera House, but while on stage, Harry discovered he had lost his kazoo. He cupped his hands to his mouth and imitated a trumpet. The success of his imitation led to all the brothers taking on instruments to imitate and created their early signature sound. John Jr. accompanied the four-part harmony first with a ukulele and then a guitar. They practiced imitating orchestras they heard on the radio. John, as the bass, would imitate the tuba. Harry, a baritone, imitated the trumpet, Herbert became the second trumpet and Donald the trombone. They entertained on the Midwest theater circuit, at house parties, tent shows, music halls and supper clubs throughout the area and became well known for their close harmonies, mastery of scat singing, and their ability to imitate musical instruments with their voices.