MUSIC : Seven Decades of Mills Brothers Harmony
In a business in which you’re only as good as your last recording, a 70-year singing career would seem impossible.
Unless, that is, you’re a Mills Brother. Since the deaths of his three older brothers, Donald Mills has kept the distinctive Mills Brothers harmony alive with his son John . Together they perform old standards that continue to draw audiences in droves, songs like “Paper Doll,” “Glow Worm,” “Opus One,” “Up a Lazy River” and “You Always Hurt the One You Love.”
“The same audiences we got when I worked with my brothers are coming to hear John and me, and they’re bringing younger family members,” he said. “It’s wonderful.”
John and Donald Mills of the Mills Brothers, as they are billed, have been working together for 11 years, singing the harmonies and romantic old songs as well as some new numbers that the younger Mills has written.
Says John: “We have a great time. It’s not always nostalgia; there’s a new energy. He has more stamina than me, parties harder and plays a lot of golf.”
Donald Mills celebrates his 80th birthday this year. He was 7 when he originally took the stage with his brothers Herbert, Harry and John Jr. as the group Four Boys and a Guitar.
The boys, ranging in age from 7 to 10, were taught to sing by their concert singer father John Mills Sr., who later joined the group when brother John Jr. died in 1936. Their mother, Eathel, a mezzo-soprano, traveled with them and handled the finances.
“We had a strong family, which kept us grounded. We were never pushed,” Donald said.
And, he says, they never argued. From their first radio show in the 1920s, in which they sang and imitated musical instruments, to a final show in Atlantic City in 1981 featuring Donald, Harry and Herbert, Donald Mills cannot remember when they didn’t get along. Not only did they sing in perfect harmony, but all decisions about what songs would be recorded had to be unanimous.
“We had to love every song,” Donald said. “With ‘Paper Doll’ we liked the lyrics, liked the melody but we changed it. We took it up a beat.”
The recording sold more than 6 million copies and became the biggest hit in their repertoire of 2,152 songs.
Today, father and son sing “Paper Doll” to audiences.
“I enjoy going on stage, singing what my brothers and I did, and afterward having people come up saying they don’t know how we do it because it sounds like four voices,” Donald said. “It’s still a thrill.”
Father and son have also made an album together titled, “Still There’s You.” The romantic title song, written by John, is part of their concert program.
“I enjoy watching him do my material,” John said. “It’s a great compliment to me, but it’s his show and his audience, and it doesn’t go on forever. And when he’s finished, I’m through.”
Donald Mills cannot conceive of retiring. For him, life’s about having fun, and singing with his son is just that. “I’d have to be walking to my grave to consider retiring,” he said.
John and Donald Mills of the Mills Brothers will appear in three shows Saturday and Sunday at the Academy Plaza Theatre, Magnolia and Lankershim, North Hollywood. For information: (818) 785-8885.