Last Member of Mills Brothers Dies at 84

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Donald Mills, the last surviving member of the Mills Brothers who delighted music fans with their effortless harmonies for more than half a century, has died. He was 84.

The longtime Los Angeles resident died Saturday night at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of pneumonia, publicist Bernie Roswig said Sunday. Mills, who had been hospitalized since April, had suffered a broken hip in a fall at Los Angeles International Airport two years ago, but continued performing until early this year.

The quartet that imitated--and bettered--musical instruments was among the first African American singing groups to cross racial lines, perform for royalty and have its own radio show.

Last year, the Recording Academy recognized the Mills family's contributions to popular music when it presented Don Mills, as the surviving member, with a Grammy Award for Life Achievement.

Perhaps the group's best-known hit was "Paper Doll," which was recorded in 1942 and sold more than 6 million copies. But that was only one of a long list of million-selling records that stretched from "Tiger Rag" in 1928 to well into the mid-1960s with such classics as "Glow Worm," "Lazy River," "Opus One," "You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You," "Yellow Bird," "You Always Hurt the One You Love," "Cab Driver" and "Basin Street Blues."

The Mills Brothers, according to Roswig, produced more than 2,000 recordings that sold well over 50 million copies and garnered at least three dozen gold records.

They also gravitated easily to the silver screen, beginning with "The Big Broadcast of 1932" starring Bing Crosby and George Burns and Gracie Allen, and continuing all the way to "The Big Beat" in 1958. Among their other films were: "Operator 13" with Gary Cooper, "Strictly Dynamite" with Jimmy Durante, "Twenty Million Sweethearts," "Broadway Gondolier," "Reveille with Beverly," "Rhythm Parade," "Cowboy Canteen" and "When You're Smiling."

Asked in 1997 for the group's secret of success, Don Mills said with massive understatement: "It was just simple melodies and good lyrics. As long as people can understand the words and they can tap a foot to the music, that's all we actually ever needed."

Donald Friedlich Mills, the youngest brother, born in 1915, sang publicly for about 75 years, including the past 17 with his son, John III. His final recording, with John, who wrote the title song, was "Still . . . There's You" in 1994.

"Retirement? Nah, I'm not even thinking about it," Mills said in 1997 before a performance with his son in Laughlin, Nev. "As long as I can walk out on the stage and have the audience sing along with me, I'll be there. I'm having fun. I still enjoy it."

Before illness sidelined him last spring, Mills and his son were headlining the Palm Springs Follies in Palm Springs.

Don Mills was only 7 when he joined brothers John Jr., Herbert and Harry to sing at the Mays Opera House in their native Piqua, Ohio, billed as Four Boys and a Kazoo. After oldest brother John died of tuberculosis in 1936, he was replaced in what was by then Four Boys and a Guitar by their father, John Sr. A barber, the father was also a successful concert vocalist who had taught the boys to sing.

The Mills Brothers became a trio after the retirement of the father in 1956, and a year later proved they were still viable with the hit recording "Queen of the Senior Prom." John Sr. died in 1968, Harry died in 1982, and Herbert died in 1989.

By the time Don was 10, the brothers had a national radio show, originating from WLW in Cincinnati. At the insistence of CBS network President William S. Paley, the group moved to CBS Radio headquarters in New York City.

Although they performed and recorded with the bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, among others, the Mills Brothers prided themselves on needing no instruments.

Their remarkable voices could mimic instruments, which was a part of their act. They often devised harmonies that instruments could not match. Early records were labeled: "No musical instruments or mechanical devices used on this recording other than one guitar."

They discarded the instrumental impressions about 1950 and recorded regularly with orchestras, including Sy Oliver's band on the early 1950s hits "Nevertheless (I'm in Love with You)" and "Be My Life's Companion."

In addition to radio, records and movies, the group performed for British royalty in London in the 1930s, at the White House, on TV, in Las Vegas showrooms and on stages around the world.

Widowed by the death of his wife, Sylvia, in 1988, Mills is survived by six children, John III, Donald Jr., Alan and Melody Mills, all of Los Angeles; Naola Summers of Colton, Calif., and Deidra Raney of Bellefontaine, Ohio; 21 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

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