Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Most musicologists agree: The internationally renowned Mills Brothers was the greatest vocal group of the twentieth century, a conclusion supported by mounds of evidence and unprecedented “firsts” in the world of entertainment. These family singers were the pacesetters, style blazers, and patternmakers in their field, and the first African American performing artists to attract a white audience, breaking racial barriers.

Began their meteoric rise to stardom in 1931 after being signed by radio (and later television) magnate William S. Paley in New York City to a three-year contract with CBS radio. They were the first black musicians to land a commercially-sponsored national radio program.

Cut their first recordings in 1931, “Tiger Rag” and “Nobody’s Sweetheart,” on the Brunswick label. Their inaugural disc soared to number one on the charts and eventually became the first million-selling record by a vocal group.

Encountered obstacles obtaining accommodations on their first trip to London in 1934. However, the group was invited to give a command performance at the Palladium, a famous West End theatre in Westminster, before King George V and Queen Mary – another first for black artists. Lodging was never an issue on subsequent tours.

Ranked 41st among musical artists from 1890 to 1954, the year the Rock ‘n Roll Era began, by Joel C. Whitburn, an expert on charted music, who also ranked TMB third among all artists with the longest careers on National Singles Charts and first among vocal groups from 1931 to 1970.

Enjoyed worldwide success in record sales, exceeding seventy-five million; eighty-five were chart hits and five were million-sellers. TMB dominated the charts in 1943, when “Paper Doll” emerged and remained for thirty-six weeks, twelve of which at number one. It was the fifth biggest seller during the Popular Music Era, a period spanning 1890 to 1954. Global sales of “Paper Doll” exceeded eleven million records.

Received many honors: Down Beat magazine’s number one poll winners in 1950, 1951, and 1952. Variety magazine’s fifty-year Hit Parade in 1955 included three Mills melodies. Received the Smithsonian Award in 1976. Honored with inclusion on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 1978. Presented a Lifetime Entertainment Award at the third annual American Black Achievement Awards television special in 1980. Saluted by the entertainment industry on their fiftieth anniversary in 1975, with a charity gala at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. The brothers’ native city of Piqua, Ohio, in 1990 erected a one-ton memorial in their honor. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) erected a state historical marker to the brothers in their ancestral home, Bellefonte, Centre County, in 1992. Honored in 1998 at the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in Sharon, Mercer County, where life-sized bronze statues of the four brothers greet visitors.

Named in 1993 honorary inductees to the third annual Hall of Fame by the United in Group Harmony Association in New York. Recognized in 1998 – after more than six decades of stardom – by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, presenter of the annual Grammy Awards, which bestowed the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award on the group. Donald Mills (1915-1999), the sole surviving brother, accepted the award.

How could four young black men from humble beginnings accomplish such unprecedented heights in an industry known for cut-throat competitiveness? How did they develop the inimitable, harmonious sound and become the first vocal group to fully incorporate the inflections of band instruments into barbershop harmonies?

It was genetic – and may have been in the family makeup as far back to a faceless, nameless generation of Mills. This first generation in Pennsylvania, fugitive slaves who fled from the South along the Underground Railroad in the 1820s, settled in the security and safety of central Pennsylvania’s Seven Mountains. Slaves at the time used music as a method of communication. Often, their field songs contained coded messages to broadcast times and places for their escapes. Slave masters mistakenly surmised singing slaves were happy contented slaves, but they were outwitting their owners throughout the South with their furtive singing.

Upon their escape, the Mills family ancestors followed the Jefferson Route to Lewistown, Mifflin County, where two sons were born, Lewis, circa 1828, and Thomas, most likely the following year. They moved on to the Bellefonte station of the Underground Railroad circa 1830. Two other brothers were born, Edward, circa 1831, and William, circa 1837. Ten years later, in 1840, the U.S. Decennial Census for Bellefonte recorded four Mills brothers living in the house of an African American, Sarah Hutchinson, whose surname would be adopted by subsequent generations of the family.

The marriage circa 1846 of Lewis Mills and Caroline Leonard, also born in Lewistown, marked the origins of the family’s history in Centre County. They christened their only child, born in 1847, William Hutchinson Mills. He would become an outstanding African American in Bellefonte’s history.

After the American Civil War broke out with the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in South Carolina on April 12, 1861, life changed forever for all Americans. Upon the enactment of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, twenty-two young men, representing 30 percent of Centre County’s black males, joined the Sixth Regiment, United States Colored Troops. Lewis and Edward Mills were among them. Engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of the war, they fought courageously with the Army of the James. Both Mills brothers were wounded and returned to Bellefonte at war’s end in September 1865. They died several years later, possibly from their war injuries.

In 1870, William H. married Agnes Cecilia Simms, a Bellefonte native whose family escaped from Maryland. They reared eight children. Agnes was blind, but managed the family and household, and William operated a barbershop for sixty years, one of Bellefonte’s oldest family-owned businesses. In 1872, Frederick Douglass, the great black abolitionist, visited Bellefonte for a speaking engagement. He walked from his hotel to the Mills barbershop for a trim. That chance meeting and later attendance at Douglass’s talk inspired Mills to assume a leading role in Bellefonte’s African American community.

Mills served as a certified preacher for St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. In the 1870s, he was a founder and bass singer of the McMillen and Sourbeck Jubilee Singers. According to historians of black music, the ensemble was one of several professional groups in the United States that emerged and blossomed in imitation of the noted Fisk University Jubilee Singers. The Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee, are credited for introducing slave songs to the world in 1871 and preserving a unique American musical tradition known today as the Negro spiritual. By most accounts, William H. Mills was considered the genesis of the family’s musical gift, comprising four generations of family entertainers and extending more than 135 years to date.

In 1885, Mills and several other black citizens persuaded the Bellefonte School Board to integrate the public schools. Desegregation became a reality two years later, making Bellefonte one of the earliest school systems in the nation to integrate. It took place sixty-seven years before the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the same for the nation’s public schools.

After his church burned in 1909, Mills wrote a six-thousand word history to help raise money to build a new edifice. Among supporters of St. Paul AME Church, according to Mills, were three Bellefonte residents who had served as governor of the Keystone State, Andrew Gregg Curtin (1817-1894), James Addams Beaver (1837-1914), and Daniel Hartman Hastings (1849-1903).

The Mills’ sixth child, John Hutchinson (1882-1967), was the next to inherit the musical gift. Racially mixed groups of children played together in the neighborhood and John H. was a member of Bellefonte High School’s first football team. A favorite meeting spot was Brouse’s barn across the street from St. Paul Church. On one occasion, John lost his hat in the haystack. When found, the hat was crumpled and bent out of shape, prompting his brother Quinn to quip that it resembled Pike’s Peak. Subsequently John was known by the nickname “Pike.” Years later when singing with his world-traveling sons and someone in the audience shouted “Pike,” John H. knew it was a Bellefonte voice.

Before the church conflagration, a new pastor had assumed the helm at St. Paul, the Reverend C. P. Harrington, and John developed an affection for the pastor’s daughter, Eathel, seven years his junior. John and Eathel had the first of seven children, Pauline, before moving to Ohio, Eathel’s native state. They were married on the way to the Buckeye State, and settled in Piqua. The couple was financially poor, but musically gifted. John, who learned to barber – as well as sing – in his father’s shop, opened a barbershop in Piqua. With other barbers, he organized a barbershop quartet, the Kings of Harmony, and Eathel sang light opera. In between childbirths, she traveled to New York City and performed on radio. The couple also entertained as a duet throughout Ohio.

After the births of three daughters, the next four recipients of the musical gift were born over a period of five years. As John C. (1910-1936), Herbert (1912-1989), Harry F. (1913-1982), and Donald were growing up, their parents taught them how to sing, and their first attempt at harmony was “Three Blind Mice,” an early seventeenth-century English nursery rhyme and musical round. The boys were good; they possessed a distinctive sibling harmony. Their first musical instrument was a tinny-sounding kazoo, a wind instrument which adds buzzing timbral quality to a player’s voice when the player vocalizes into it, then in vogue. (Kazoo was the name given by Warren Herbert Frost to his invention, patented in 1883.) The boys first sang for pocket change in front of their father’s shop, near Piqua’s Public Square.

The brothers first publicly performed on October 28, 1924, at May’s Opera House in Piqua, where they performed during the intermission of Rin-Tin-Tin for four dollars a night. The boys, aged nine to fourteen, suffered opening-night jitters, and grew even more anxious when Harry could not find the kazoo. The resourceful Harry innovated. He recalled cupping his hands over his mouth, “and lo and behold, out came the sound of a trumpet.” According to the Piqua Daily Call, “They made a big hit… The lads have natural talent and appear like veterans of the stage.” The appearance altered their musical style and eventually catapulted them to unprecedented acclaim.

Four years later, in 1928, the Harold Greenamyer Orchestra, whose leader was a Piqua resident, was scheduled to audition at WLS Radio in Cincinnati. The bandleader decided to include the Mills brothers as vocal accompaniment. Their voices had not yet changed, and their act, billed as Four Boys and a Kazoo, did not receive a job offer. The Millses added to their four-part harmony – John C., bass; Herb, tenor; Harry, baritone; and, Don, lead – realistic imitations of musical instruments. Mastery of the sounds of first, second, and third trumpet, saxophone, tuba, bass and trombone, combined with a $6.25 Sears, Roebuck and Company mailorder guitar, earned them the sobriquet the Human Orchestra. In 1930, they again returned to WLS Radio with the ensemble and impressed the station programmers; the Four Boys and a Guitar were hired, but the orchestra was not.

In less than a year, they were on their way to New York City, thanks to the management of Seger Ellis (1904-1995), a popular radio and recording jazz pianist and vocalist, who met them in Cincinnati. Within two months of their arrival in the Big Apple, the quartet’s weekly salary skyrocketed from $140 to $3,250, the result of lucrative network radio shows and a fourteenweek engagement at the Palace Theatre, where they shared billing with Bing Crosby. To play the Palace signaled an entertainer “had made it,” and the theatre was a popular venue for entertainers Sarah Bernhardt, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, Fred Astaire, Bob Hope, Ethel Mermon, Will Rogers, and Kate Smith, among many others. Ellis described the brothers’ success as “the fastest climb in show business.”

They now billed themselves as The Mills Brothers. By 1934 the quartet was on its way to London and the performance at the Palladium before British royalty. The brothers garnered three more command performances the following year. “We were the Beatles of the thirties,” Harry delightedly told audiences.

During the 1935 tour, John C. contracted a lung ailment and by September could no longer sing. He returned to his mother’s home in Bellefontaine, Ohio, where he died in January 1936 at the age of twenty-five. Devastated by the loss of their elder sibling, the brothers may have disbanded had it not been for their parents, who had divorced. Their mother urged them to keep singing. After auditions for a fourth voice failed to produce a match, their father, John H., stepped in and performed his late son’s rhythmic bass for the next twenty years. John C. had been a singing guitarist extraordinaire. While the elder Mills was skilled at the basso role in family harmony, it was now necessary to go outside the family circle for a guitarist.

Enter Bernard Addison (1905-1990), a guitarist who played with Jazz luminaries Benny Carter, Louis Armstrong, and Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe, known professionally as Jelly Roll Morton. On June 23, 1936, he joined the Mills at their London recording sessions. The first recording with Addison’s backing was “Rhythm Saved the World”; ironically it also saved The Mills Brothers. Following their return to the United States, Addison continued to back the quartet. However, as the group prepared for its annual tour of the British Isles in July 1937, Addison decided he no longer wanted to travel and the Mills quickly began auditioning for his replacement. Count Basie’s Orchestra sent guitarist and composer Allen Norman Brown (1912-1969). After immediately playing “Good-Bye Blues” when asked if he knew the Mills’ theme song, he was hired on the spot and remained with TMB the last thirty-three years of his life. Brown blended effortlessly into the group’s “nice guys” image. While serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Brown’s stand-in guitarist was Clifton White (1921-1998), sent by Louis Armstrong. An emerging, skilled musician, White stepped in at the time the group was recording their seven Soundies, three-minute films – an early version of the music video – which were featured on coin-operated video jukeboxes in bars, clubs, and restaurants.

Harry served briefly in the U.S. Army during the war with the Special Services Unit. During that period, TMB conducted recording sessions only when he could take leave. For the group’s stage appearances and the recording of several Soundies, Gene Smith harmonized with the brothers. Herb and Donald, with their father, John H., did their bit for the military during the course of the war. They planned their cross-country tours to be able to include military bases and entertained more than one million service personnel on the west coast alone.

After traveling two decades with the group, John H. Mills retired in 1956, and died in Bellefontaine, Ohio, in 1967 at the age of eighty-four. Allen Norman Brown died two years later of a rare form of cancer at only fifty-seven. With the loss of Brown, the Mills trio decided to perform the remainder of their collective career with orchestral accompaniment.

An enduring member of the family was Henry Miller (1913-2003), the Mills’ quintessential manager for fifty-six years who booked their international engagements as president of General Artists Corporation. Miller was an ambitious, high-powered agent who booked some of the greatest names in the music industry, including Patti Page, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Frankie Laine, and Tony Bennett. He first met TMB just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

During the heyday of the 1930s, the family quartet circled the globe, entertaining new and old fans alike. After their European tour in 1939, during which they spent much time away from home, the Millses returned to find music fans excitedly gushing about the new quartet in town – The Ink Spots. These upstarts, also African Americans, were riding the charts ahead of TMB. The Ink Spots helped define a musical genre that led to rhythm and blues and rock and roll and the sub-genre doo-wop. Like The Mills Brothers, The Ink Spots became popular with white audiences. The Mills quartet surged back on top in 1943 with a record-breaking hit, their soft and syrupy arrangement of “Paper Doll,” a best-seller for thirty-six weeks. No other artist ever recorded a cover of the title. The prolific recording artists continued to produce hit songs through 1970, albeit at a diminishing rate.

The Mills’ recordings and reissues currently exceed twenty-three hundred, and global sales exceed seventy-five million recordings. TMB’s million sellers included “Paper Doll”/”I’ll Be Around” (1942-1943), “Tiger Rag”/”Nobody’s Sweetheart” (1931), “You Always Hurt The One You Love”/”Till Then” (1944), “Lazy River” (1940s-1952, through four releases), and “The Glow Worm” (1952). Whitburn asserts in his Pop Music, 1890-1954: The History of American Popular Music, 1991, that “no other vocal group in history turned out hit records over a longer span of time [1931-1970] than the Mills brothers.” Beyond the realm of Whitburn’s charted music, TMB’s songs appeared as hits into the 1990s. Several of the group’s melodies which fit the era’s emerging Rhythm ‘n Beach music style appeared on weekly charts in Charlotte, North Carolina. Their most popular song with the beach set was “A Donut And A Dream,” recorded in 1972, peaking as high as number four during its thirteen-month chart ride in 1972-1973.

The makeup of the vocal group varied over the decades, but there was always a member of the original four brothers singing through 1999. The original foursome experienced the briefest journey, from 1925 to 1936, followed by father and three sons, from 1936 to 1956, and then by the three remaining sons, from 1956 to 1981. As a trio, they frequently appeared as guests on The Jack Benny Show, The Tonight Show, The Perry Como Show, and The Pat Boone Chevy Showroom.

Because of Harry’s failing health, the trio agreed, in the parlance of the entertainment industry, to hang it up and gave its final live performance in Atlantic City, New Jersey, followed by an appearance in a television commercial, “Do you know us?,” an advertising campaign by American Express. The commercials introduced viewers to individuals who may have been neglected over time but who made considerable contributions to their field or profession and carried the American Express credit card. Although blind during the final decade of his career, Harry continued as narrator for the group’s stage appearances, a role he assumed after John C. died in 1936. Harry Flood Mills died in Los Angeles in 1982 at the age of sixty-eight.

Herb and Don once again reviewed alternatives. Don suggested adding his son, John Hutchinson Mills II. Before they began this new formation, however, Herb was forced to resign due to a chronic back problem. Herbert Bowles Mills died in Las Vegas in 1989 at the age of seventy-seven.

In 1982, Don and son John worked on performing as a duet, and by the following year began touring as John and Donald Mills, sounding much like the trio and quartet that preceded them. They performed in many of the same venues and sang familiar songs with one exception. Young John composed a new piece entitled “Still . . . There’s You,” the title song of their only commercially-produced album in 1991. The song was well received by audiences who – like their musical repertory – continued to age with time.

The duo completed the family musical circle in 1992 when they entertained a full house of admirers and relatives at the high school auditorium in Bellefonte. It was Donald’s first professional performance in the Centre County community since 1938. Donald and John also helped dedicate PHMC’s state historical marker commemorating TMB’s Bellefonte heritage and joined a large family reunion of long-lost relatives.

The Mills bandwagon experienced a resurgence of sorts in 1995, when several of their devotees formally organized the group’s first-ever fan appreciation club, the International Mills Brothers Society. Headquartered in Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, the organization preserved and promoted TMB’s music history for more than a decade. At its peak, the club counted six hundred members in fifteen countries. The overseas loyalists, in many cases, came from venues where TMB had appeared long ago. The society was a major force in gaining the Grammy Award for the singers. Its members lobbied the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for more than two years, finally convincing the show’s producers that The Mills Brothers truly was one of the greatest singing acts of the twentieth century. The society held its first international convention in Bellefonte in 1998, at which Don appeared for a final Bellefonte performance with his son John, before his health began failing. In several final appearances, Don needed to lean on John for support, but his voice never wavered – it was strong as ever. Donald Friedlich Mills died in Los Angeles in 1999.

John H. Mills II was faced with not only the loss of his father, but also the decision of how to continue the act. Elmer Hopper, a twenty-one-year veteran of The Platters, Paul Robi’s group formed in Los Angeles in 1953, lived less than a mile from John’s home in Culver City, California. Working under the name The Mills Brothers Starring John Mills With Elmer Hopper, they present the usual Mills inventory, and several songs made popular by The Platters. Although shows are less frequent, the duo is still enthusiastically greeted by their senior admirers who relish the beautiful music of the past. No one knows when the final curtain will fall.

The four generations of Mills family entertainers shared good times and bad together, the most important challenge being racial acceptance. It began on the sidewalks of Bellefonte in the 1880s, where William H. Mills debated a newspaper editor on the subject of equal education for all students, regardless of color. It continued into the late 1930s when The Mills Brothers decided against a tour through the segregated South. They didn’t perform below the Mason-Dixon Line until after the Civil Rights Act was enacted on July 2, 1964. In a 1992 interview conducted in Bellefonte, John H. Mills II observed, “My home city [Culver City, California] is experiencing race riots, and you people are honoring black artists.”

The Mills Brothers became the first African American troupe to break through racial barriers, attract a loyal white audience throughout the United States, and reach plateaus never before thought possible for a vocal group. They circled the globe sixteen times, entertaining millions of fans on six continents. The group starred in the formative years of network radio programming, electronic phonograph recording, full-sound motion pictures, and television variety and talk shows. The inimitable Mills Brothers, genesis of modern-day harmony singing, raised the black vocal group from one of novelty status to valuable, commercially successful entertainment. They nurtured the dreams of younger African American artists, and showed them they, too, could reach for the stars – and touch them!


For Further Reading

Garrod, Charles. The Mills Brothers. Zephyrhills, Fla.: Joyce Record Club Publication, 1994.

Hischak, Thomas S. The Tin Pan Alley Song Book. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Greenwood Publishing, 2008.

Hose, Wally. Soundies. St. Louis, Miss.: Wally’s Multimedia, 2007.

MacGillivray, Scott, and Ted Okuda. The Soundies Book: A Revised and Expanded Guide. Bloomington, Ind.: iUniverse, 2007.

Whitburn, Joel. Joel Whitburn Presents A Century of Pop Music: Year-by-Year Top 40 Rankings of the Songs and Artists that Shaped a Century. Menomonee Falls, Wisc.: Record Research, 1999.

____. Joel Whitburn’s Pop Hits, 1940-1954. Milwaukee, Wisc.: Hal Leonard Corporation, 1995.

____. Pop Memories, 1890-1954: The History of American Popular Music. Menomonee Falls, Wisc.: Record Research, 1991.


Charting The Mills Brothers

Recordings by The Mills Brothers have appeared on nearly every major chart over a forty-year period, from 1931 through 1970. The group’s most popular hits include:

1931 “Tiger Rag,” “Nobody’s Sweetheart”
1932 “Dinah” and “Shine” with Bing Crosby, “You Rascal, You,” “I Heard,” “Good-Bye, Blues,” “Rockin’ Chair,”
1932 “St. Louis Blues,” “Bugle Call Rag,” “Sweet Sue, Just You”
1934 “Swing It, Sister,” “Sleepy Head”
1937 “Darling Nelly Gray”
1938 “Sixty Seconds Got Together,” “Sweet Adeline”
1939 “You Tell Me Your Dream, I’ll Tell You Mine,” “Basin Street Blues”
1940 “Old Black Joe”
1943 “Paper Doll,” “I’ll Be Around”
1944 “You Always Hurt The One You Love,” “Till Then”
1945 “I Wish,” “Put Another Chair At The Table”
1946 “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “I Guess I’ll Get The Papers (And Go Home)”
1947 “Across The Alley From The Alamo,” “When You Were Sweet Sixteen”
1948 “Gloria,” “Manana”
1949 “I Love You So Much It Hurts,” “Someday You’ll Want Me To Want You”
1950 “Daddy’s Little Girl”
1951 “Nevertheless”
1952 “Be My Life’s Companion,” “The Glow-Worm,” “Lazy River”
1953 “Say ‘Si Si'”
1954 “The Jones Boy”
1955 “Suddenly There’s A Valley,” “Opus One”
1956 “Standing On The Corner”
1957 “Queen Of The Senior Prom”
1958 “Get A Job”
1959 “Yellow Bird”
1968 “Cab Driver,” “My Shy Violet”
1970 “It Ain’t No Big Thing”


Daniel R. Clemson, a resident of Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, was raised in Bellefonte, Centre County, home to early generations of the Mills family. A 1945 graduate of St. John the Evangelist Catholic School, he attended Bellefonte High School, where he was a member of the first wrestling team, and graduated in 1958 from the Pennsylvania State University’s College of Business Administration. He was a radio news and sportscaster from 1957 to 1962 and a staff writer for the Centre Daily Times from 1962 to 1964. The author served as chief clerk for the Centre County Commissioners from 1960 to 1962 and as municipal manager for Bellefonte from 1964 to 1966. He was employed by the Pennsylvania Department of Auditor General, serving under five auditors general, and retired from the Commonwealth in 1993. In 1995, he chaired the black history program for the celebration of Bellefonte’s bicentennial and recently served as the coordinator of the community’s role in the reenactment of the Grand Review of the United States Colored Troops in Harrisburg in 2010. He was a cofounder, with Charlie Horner and Jim McGowan, in 1995 of the International Mills Brothers Society and since 1996 has served as curator of the Mills Brothers Archives for Sound Recordings and Memorabilia. He remains active with Historic Bellefonte Inc. as chairman of its Renaissance Committee, which worked to obtain approval for four state historical markers installed by PHMC in the community. In 2011, he was inducted to the Bellefonte Area School District Hall of Fame by the Bellefonte Education Foundation.