The vocal group the Mills Brothers was one of the most popular and enduring institutions in 20th century popular music. John, Herbert, Harry and Donald Mills learned their harmonies from their father’s barbershop quartet, and when they added the novelty of vocal imitation of instruments to their repertoire, they became a popular attraction in vaudeville theaters and on radio in their hometown.
Moving to New York, the group found success with such records as “Tiger Rag” and “Dinah” (a duet with Bing Crosby), making their voices sound like a ragtime band. John Jr. died in 1936 and was replaced by the brothers’ father. Their popularity dipped, but in 1943 they released one of the biggest hits of the decade, “Paper Doll,” which emphasized vocal harmony and a sentimental feel.
Their last No. 1 record was “The Glow Worm” in 1953, but the brothers performed on the oldies circuit as a trio. Harry died in 1982 and Herbert in ’88. Donald performed with his son John II until the last original member died in 1999.