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The Mills Brothers: Bringing an Audience to Imitation

by admin on November 14, 2014

“No musical instruments or mechanical devices used on this recording other than one guitar,” read the label of all The Mills Brothers’ early records. The Mills Brothers, consisting of John, Herbert, Harry, and Donald Mills, were a vocal group, active as of 1922, consisting of four brothers known for their mastery of harmony and for their incredibly realistic imitations of instruments, whose talents made them one of the “longest-lasting oldies acts in American popular music;” according to John Bush.


All four boys were born in Piqua, Ohio, where they learned their harmonizing skills at a young age, as their father was the founder of a barber shop quartet, “The Four Kings of Harmony.” As they learned these close harmonies first-hand, they began to perform in church choirs and around town. They started performing for the public in front of their father’s barber shop, with four-part harmony accompanied by kazoo. The boys eventually entered local amateur contests. As they were about to begin performing at a community contest in 1928, Harry realized he didn’t have his kazoo- the group’s usual accompaniment. So, he cupped his hands to his mouth and imitated a trumpet. The improvisation was successful, and the boys found that Harry’s emulation was a novelty that could be worked into their act. They began attending local band performances on the weekends to listen to instruments and perfect their imitations. John began to work at the tuba, Donald the trombone, and Herbert did sax, trombone, and a second trumpet to Harry. There were no secrets to the imitations, they just “picked up what they could get,” as stated in the 1933 “Montreal Gazette.”

Rise to Fame

Their act accompanied the Harold Greenameyer Band for a local Cincinnati radio audition. The band was not hired, but The Mills Brothers were. They became local radio stars after broadcasting regularly. Then, Duke Ellington and his orchestra came to Cincinnati. When Ellington heard the group sing, they were immediately signed and moved to New York. In 1930, when agent William S. Paley heard their performance, he immediately put them on the air at CBS Radio. The next day, the Mills Brothers signed a three-year contract and became the first African-Americans to have a network show on radio. Their first recording for Brunswick Records, a cover of the Original Dixieland Jass Band “Tiger Rag,” became a best-seller and a no. 1 hit on the charts nationwide.


In songs such as “Bugle Call Rag,” it is easy to understand the fascination and skepticism behind the group’s instrumental emulations. They indeed sound in their songs as if they are being backed with a studio band. But, the tuba, trumpet, sax, and trombone you hear is pure human voice. Not only were the Mills Brothers destined to be emulated by hundreds of vocal groups, but many of their recordings would later be covered by other groups in the style that came to be called rhythm and blues. The Mills Brothers had a major influence on the vocal jazz era in the 20th century, as many groups included these big band jazz instrument imitations in their performances. Vocal imitation has grown tremendously, through techniques such as scattinggaelic mouth music, beatboxing, and is now included popularly in a capella groups. Their proficiency in the novelty of imitation entertained audiences for years, got them inducted into The Vocal Group Hall of Fame, popularized the use of instrumental emulation, and influenced the nation not only to accept black music, but fall in love with it.

by Meghan Blackwood

Jon Michael Askew November 19, 2014 at 10:22 pm

I loved your presentation and am excited to read your final paper on why/ how humans imitate other sounds. I love acapella music like this, as it really show the vast capabilities of the human voice. Acapella music can also act as a historical guide through the popular instruments and sounds of an era; as most vocal imitation in early acapella music, such as The Mills Brothers, is imitating actual acoustic instruments,whereas in alot of modern acapella music, people are attempting to imitate electronic drum beats and synthesized sounds. Cant wait to read your final paper, keep up the good work!

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