The Mills Brothers’ career lasted over 50 years, from the Jazz Age of the 1920s through the Rock and Roll era and beyond. During that time the vocal group recorded many hit records, featuring inventive four-part harmonies that were a formative influence on Doo Wop.
Actual siblings who grew up in the small town of Pioqua, Ohio, the Mills brothers — Donald, Herbert, Harry and John Jr. — learned to harmonize from their father, who sang in his own barbershop quartet (and was an actual barber). In addition to their singing, the brothers became known for their ability to imitate instruments with their voices, giving their performances the illusion of the sound of a full band.
After beginning in vaudeville, the brothers began to build a name locally, and they landed a show on the Cincinnati radio station WLW. They took a forward leap when, after hearing an audition, William S. Paley, who ran CBS radio in New York, signed the brothers to a three-year contract in 1930. This made them the first African Americans to host a network radio show, and soonafter, they also became the first African-American vocal group to gain widespread popularity among white audiences. As the brothers’ profile grew, they collaborated with some of the era’s biggest stars, including Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby.
Prolific recording artists, the Mills Brothers put over 50 records in the Top 40, most notably the 1943 ballad "Paper Doll," a national smash that spent twelve weeks at No 1.
With one exception — when John Jr. died of pneumonia in 1936 and was replaced by the brothers’ father, John Sr. — the Mills Brothers kept performing as a foursome until 1982, when Harry Mills died. Even then the surviving brothers continued with younger family members; the last of the brothers, Donald, died in 1999.