This internationally known singing group began their career in 1925 as “Four Boys and a Guitar”. The original group consisted of John Jr. (1911-1936), Herbert (1912-1989), Harry (1913-1982), and Donald (1915-1999). John Hutchinson “Pike” and Eathel M. Harrington Mills, parents of the Mills Brothers were married in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania in 1907 and moved to Piqua in 1908-09. John Mills Sr. went to work at the Cass Evan’s Barbershop on the public square. By 1923 with seven children to support including his three daughters Margaret Mills McKinley (Mrs. Jack), Pauline Mills and Dorothea Mills Hamilton, he was working in the shop of Arthur B. Smith on the public square and rented a home on the southwest corner of Greene and Spring Streets owned by Goodrich Giles. The children attended Spring Street School and the family attended the Cyrene A.M.E Church. John Sr. was one of the organizers in Piqua of the Four Kings of Harmony composed of Mills, Leslie Wall, George Moss and Arthur Smith. The group was barbershop quartet made up of actual barbers. John and Ethel Mills were divorced about 1927 and for a time the four brothers boarded with Harold Beard on Spring Street. Mrs. Mills would later marry Athol Garnes.
The Mills Brothers got there first paying gig at May’s Opera House where they performed during the intermission of Rin-Tin-Tin for four dollars a night. Local legend states that during one of the performances, one of the brothers forgot his harmonica, and that is why the brothers began imitating musical instruments, a trademark of their early musical careers. The “Four Boys” got their professional start with Piqua musician Harold Greenamyer’s Orchestra, John Jr. sang bass, Herbert sang tenor, Harry sang baritone and Donald sang lead. On February 09, 1927, the Mills Brothers performed for the first time on radio on WSAI in Cincinnati. They headlined with the Greenamyer Orchestra and their listeners’ most popular request was for a number entitled Chinese Honeymoon. They moved on to singing gigs on WLW-Radio in Cincinnati which had been established two years earlier by Powell Crosby. At WLW, the Mills Brothers performed under a variety of names including Four Boys and a Kazoo, the Tasty Yeast Jesters (Sunday night performances were sponsored by the Fleischmann Yeast Company) and the Steamboat Four.
The Mills Brothers gained national recognition since the 5,000 watt WLW station broadcast as far away as Chicago and New York City. Their first record was cut in 1927. In the next fifty years, the group cut over 1,246 records. Their first hit record was “Tiger Rag” in 1929 which, on the Brunswick Label, sold over a million copies. By this time, they were playing in New York City clubs and CBS radio signed them up for a regularly broadcast show. In January of 1936, twenty-five year old John Jr. died of pneumonia after becoming ill on a 1935 European tour. John Jr. was buried in Bellefontaine, Ohio next to his sister Margaret who had died in 1935. John Sr. (18__ - 1967) took his son’s place in the group until his retirement in 1956. The Mills Brothers’ biggest hits included, Tiger Rag, Paper Doll , Cab Driver, Yellow Bird, Glow Worm (Decca records), Lazy River, Till Then, You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You, and Bye Bye Blackbird. The Brothers biggest hit was Paper Doll in 1943 under the Decca record label with over six million records sold. Their last big hit was Cab Drive in 1968. During their very long careers, the Mills Brothers performed with Duke Ellington, Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Louie Armstrong and Cab Calloway among others. They also have been recorded on 78’s, 45’s, 33LP’s (all records), 8-tracks, audio and video cassettes, CD’s, DVD’s, sheet music, radio, movies and television.
As a group, they quit performing after Harry Mills’ death in 1982. The City of Piqua dedicated a monument to the Mills Brothers on the public square in June of 1990. At that time the Mills Brothers Scholarship was formed and Matt Bogart became one the first recipients. Bogart would go on to sing on Broadway and may be currently best known for his staring role in Miss Saigon. In May of 1991, Donald Mills and his son John performed at the Piqua High School. The Mills Brothers were inducted into the Piqua Civic Hall of Fame in 2000.