NPR

The Mills Brothers: 'The Anthology 1931-1968'

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A.B. SPELLMAN, National Endowment for the Arts: That's the sound of The Mills Brothers, who along with The Ink Spots, ruled quartet singing in America for over three decades. Murray Horwitz, why recommend The Mills Brothers for the NPR Basic Jazz Record Library?

MURRAY HORWITZ, American Film Institute: Well, I'm smiling because this may be our most astonishing choice so far. We don't think of The Mills Brothers, when we think of the great classic jazz vocalists. You think of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Joe Williams. Or even when you think of groups like Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, you don't think about The Mills Brothers, but they do everything that you want a great jazz vocal group or individual to do. They swing. They've got exquisite phrasing that surprises you constantly. They have great diction and pay attention to the lyrics. And they're very inventive, harmonically and melodically.

SPELLMAN: The Mills Brothers did not rely as much on a solo voice as some of the other quartets, particularly Bill Kenny and The Ink Spots.

HORWITZ: Right. They shared the solos, and they had some beautiful solo singing. And you'll hear it all throughout this CD. There's some gorgeous ballad singing for example, such as the famous "Paper Doll."

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SPELLMAN: Tell me about their repertoire, Murray.

HORWITZ: Well, they started out as somewhat of a novelty group in their hometown of Piqua, Ohio. They started impersonating instruments. One of the things that recommends them for inclusion in a Basic Jazz Record Library is that they really did take solos like trumpets and trombones and clarinets.

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HORWITZ: What carried them beyond the realm of novelty was their musicianship and their repertoire as you suggested. They not only did jazz tunes, like "Tiger Rag" and Hoagy Carmichael songs like "Rockin' Chair," which is on this collection, but they also worked during the era of the great American popular song, when there were terrific writers like Harry Ruby and Burt Kalmar. Kalmar's "Nevertheless" is on this CD.

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SPELLMAN: They enjoyed a number of collaborations during that time as well.

HORWITZ: That's one of the reasons why I'm recommending this collection of The Mills Brothers' work, because not only does it go across their whole career, but also, there are some really astonishing collaborations here. There are a couple of records made with Louis Armstrong. There are records with Ella Fitzgerald — a very young Ella Fitzgerald... Count Basie, Sy Oliver, Al Jolson — who at one point was called "The Jazz Singer" — and Tommy Dorsey.

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SPELLMAN: And so for your National Public Radio Basic Jazz Record Library, we're recommending The Mills Brothers: The Anthology 1931-1968. It's on the MCA/Decca label. For NPRJazz, I'm A.B. Spellman.

HORWITZ: And, I'm Murray Horwitz.

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