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Mills Brothers: Birth of R&B


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Vocal harmony groups seemed to be everywhere in the 1930s and 1940s. The Depression played a role, of course, since entertainment was the only way out of harrowing poverty for most people and singing meant you didn't need to buy an instrument. The demand for vocal harmony groups surged during this period, primarily because they were cheaper to hire and record than orchestras. Vocalists didn't quality to become members of the American Federation of Musicians.

Among the most popular vocal groups were the Boswell Sisters, the Inkspots, the Andrew Sisters, the Charioteers, the Pied Pipers, Delta Ryhthm Boys, the Modernaires, Cats and the Fiddle and dozens of others that were stand-alone groups or members of big bands. But the granddaddy of them all was the Mills Brothers, who had a comet's tale of hits starting with Tiger Rag in 1931. They had a soothing sound, an uncanny sense of harmony and time, and an upbeat disposition. But they also deftly arranged their vocal parts similarly to those swing orchestras emerging from Kansas City at the time.

In 1944, the Mills Brothers recorded a song that would change the direction of vocal ensembles and inspire a new generation of black groups with a gospel background and white college-campus groups. The tune was Till Then, a mid-tempo war-time love song sung by a soldier imploring his girlfriend to wait until he returned from Europe or the Pacific. In this song, you can hear the birth of R&B vocals—a new, hip sound that hadn't previously been explored on a ballad.

Nearly all of the Mills Brothers' previous 33 hits had been swing numbers, but Till Then was something different. By slowing down the tempo to the pace of a pulse, the ear had a chance to savor the song's feeling and harmony and connect with the lyrics. The Mills Brothers' impassioned harmony on Till Then inspired bird groups of the late 1940s (Ravens, Orioles, Cardinals and others) and foreshadowed dramatic R&B ballad vocals of the early 1950s, doo-wop vocals of the late 1950s, Wall of Sound girl groups of the early 1960s and soul ballads of the late 1960s. Even the Beatles—with This Boy and similar tight-harmony ballads—were indirectly touched by the Mills Brothers' compact, friendly sound on Till Then.

Written by Eddie Seiler, Sol Marcus and Guy Wood, the song by the Mills Brothers was the B-side of You Always Hurt the One You Love. In 1953, the song was covered by Sonny Til & the Orioles as a B-side to I Miss You So Much, and Jimmy Sacca and the Hilltoppers, a collegiate pop-vocal group, had a hit with it in 1954. The Mills Brothers updated the song in 1958 on TV's Pat Boone Show, showing that they had never lost their touch or their timing.

Here are the Mills Brothers singing their highly influential hit Till Then in 1944...

Here's Sonny Til and the Orioles' version in 1953..,

Here are the Hilltoppers in 1954...

And here are the Mills Brothers in 1958 on the Pat Boone Show. Dig the soaring final doo-wop high note, which Sacca and the Hilltoppers chose not to hit...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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