Two Legendary Singers & Fans of Each Other in Conversation with Bruce Belland & John Mills
In 1951, 15-year-old Bruce Belland sneaked into a backstage door at Ciro’s Nightclub to get a glimpse of his idols, The Mills Brothers. That fateful night inspired Bruce to form The Four Preps and forge a vocal harmony career that brought us the hits, “26 Miles” and “Big Man.”
Bruce has spent 70 years loaded with questions for his musical heroes and, at long last, he gets to pose them to John H. Mills II, the son of original Mills Brother Donald Mills. Jon toured with his father for 17 years and he’s got answers!
We hand our fanboy the reins and these two harmony kings go deep into shop talk, discussing style, phrasing, timing, technique and arrangements. They share road stories, talk about John’s childhood with his trailblazing father and uncles and explore how each of them related to their larger-than-life fathers.
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Louise Palanker (00:00:04):
Welcome to Media Path. I'm Louise Palanker.
Fritz Coleman (00:00:06):
And I'm Fritz Coleman.
Louise Palanker (00:00:07):
And this is a very special episode of Media Path. And here's why. In 1951, at the age of 15, Bruce Belland opened a stage door at C'S nightclub in West Hollywood and came face-to-face with his musical hero, Harry Mills of the Mills Brothers. The encounter inspired Bruce to form his own harmony group, the four Preps, while still in high school. Today, Bruce comes face to face to Zoom face, that is with John Mills of the Mills brother, who toured with his father, original Mills brother Donald Mills for 15 years, Bruce has questions, and that full circle moment is coming right up. But first, Fritz, what have you been watching this week?
Fritz Coleman (00:00:44):
All right, well, I'm gonna talk about Avatar two, the wave of the water. This won't be as long as the movie is. Thank the good Lord for that. It's in theaters now. It's been 13 years since the first avatar in this one. The Earth is dying. Humans are looking at, get out of dodge and inhabit a healthier planet. So they pick Pandora or Avatar land under this renewed threat from humans. Jake Sully and his family seek refuge with another tribe, the Met Kaena on Pandora and hijinks and high-tech stuff. Enue. Uh, there are three positive takeaways of this film from me. One, the idea of an uninvited military incursion into a foreign land kind of suggests Vietnam. Number two, there's a great environmental theme. One of the touching aspects of the story is belief that humans and animals have a spiritual connection that really resonated with me.
And number three, in the end, it's the children or the next generation that will ultimately save us from ourselves. It's stars, or these stars are unrecognizable avatars that are stars. Sam Worthington, Zoe Salani, Sigourney Weaver, Kate Winslet. One reviewer made a comment that I agree with. It's more impressive as a technical achievement than in storytelling. But the technology is mind blowing. Everyone is aware of how they create characters these days with motion capture. What is beyond amazing is the rest of the physical aspects of this movie. It's obviously cgi, but it's so flawless. You can't believe it's cgi. The vehicles they drive the sea life, anything and everything manmade is digital creation. I had to go home and look up the making of Avatar videos on YouTube to see how it was done. Very impressive. But be prepared. It's over three hours long. Fortunately, the miracle of the planet Pandora is that even at three hours plus you still don't have to use the bathroom a lot. So it's pretty good. I, I thought it was a technical achievement, but I felt like I was watching sort of a watered down version of Gossip Girls. It was the, the dialogue is about that intense. Oh,
Louise Palanker (00:02:53):
Wow. Okay. Wow. That's a lot. That was a hybrid that I wasn't prepared for. Okay, <laugh>. I am gonna highly recommend my next guest needs no introduction with David Letterman, who recently took a circuitous route through Poland into Ukraine via planes and trains for a stirring personal and in-depth conversation with President Falo Ramirez Zelensky. For the sake of safety, the interview is conducted in front of a small audience on a subway platform. Deep below the city of Kyiv, Letterman and Zelensky face each other, both wearing translator headsets, which they struggle to hear over the subway traffic seeing in each other. A fellow intelligent, insightful, thoughtful and engaged comedian whose lives have taken very different paths. The mutual respect is what is palpable. Letterman clearly admires Zelensky i's courage and fortitude in this critical moment, Zelensky is grateful that Letterman has made the dangerous journey. The conversation took place before Zelensky traveled to DC and addressed Congress.
The two men talk about purpose, history, family, and even shares some jokes, but the mood respects the circumstances and remains somber. If you have not yet sampled Dave's latest venture, my next guest, use the Zelensky episode as an entry point, and then pick and choose what you like. Dave has spoken with, for example, Barack Obama, George Clooney, Billy Eilish, Jay-Z, Tina Faye, Ellen DeGeneres, and a bunch more. And is understanding of his guests broadened by some of his familiar and delightful outof studio exploration that fans will find enjoyable and endearing. For example, he sneaks into Ellen's offices at Warner Brothers and helps her scare innocent staffers. The Letterman Fund here is fully intact, but the show gives him an opportunity to stretch himself further intellectually and offer us an example of how we can all spend our lives continuing to learn and grow. My next guest needs no introduction with Dave Letterman is on Netflix. And now, oh, did you have something to say about
Fritz Coleman (00:04:49):
That? Yes, I did. Yeah. Um, I think one of Dave's endearing qualities, and it has nothing to do with his comedy, is his humanity. And the fun for me, it was a great interview. I mean, you know, the, the translation slows everything down, so it's not as spontaneous. And when they had the air raid siren in the middle, it kind of took my concentration away from it. Yeah. But it was Dave walking around, um, uh, Kyiv, sort of absorbing the devastation of war. And Dave's, you can tell he really is a very sensitive person. I remember, uh, after nine 11, his first night back, his monologue was so touching and it became a viral moment. And you could see a little of that humanity in this. And I really liked it. I thought he was a great representative of the United States going over there. So I, I love this show. Yeah,
Louise Palanker (00:05:38):
It's really, I highly recommend and, uh, I think it's time for us to, uh, introduce our guests. John H. Mills II has been singing since he was a baby. He joined the act with his father, original Mills brother Donald Mills in 1982. Continuing a tradition begun in 1922 by Harry Herbert, Donald and John Mills, the first as young children, the Mills brothers released records in every decade from the twenties into the nineties. Their hits include Paper Doll, nevertheless till then, lazy River Cab Driver, and the list just goes on and on and on. John Mills the second performs Mills Brothers classics today with Randy Taylor, and he joins us with his fanboy Bruce Bellon. Here's a little bit about Bruce Bellon. Bruce Bellon formed his group, the Four Preps in high school. They scored massive hits with 26 miles and Big Man, and they were known for their especially entertaining stage shows with the four preps.
Bruce was just beginning. He is quite the polymath, an entertainer, singer, songwriter, recording, and concert artist, screenwriter, actor, director, network executive, public speaker, playwright, producer, voiceover performer, radio host, humorist, and now an author, Bruce's book, icons, idols, and Idiots of Hollywood. My adventures in America's First Boy band is coming your way soon. And I would like to launch this conversation with an excerpt from Bruce's upcoming book. I'll set the stage. Bruce is 15 years old. He has snuck into the stage door at zeroes with a distant hope of getting a glimpse of his idols. The Mills brothers. Bruce writes, A few minutes later, he walks in My absolute number one hero of all group singers in the whole entire universe. Harry Mills, no one idolizes his heroes like a 15 year old boy. And I'm practically numb with excitement. Harry looks like a million bucks in a shiny, black mohair tuxedo, butterfly bow tie, and patent leather tuxedo shoes. He is the essence of Cool. Bruce, can you take the story from there for us?
Bruce Belland (00:07:34):
Sure. I, you know, first of all, uh, John, I think, I hope I'm right about having met you and your father at Jerry's Deli in Marina. I remember meeting the two of you and telling him how much he had influenced me in my career. And, and, uh, he said, I said, it's wonderful you're still outperforming with your son. And he said something at the time that I didn't understand John, but now I do. He said, you know, I'm not sure how much longer I'm gonna do that. I think he said he was 83, and he said, the traveling's really starting to get to me. And I remember thinking to myself, cuz that was, I don't know what, what I was in my sixties, probably. How could anybody ever get tired of traveling 83 86 when I hit 83? I, I understood exactly what he was referring to.
But John, it's such a pleasure to meet you. I, uh, I feel, as I said, Louise, I feel a little, like a little leaguer who's asking questions of the Son of Babe Ruth <laugh>. But, uh, I, uh, I'll try not to make the questions too esoteric. Well, first of all, John, uh, here's to you. I noticed you were enjoying. So let's, uh, clink our glasses, <laugh> telephonically. I don't think there was any group that influenced the four preps, um, the way the Mills brothers did, partially because from the age of five on my house, was constantly filled with their music during the war. My mother, of course, played till then, like every mother did, whose husband was gone overseas. And, uh, it, uh, became, um, ultimately the preps recorded it. And I, I've still considered in all modesty the best solo I've ever sung in 70 years.
I, I, I felt such an affinity for the song and such an affection for her. But I just thought I'd give you a quick rundown of the songs by the Mills betters that we recorded till then. Um, let me see. I'll be around someday. You'll want me to want you. Uh, my favorite preps track was she was five and he was 10. I'm sure you're familiar with Attra. Um, as I say, I'll, I'll try not to make the the questions. Oh, an up Lazy River on the in-Person album that kind of put the preps at the top in the concert field. It was a live concert album. We ended the show with the brothers arrangement of Up Lazy River. And one thing I've always wanted to know is, I assume from listening that the brothers, it was head harmony, that there were no written charts as a rule. They simply ran a song down and felt their way harmonically.
John Mills (00:10:07):
Yes. Uh, absolutely. The, the everything was head arrangements. Uh, they never, uh, had any vocal charts written. Uh, which is interesting because I'm working with a young man now, uh, out of Ireland of all places, and I've just started going through about 10 at a time. I'm just gonna start creating a book of their vocal arrangements. It's never, oh, wow. It's, it's never, it's never been done. It's never anything that anyone has. Uh, and people are always asking, you know, because everybody always thinks of four-part harmony, but the mills always sang, um, harmonies that fit the melody and not necessarily, uh, you know, just, just pick their spots where they, where they let that rose, those, those rose pedals unfold <laugh>, so to speak. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Yeah. Yeah. Um, man, I have to tell you, you know, if he was 83 at the time, you know, uh, he, when he passed, he was 84, so that must have been right around 1998.
Bruce Belland (00:11:05):
John Mills (00:11:06):
I'll get you. Yeah. And, and I, um, I worked with him 17 years and, and then, oh, and then another, you know, uh, well, well, it's been 40 years. I've been doing this show in 2022, so, so, you know, uh, but I've always admired you. I've always admired all the people be because I worked with him. It took me, it put me in an, uh, an area of music that I never would've been able to be around as much, especially performing on stage, uh, as I would've if I was just in my own age group. Yes, yes. So, so because of working with him, I got to work with, you know, uh, you know, the Sarah VAs and the Billy Steins, and the, you know, you know, all of the, uh, you know, the great artists, you know, era and, and Pryor, you know, and all of the strong women that, that, uh, people don't recognize as much as they should.
You know, the, the Helen O'Connell's and Patty Pages and K Stars, and, you know, these women were just p just amazingly strong. You know? Can you imagine being a 14 year old K star on a bus, you know, with Venuti and, and his gang, you know, and traveling the country. I mean, we have no idea what these people have gone through. So it, it's an honor, uh, to speak with you and, and anything I can share with you, of course, I'm, I'm happy to do so. And Hey, Weezy. Yeah. What's up, man? And tell Fritz Coleman to wake up over there. I
Fritz Coleman (00:12:32):
See. I'm with you, man. I, I love, I love anything having to do with music history. This is all very fascinating. And while you have my attention and kept me awake, can I call you Skipper John? Which do you appreciate?
Bruce Belland (00:12:46):
Fritz Coleman (00:12:47):
No, no, not you, Bruce. Don't you respond to Skip <laugh>? Listen, lemme say something to Bruce. Um,
Bruce Belland (00:12:54):
Uh, you wanna see how I prepared for this? These are my notes of my questions.
Fritz Coleman (00:12:58):
You've got two cards. The size of Bob Hopes they have to bring him in in a forklift <laugh>.
Bruce Belland (00:13:03):
I've got seven more pages
Fritz Coleman (00:13:04):
That John has. No, I, I'm, I'm, I'm, I'm not gonna inject much. Uh, this is a fascinating conversation. I just wanted to ask you one question that sort of, he helps me understand. You said Harry was your favorite, and Harry, uh, John will back me up on this, was the personality in the group. Not only a beautiful voice, but Absolutely. And so, was that, was that the reason you tended to, um, be drawn to him and his talent? Uh,
Bruce Belland (00:13:29):
Well, you know, I, I must say musically, vocally, and as I say, I wanted to be a singer since I was age four. So I knew a lot of my mom was a vocal coach and a Choired record. Donald was the essence of elegant smoothness. I've never heard a man do head tone so easy. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, like was just a walk in the park. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, what I liked about Harriet course was his ebullience. He was very outgoing. And that night at ces, you know, kind of, uh, solidified my affection for him cuz he was very much an extrovert and seemed to be genuinely interested in me. I told him my dad was a minister, and I sang in the church choir, and he said, well, we all started in church choir. That's, and he actually sang a little bit of Do Lord do, do Lord do right there backstage at Cyro before he went out sta on stage and thrilled the people.
I meant to tell you, John, my two daughters lullaby the whole time they were growing up was daddy's little girl. And, you know, I I I I sang it with an extra emotion because of what it meant to me and my life and the Mills brothers. Um, let me get, if you don't, if you don't mind, let me get to the rest of my questions. Sure. Uh, I, I know at one point the brothers had a base, one of the brothers sang bass, and when he no longer was with the group, I'm amazed at how, because I, there are barbershop purists, as I'm sure you know, who say, well, you can't have barbershop without a bass. You gotta have four parts. Yet I never missed the bass when they sang somehow, I dunno if it was Herbert or who's who was, had a way of doing what you'd think a bass might do in certain parts of the harmony. So you, you, you never missed it. I listened the other day to one they had on an album call, I'll see you in my dreams. Very close harmony. And I, I kept saying there's four parts. I'm sure there are four parts, and I'm pretty good at picking up par. I could not find a fourth part, but I I did miss it. Uh, was there ever an instance in which they missed a base or wanted a base, or were glad they didn't have a base? What was their attitude towards that?
John Mills (00:15:37):
Well, uh, thank you. It's a great question. Uh, and as I mentioned earlier, you know, the four part harmony is, uh, yes, they kind of set the, the structures of that and the standards on that. Uh, and many groups took over four part harmonies. You know, when the doop thing came, the interesting thing to me, though, like, if I would, if I would, uh, effort to pick a, a comparative analysis seemed like when Dew WP came around, you had four part harmony, but everybody was singing at a loud level of solo artist. That's right. That's why you heard, you know, that high tenor and that low bass and everything in between. Whereas with the guys, they always had, uh, I always like, if you ever saw a logo of a hat I made, uh, for them it's, it looks like a, a speaker. And then depending on how you see it, it's either four going in or, or, or, or one. The idea was four voices coming in, but one sound coming out. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, yes. Yes. And, and that's the, that's the whole thing. So the idea was a blended sound of, uh, of, and creating that single sound. So yes, their brothers sang bass and played, uh, a four stringing tenor. Uh, but when he passed their father, John, uh, Sr. Joined them,
Bruce Belland (00:17:00):
He did more of more of a string string bass, didn't
John Mills (00:17:02):
He? Well, that bass that he did was, you know, I, I've talked to guys like Harold Windley, you know, uh, with the clovers and the, this was the sound that these guys all tried to emulate was just, he had the greatest base ever. Now, you mentioned, uh, Herbert, because Herbert generally sang first tenor. I thought Harry sang well, Harry sang well. Again, here's the, okay, you're not wrong, because as a group, they all had to learn each other's parts just in case somebody was sick one day or whatever. So they could all kind of interplay which part had to be, uh, well strengthened at any given time. But I have found, and maybe you have too, with, with other, uh, singers that you've met over time, a lot of, I shouldn't say a lot. I've met a few First Tenors who also had very strong deep bass ranges.
Uh, now I'm not talking about the Vienna Boys choirs. I'm just talking about, you know, natural. Like the guy who sang with me for 20 years, Elmer Hopper sang before he was with me for 20 years. He spent 20 years with Paul Rob's platters. Oh. When he was working with Paul, he was doing all the Tony Williams top solos, you know, that high. Yeah. That high tune. But, uh, but Elmer could go as low as anybody on base and any time that he wanted. And Herb was the same. So I think when they picked tunes, even as a trio, even when Norman Brown came in, uh, cuz Norman joined them when John passed also, eventually, I think he actually started with him 36 or 37, um, you know, his, his court arrangements on his guitar and his lead tones, uh, into the melody were just, uh, artful and, and, and genius. And they set up so many things. And lastly, I'll leave you with this. So they knew, like even the, even the years when I worked with my dad, it was just a dual. And people would say, well, hey, I, I miss, you know, I don't miss that third part. Yeah.
Bruce Belland (00:19:06):
John Mills (00:19:07):
You. Good thing is too, is, is, and I found with audiences and with fans, and I'm guilty of this with many artists, a lot of the stuff you hear with your heart, you know, when I started working with a lot of older artists, especially, seems like older women, you know, they get, they get looked at, uh, like, oh, you're losing something, you know, a little earlier than guys, guys get away with it a little bit longer or, so, the Wob wobble seemed right. Yeah. But I've been on stage shared stages with many artists that no one cared what they sounded like that night. They just wanted to see 'em. You know, I, I worked with Dorothy Lamore, you know, a couple of times, and, and the audience didn't care. She couldn't sing a lick. Just, you know, they just wanted, yeah. Somebody who spent all that time, and by the time I worked with Burns, you know, burns wasn't chirping like a bird, but nobody cared.
You know, uh, you know what I'm saying, man. So, yes. I, I don't think, um, I think they were skillful enough at knowing each other's strengths and weaknesses, if they would be any, to pick the sounds that were perfect for the recordings. And I, and I think they always did that. And if, if Herb needed to drop down to a base, he, he would do it. It, you know, Harry and, and, uh, dad, you know, Don, they, they switched oftentimes. They would switch, uh, taking the lead and then the other would slip into the Barton.
Bruce Belland (00:20:30):
I heard Melody go on top for a minute. Does that, uh, compute?
John Mills (00:20:34):
Yeah. I, I absolutely, man, I don't, I don't think they were built to any particular structures. They just wanted great sound and a, and a good song. And, and they wanted to agree that, yes, let's do this. I mean, even Paper Doll, which was a huge, as huge a hit as anything, uh, you know, no one really liked the song until they flipped it and did something with it to make it hip, you know? Yeah, yeah. Whatever hip, you know, may be at that time. So, and I think eventually they did settle into a bit of structure. You know, you mentioned, uh, my dad's d tones, if you will, you know, and so, uh, it, it was obvious many times he would take that pretty ballad part, and then when it would go to like a swing temple, Harry would jump in with that bright, you know, just a little bit more nasal leak.
Bruce Belland (00:21:20):
Little, a little more edge. More edge.
John Mills (00:21:21):
Yeah. Man. And that was it. And then finish up with that, you know, that blend, and it's, it's it, man. So Yeah. You're acute.
Bruce Belland (00:21:31):
Did they ever have, this is a singer's question, did they ever have voice problems? Well, they sa they sounded so easy, and I was gonna say, siblings have an advantage that four guys not related, don't end their tonal qualities. Usually. So similar if you hear the Ames brothers, for example, they've got a natural kind of timber of their voices that is very compatible. Did they ever have voice problems? And did they ever warm up? Did they stand backstage and warm him
John Mills (00:21:58):
Up? I couldn't get my dad to warm up to save his life. And that was, you know, he had no intentions of wasting that time. Uh, and, you know, and we weren't allowed to have voice problems. I mean, even like, you know, if you came back with a cold, he'd just say, sing over it.
Bruce Belland (00:22:14):
<laugh>. I love it. You know, that one of the things that I noticed in, in their arrangements quite often, they sang the melody the first time through, usually with your dad, Donald, singing that and establishing the melody. But it was very much jazz. Or in that, once Donald set the melody, Harry would come back on the second course and say, let me show you what I can do with that melody. Well, I guess I've had a million dollars or more. And c Coleman said about Harry's. So on Opus One, it's one of the best jazz solos he's ever heard. What they did that we emulated in our first hit 26 miles, they would do the melody. And then, let me see if I can see my notes here. And there were, sir Opus went well back my brain to think of a name to give it this tune so Eric can't crew. Yeah. You know? Yeah. You'll never grow. Oh, no, you, they do what we came to call parallels. So the melody, and then the second course. Well, the melody on 26 miles, it's 26 miles across the sea. Santa Catalina is the wait, well, on the last course, 26 miles up across the sea. Santa Catalina is the waiting for me 26 miles up across the sea. We did the parallels and all we had to say in rehearsal, let's do parallels on the end. And everybody knew what we meant, cuz we were used to the mill Still here
John Mills (00:23:36):
<laugh>. I, I think that's so beautiful. You know, and, and, uh, I think that it's, um, to me it's a, it's a real pleasure to hear you break it down almost, you know, into a musical theory or, you know, the little scientific ness. I, you know, they worked for so long together that I don't know that they ever, you know, really broke it down into what are we actually doing? You know, I, I just, I just think that, you know, they, they just, they just knew each other's sound. Uh, uh, you know, when I started, and, and again, I try to keep things in perspective. When I brought in Elmer Hopper who had spent 20 years with Paul Rob's platters, now the platters were no slouch. You know what I mean? I mean, yeah, they might have had basically five years of hits, but those five years of hits were bigger and, and still today as big as anything that's ever been done. So, and Tony,
Hey man, nobody's doing Tony Williams tribute shows cuz they can't. So Yeah. You know, <laugh>, let's, let's be honest, it's like, you know, you don't hear somebody going around doing my Mathis show. No, you can't do that. You, you don't know how. So, yeah. But, but the thing is that these artists to, to, to, in order to try and emulate the sound, uh, that's really what we're talking about here. Uh, and, and the formulas maybe some producer, you know, recognize that I, I don't know, but I can go all the way back to the early thirties and listened to the way they did things. And I don't see much difference at all. Except maybe they were doing, you know, more, as you mentioned, the jazz, well, you know, the scatting and the, you know, but it was still, yes, it was still that melody laid out.
You know, uh, you can go back and listen to Dyna, you know, and, and, and I'm talking about like 19 32, 33, 34, and Harry lays out the melody. You know, he may set it up and then, you know, then those harmonies will come in and then it just takes off onto, you know, onto its own thing. So, yeah. I, I, um, you know, it is amazing. It's amazing when you say, you know, the songs that you guys recorded, I, I think, you know, even today, I think Michael Bule has done 12 of their tunes, man, you know, and so, yeah, yeah. You know, we, we all try and try and enjoy what, what is good, and then we try and, and do, do our version of what is good and, and make it hopefully, you know, as good if, if not better. All the songs are pleasurable. I mean, that's right. And, you know, that's, that's what, that's what you want to do, man. You wanna do something that everybody enjoys.
Bruce Belland (00:26:08):
One enjoyed listening to them and watching him cuz they enjoyed it. Particular Harry who was dancing around and Donald was just the elegant kind of, you know, soft sell. Ugh. What pure velvet voice. I, there's a question I've been dying to ask you since I found I'd be talking to you. Did they ever listen to admire or comment or dislike any other groups?
John Mills (00:26:31):
Um, you know, I, I think, I think not. I, I mean, of course they admired people. You know, they, there are people that they, you know, Harry, like you mentioned, seeing Harriet zeroes. I bet Harry closed down zeroes that night. Harry loved going out. He loved hanging with, you know, all his buddies were in Macy's band or Cabs band or Eton's Band <laugh>. You know, Harry was, you know, my dad had six kids, so he better not be out, but I'm sure he was out more than, than he, he
Bruce Belland (00:26:58):
Wasn't out out all the time
John Mills (00:26:59):
Night. Exactly. Right. Uh, you know, so yeah, of course. I mean, they loved, you know, and, and they, they had a love affair, uh, with, with many, uh, other artists, you know, uh, I think there was great admiration, uh, you know, Louis Armstrong and Duke, and they didn't recall with, with Basey until 68, but that was because their schedules never gave 'em a chance to, you know? Yeah. So when they finally got a chance to do that, they knocked out two albums fast as they could and then went on with their lives. And those are two of my favorite albums that they've ever done, man. You know, I mean, cuz you had, uh, um, who's a guy, uh, Dick, Dick van, uh, Dick Hyman, you know, arranged one, one of those albums and, uh, Chico Ferrell the other. And you, you had those great arrangers and then those great artists and those great players and everybody just showing up and laying it down, man. It's like, you know, first time I worked with Macy's band, uh, my man, um,
Bruce Belland (00:27:56):
<laugh> sounded like, sounded like he was first time I worked with Macy's
John Mills (00:27:58):
Band, right? I did. Yeah. You know, Freddy Green was still alive, man, you know, Freddy was with Basey probably before Basey got there. And I'm sitting on a stage with like me and my dad. I got Freddy Green in my hip pocket, uh, what's the name had come back from, uh, from Denmark to take over the band, uh, the great, um, trumpet player. Uh, I'll come back to that in a bit. And, uh, you know, I was just realizing like, if anything's wrong on this stage, it is none of them <laugh>. So, uh, no man, we, you know, we're, we're just been very fortunate to listen to a lot of great artists for a long time and be, but believe me, they adored, you know, their, their mom almost adopted Ella when she was a kid. And my dad actually introduced, uh, uh, her to, uh, heard the chick web.
So go back. I mean, you know. Yeah. And there were many more artists that they, uh, they appreciated. When I was working down in Palm Springs, like for a seven month stretch, I used to drive back and forth all the time with my dad, and we were listening to, uh, uh, the Rolling Stones, um, uh, voodoo Lounge like most of the time. So, you know, the big fans of of, of Good and Great and, and whatever, man, I mean, and yeah. And if there were people that they didn't like, it never came out of their mouth. They, they weren't about to badmouth anybody that, that, you know, they, they, they weren't like that.
Bruce Belland (00:29:20):
Well, in the fifties when we were starting, uh, and developing a sound and figuring out, first of all, we, we started with Melody on top and then we submitted our demo tape to Capital Records and they said, fellas, we already have the four freshmen. We already, and they were another idols of mine. I got to know Bob Flanagan and Ross Barbara quite well. And I was just curious as to, uh, knowing the natural instincts of the brothers if they ever listened to groups when we were in the fifties. Along came our other idols, uh, the four lads, the Four ACEs, the Ames brothers, uh, all of whom had Melody's second part down. We had a high tenor who could raise the rafters and then go to a false set or a head tone. He my second favorite singer I ever sang with. So we experimented a lot, but it was, it, it's so to joy to meet you and talk to you about these guys because as I say, it's like Babe Ruth's son. They, Tim to me, they, from age five on, you can't get much more embedded with a group then for the, what is that? That's 81 years ago I first started listening to 'em. So, uh, I just admire 'em so much. And John, I mean, I really mean this, honestly, if you ever need a tenor or baritone <laugh>, uh, I'm in the book, call Me. I am Available. I have a, my own tuxedo <laugh>. And, you know,
John Mills (00:30:40):
Well, well, you got that glass of wine. So you had me at that <laugh>.
Bruce Belland (00:30:45):
Wait, wait a minute, minute.
John Mills (00:30:47):
Yeah, it would be an honor to, uh, to share a stage with you anytime, man. And, and, uh, we, we'd be happy to, to, to sing everything. I, uh, you know, the kid that I brought in, uh, and I do call him a kid, cuz literally he just turned 34 years old, uh, his mother's birthday. And this guy knows more Mills brothers tunes than I know, man. He's, he's like asking me about stuff from the thirties that I'm like, I have to go look up. I'm like, wait, no, wait, I don't have that in the book,
Bruce Belland (00:31:12):
John Mills (00:31:13):
So, so the music is in, uh, it is in good hands. You know, I, I think the, uh, uh, the world, the world is aware of, of all the works that have been done, uh, wheezy mentioned, you know, 2022 or 1922 when the group formed. So, you know, we're just now doing what will be our, our first, uh, celebration of Centennial, you know, and, and just, you know, a hundred years of, uh,
Of un uh, how do I say it, um, uninterrupted live on stage performances, you know, from 1922 through 2022. And then, uh, in 25, we'll do a hundred years of, you know, through, you know, when they first started in broadcast radio. So, um, you know, if I'm lucky enough to live so long and continue on, um, I've spoken to many guys, Bruce, uh, who have given me, you know, similar stories, uh, mentioned Harold Windley earlier from the clovers, uh, you know, is where he, he first got his, his original hits, and then, uh, for years he performed with a group of the ink spots singing that bass. And he, Nick
Bruce Belland (00:32:20):
John Mills (00:32:21):
Yeah. And he told me about, uh, the story about John and, and how his base influenced them, both the brother, but then, uh, but also the father. And you mentioned Harry being such a effervescent kind of guy on stage. Well, you know, Harry adored his oldest brother, John Char, John Charles was his name, but John being the eldest brother, when he passed away, uh, he, it, it was, Harry kind of took on that responsibility of doing everything he could to set the, set the tone, you know, set. Like he wasn't gonna let his brother John down. And this is where he developed that, that stage presence that, you know, everybody in show business who's ever been on stage has remarked about, you know, they always, uh, whenever I talk to somebody, they tell me, you know, that was Dean Martin's favorite guy was Harry, and he's right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, because they carried themselves similarly. And, but, you know, the thing of of it was really that they made everybody in a theater. They carried it as if they were talking to them directly. Like, you know, they were just having this one-on-one conversation. Everybody felt like they were just talking to them.
Bruce Belland (00:33:26):
He reminded me a little bit of Oliver Hardy in that he was a heavyset man who was very light on his feet. He would've danced around and, and, and do these balletic moves for this rattle style human being. It, it, it was wonderful to see the lightness, not only of his personality, but of his turac core. I mean, he was just, I always said Donald could have been Secretary of State, you know, <laugh>, especially when he grew the beard. Such a handsome devil with that smooth. And I remember watching their documentary recently and hearing their manager say that Donald was always the one that say, it's gonna be fine. Don't sweat it. Don't worry. No big deal. We'll, we'll be okay. Just let's get it together and go on <laugh>.
John Mills (00:34:04):
You are so right about that. Cuz uh, you know, when I started working with him, I was surprised. I mean, I can remember when Harry passed away. My mom said, well, that's it. That's, that's the end of the Mills brothers. And I was really surprised, uh, you know, when he, well, I shouldn't say I was surprised. I was surprised that I ever got to work with him. But, but I was, I realized then, you know, how, how much he really enjoyed singing. You know, some singers just loved to sing. I, I worked with, you can see it, you see it, right? I worked with Barbara McNair man, and she was one of these people. She she'd a song at a seven-eleven if they had a microphone, <laugh>, you know, she didn't care. She wasn't trying to, you know what I mean? And, and that's, I'm not trying to cast any dispersions. I mean, she, she was fantastic, but they just loved to sing. And my dad was like that. He just loved to sing, man. And, and, uh,
Bruce Belland (00:34:54):
We, we, we would come back from a two hour concert back to the motel, the Holiday Inn, and sit in the parking lot for another half hour and sing because it was just such fun. There's a camaraderie that develops when you're on the Gro Road with other guys, you know, dealing with canceled flights and bad hotel rooms and terrible airport food and stuff. All the things to deal with. And then you get out on stage and it all kind of fades into the background. Cuz there you are. And as I've always said, I never wanted to be, well, what really said it in my mind to be a harmony singer was that night at Ceros Shane, the Mills brothers. I had sung in my mom's choir, uh, since I aged four or five. My dad was a preacher, so he'd get me up on Sunday to sing, you know, uh, some little song.
But the moment I heard them in that blend and I listened to 'em on record, but to hear it in person was a whole new experience. Not only to hear them in person, but to see the audience reaction. I say in the book, I sat backstage, I'm gonna choke up on this. I sat backstage absolutely overwhelmed with the ease with which they absolutely transported that audience. I mean, it, it was musical magic. And I, on the way home that night, and I knew I was gonna get in trouble cuz I had sneaked out on my house after my parents went to sleep to go up to seas to see the Mills brothers. And I didn't care. I came back on CL 10, I said, that's it. I wanna harmony, I gotta get some other guys. And along came the talent show at Hollywood High School looking for performers. And I grabbed three guys in the school choir and said, let's go. And never looked back. So what I owe to the brothers is, is monumental to me. And having a chance to talk to you is a yeah, great thrill, buddy. This has just been just one, just
John Mills (00:36:37):
Wonderful. Hey, Bruce, you know, uh, you, you got my phone number. If you don't, we'll give it to you. And, and, uh, we don't have to do anything special to get together, man. This, this is, you know, there's a lot of Jerry's Dees out there <laugh>. So, uh, we can hang out anytime you want. Uh, you know, I've worked with all those cats that you mentioned, ed Ames, you know, we, uh, he told me his, he and his brothers used to sneak into a theater. I forget what town he might have been from. <laugh> could have been Cleveland or Philly or some somewhere. And, uh, he would say the same thing. And of course, I did many shows with the, the four Lads and Frank Buser and, you know, those cats. And, um, same stories, man. I, uh, the Isley Brothers, I, I had a chance to meet Marvin Isley, who was the youngest brother.
Uh, he was a bass player, uh, back in, you know, in the seventies. And he was the youngest kid. I, uh, the isley were kind of like my family, like my family, my, my siblings. There were four of them. And then, you know, then came the next two. But those four were always straight. And and Marvin would tell me that it, it was forever before they would let him go on the road with them. But he told me a story. He, he passed away, uh, of, uh, diabetes, ate him up, uh, the youngest cat. And, and, uh, when my dad was hospitalized, Marvin happened to be, uh, in the hospital at the same time, uh, with, with his bouts. And, uh, he had heard that my dad was in the hospital and he just had to go down and meet him, you know, that was something he had to do.
And so he told me that his father was a military guy from I believe Cincinnati, Ohio. And when he met his mother, his, he said, Hey, this is, uh, the Isley Brothers dad. He said, we're gonna get married and we're gonna have four kids, and they're gonna be the next Mills brothers <laugh>. And I'm like, you've gotta be kidding me, man. Now the Isley brothers, man, you know, I don't know what, you know, I I if you, if you love music, you love all genres of music that are good. Yeah. And these are the only cats that I know as a family that have recorded in the fifties and the sixties and the seventies and the eighties. And I mean, just hits after hits for decades after decades. And, uh, and they continue to tour. And so, you know, like you love talking, uh, this moment, I would love to speak with Ernie or, or, you know, um, uh, you know, the, the other brother, uh, who's still touring because I, I, I just, I just remember this moment with their, their youngest brother, man, how important that was, how significant that was, how nice it was for him to go in and talk to my dad in the hospital.
How nice it was for me to hear these stories. Because listen, Bruce, truth of showbiz and, and the way we get to travel the world and the niceties that we come across as much as the, the hardships of, of the, the crappy hotels sometimes, you know, is, is the stories right? Miss the stories. Yeah. We get from people, it's the stories you get from your fans. It's the stories that, you know, you hear from people who, who, uh, who tell you how much a particular song or a moment meant to them and
Bruce Belland (00:39:46):
They come up to, uh, uh, till that was my song with my wife, you know, that was our, that was our song. Uh, yeah, I mean that, that that's, you get somebody coming up with an old dogeared LP from 35 years ago, <laugh> that watch you just sign it. I mean, it, it's, it, I've always said it's the greatest business in the world to be in, to make a living. Cuz when you're gone, you're not really gone. I mean, look at the mill brother.
John Mills (00:40:09):
You're, you know, or you're, you're right. And that can, that's a little bit daunting too, because I know I've, I've been in situations where somebody will play like one of my, you know, my dad's tracks or whatever. And to me, his singing voice was so close to his speaking voice that it's, it's almost a little, you know, it can be a bit offsetting, you know, to hear somebody that close to you, you know, in that same kind of a tonal thing. It, it is beautiful, man. And, um, yeah, it's an honor to, to meet you and to, and to speak with you.
Bruce Belland (00:40:43):
Oh, same everybody. Everybody.
Louise Palanker (00:40:45):
All right. Well, Fri Fri Fritz and I have a couple of questions. And this one is, this one is for both of you. And, um, Bruce, in your book you talk about your relationship with your dad who pushed back against your interest in the entertainment business. And John, you grew up with a dad who was larger than life. And so I'd love if you could both talk about how you strove to earn the, the respect of your fathers.
Bruce Belland (00:41:07):
John, why don't you go first, buddy? You're the one that has a father who was a legend out <laugh>. Well,
John Mills (00:41:13):
You know, I mean, I, uh, one thing I've always, uh, one thing I never missed was support from, uh, my family. Now, Harry of all people was smart enough to tell me, Hey, man, don't do that <laugh>, you know, uh, you know, he realized I was a pretty good golfer when I was a kid. And I can remember Harry was trying to send me to, uh, Arnold Palmer at a golf school in Lake Tahoe. Oh, wow. Wow. I was about 11, 12 years old. And Harry promised, he said, man, John. He said, just, no, he used call. He said, just go, go play golf. And I, this is a direct quote, I'll never forget this. He said, John, if, well, if you
Louise Palanker (00:41:55):
My, my, hold that thought for one second and let John finish his thought. And then, oh, I'm sorry. Because he was quote, he, he was about to quote, Harry, forgive me, I'm sorry.
John Mills (00:42:03):
No, please, man. I've, I've quoted Harry too many times my whole life. No, I, you know, no, Harry's fascination was, you know, he, he, I mean, again, I try to keep things in perspective, and he understood, you know, the world. He understood showbiz. I mean, these guys, when you talk about like, this isn't today, it wasn't the internet. If you went and did a tour in Europe in 1934, you were on a steamship or some kind of ship. There was gonna be, you know, weeks, you know, getting back and forth and stuff. So the, the grind of being, uh, of the artist that they were even as magnificent as their careers were, it had to be extraordinary. And it had to take tremendous dedication. So while he was watching professional golf open up, you know, 12 years old, it's nine, I'm, it's 1968. So again, keeping things in perspective as, as black successful, if you wanna say that.
Uh, uh, men in the United States, you know, they took on the responsibilities of, of sponsoring other young black, uh, golfers on the P tour, you know, all the Charlie CFRs and all those cats. You know, they, they didn't have any love from, from, you know, white media sponsors. I mean, they barely were able to get into tournaments. And that this is why the PGA started calling things invitationals, you know, and they didn't, they didn't have to allow in all professional golfers. So, oh, again, trying to keep things in perspective, you know, having seen the way things were growing and coming about Harry's thing was, you know, listen, man, you can have a career in professional golf. And his quote was wheezy, I guarantee if you just finish in the top 10, you don't have to win anything. But if you just finish in the top 10, you'll make more than $100,000 a year <laugh>. And, and to him, this was a gold mine and certainly beat, you know, trying to, trying to, you know, catch the next plane to,
Fritz Coleman (00:44:10):
Hey, John, the, the, uh, the documentary about the Brothers on YouTube is fascinating. And it goes back to some really old film, like late twenties, early thirties. Yeah. And what I was blown away by was, even with the old primitive recording techniques, their harmonies were just pristine. Even in that scratchy old sound that came out of those. And I, I mean, that separated the men from the boys as far as I'm concerned. But somebody, somebody in that, in the, in the, uh, in the interviews, um, made a great comment. When, when asked about the key to their success over 55 years, he said, the key is when you're with brothers, work together, live apart. <laugh> don't. Yeah. How remember that? How, how did the brothers get along? Seriously? Um, uh, I mean, they seem so close and tight and finish one another's thoughts and stuff.
John Mills (00:45:07):
Well, well, you gotta remember 'em, man. I mean, like, I, I was born in 56, so they were, you know, 22, 30, 32, 42, 52. They had already been at it, you know, 30 some years professionally before I was even around. Um, I, I never noticed any discrepancies of any, you know, anger or whatever between them. Uh, by the time I was born, my dad was living more in Los Angeles than other parts of the country. But I understood Herb lived in New York for many years, uh, when he was in, uh, well, they all lived in New York for many years, but I think he kept a place there, uh, longer than they did, uh, when they all pretty much settled in Los Angeles as a first place base. Uh, they lived close enough to each other to be able to see each other whenever they wanted to and, and not be a bother to each other, you know, whenever they didn't.
Uh, herb ended up later years moving to Las Vegas. Um, her, you know, herb loved like, like different people can live in Las Vegas. My dad would, wouldn't be the kind of guy who could live in Vegas, but I couldn't, couldn't either, right? But Herb loved it because, uh, he didn't gamble. Uh, he, he loved people. He was a people watcher. And, and, uh, even when, uh, he moved there, I think espn, a couple of these places were just starting when he retired, cuz he retired pretty much after Harry passed. I mean, when we started rehearsing the act, again, it was my, myself, my dad, and I actually, they were gonna, uh, use my brother Alan. But Alan, when Harry got ill, ended up working more in television, uh, in, in, um, in the costuming end of stuff. And so, so that was a good job.
And so when I ended up, uh, working with him, it, it wouldn't have been myself and, and my dad and her, but herb's back became, you know, too much of a grind. So that he lived in Las Vegas. He used to love to go to all the fights, you know, the boxing matches, Uhhuh <affirmative>. He had offered, they had offered him, um, if he wanted to become a, um, one of the boxing commissioners in the state of Nevada, which, which he thought about. But, but he didn't. But I mean, this is just how much he loved and en and enjoyed that. So, um, you know, I mean I, yeah, they, they lived apart, but I think, I think my dad was in the hospital, you know, that, that they, herb passed away. I, I kind of remember him talk, you know, them talk. They, they stayed in touch. Um, you know, Harry, whenever they rehearsed, they would rehearse it, you know, somebody's house, you know, it was, I don't ever remember them like needing to go to some studio to rehearse, you know? Uh, uh, I, I don't, I don't remember any troubles, uh, you know, between the three of 'em. And if they did it, it was short-lived, you know.
Louise Palanker (00:47:53):
So, Bruce, go ahead and te te tell that story about your relationship with your dad. Cause I think it's very interesting.
Bruce Belland (00:47:59):
Well, my dad was on my biggest fan in terms of my music ability in singing. I mean, I sang my first solo at age four, uh, on his radio show. He had a radio show in Chicago. And I sang God Bless America, for which I was told if I sang it through without a mistake, I'd get a stick and chewing up <laugh>. So live on the air, I sang, got to the end of song, God Bless America, my home, sweet home, where's my Gump <laugh>? Of course, the whole crowd broke up. The congregation applauded and got to their feet. And that's, that was it. I was hooked <laugh>, I wanted to be a singer. Well, right from that point forward, my dad as a fundamentalist preacher could see no career for me. But being a gospel singer, Billy Graham was his, one of his friends. And, and he admired him a great deal.
And he had a great tenor that traveled with him and sang and all his revival meetings named, uh, cliff Burrows. Well, he used to say, when I do a show with my, uh, uh, performance with my dad, when he spoke, I'd get up and sing. Well, I'm Billy Graham and you're Cliff Burrows. So that was his fixation from age four. And obviously as we got older, we began to audition to preps in, uh, in, in singing nightclubs, or was a place in Hollywood called the Peacock Lane Corner of Western and Hollywood Boulevard. We were 17, 18 years old. He was saying it, my dad went down the watch us, walked in the front door, turned around, went right back out, <laugh>. And when I asked him later why, he said, that's a padded sewer. I don't spend time in padded sewers. So slowly our dreams of what I was gonna be separated, and he insisted on making it a gospel career.
I probably sang at 40 or 50 funerals and weddings growing up. My dad would do the euy, and then I would get up and sang, they'll be light in the road from the Palace online. And my dad afterwards say, oh, we're, what're a great team. We are. You've got such a great future. So when the final break came out was a student at ucla, we had just signed with Capital Records, and that was okay with my dad because Capital Records, you went to the studio right there in town, you didn't travel and go to padded sewers, no big deal. Then we got our first professional engagement to sing at Fox Nightclub in San Francisco. Well, to my father's San Francisco was Sodom and Gamora, I mean, <laugh>, you might as well tell him I was going to sing at a house of I Repute <laugh>. So that came a big break, and that the night before I left for San Francisco, we had the inevitable showdown in his inner santin, his, his magnificent office in the, in the church sanctuary.
And when I had go over there and knock on the door and talk to him in his office, I always tremble because I was entering, you know, the inner sancton. And I just said, dad, this is what I wanna do. I'll try and keep on the straight and narrow. I know that's what you want, but, uh, this is something I've dreamed of forever since I heard the Mills brothers. And, uh, I, I've gotta do this. And so from then on, we never had an alienation. He just simply was not that enthused about it. And we did, I don't know how many Ed Sullivan shows. Well, he never saw one because he was in church at the pulpit on Sunday and night when Ed Sullivan was broadcasting. And of course in those, they didn't have a re recording. So he had a kind of a guarded pride in what the preps accomplished. When we got our hits. He'd come to college, we did a lot of college concerts. He'd come to a concert at UCLA or SC and enjoy it thoroughly. But, uh, you know, he, he never was thrilled that I didn't become, uh, a gospel singer.
John Mills (00:51:28):
Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, that, that's tough, man. But I, I've heard that similar other artists who, you know, their, their parents were like that. I mean, they said Sam Cook went through that, um, know Marvin, Marvin Gay, went through a little bit of that. You know, um, you know, I, I think that when, when they were tied to that church, of course, you know, I mean, mills Brothers might have been, um, you know, the worst thing happening if, if you were a fan of, you know, Brahms or Mozart or something. I mean, you know, I, I don't know. It's, it's, everybody has their bugaboos, right. But I think it's tough when it, when it's coming from, you know, your, your parents. I mean, you know, from, from mother,
Bruce Belland (00:52:10):
Well, my mother was a, go ahead, a, a great counterbalance to my father. She would sit, I'd sit on the panel, be next to her for an hour. As I said in the book, while supper burned on the stove, we were learning a new quarrel remains. And how I learned how to read music. She'd got, you know, in those days, if you were interested as a choir director in a particular new anthem, you'd contact the publisher. They'd send you a sample sheet of the sheet music. This was before Xerox. My mom would put the sheet music on, on the piano and say, okay, sing the melody. And I'd sing the melody shit. I'd sing the alto, I'd sing the Alto and Octa fire. I'd sing the bass, I'd sing the bass and Octa fire. So, so she was constantly, she was a radio gospel singer when she met and married my father. He had a radio show. She was one of the singers on the show, and that's how they got together. But she was such a champion of mine and such a supportive help and such a vocal coach say, and when you say the word hurry, don't say hurry, say hurry, uh, you know, enunciation, getting the consonants out, staying in tune, warming up properly. So between my mom and my dad, I guess I came out okay. Cause I had both elements working.
Louise Palanker (00:53:20):
So I'm really interested in phrasing, because you've got, everyone needs to pronounce the word and finish the word. And when, sometimes, sometimes words end with, you know, a couple of consonants. Um, so how do you work on phrasing and how do you get that right?
Bruce Belland (00:53:38):
May I offer an answer? I, I don't know. I'm not sure who you're asking, but both of
Louise Palanker (00:53:42):
You. Both of you. Yeah.
Bruce Belland (00:53:44):
We, you know, it was a funny thing. We, we caught lightning in a bottle in the preps in that Mar Ingram, our high tenor, as I say, one of the best singers I've ever sang with, sung with. Uh, and I read music. The other two guys didn't. But I remember Ross Barber sang to me of the freshman, you, you said, you guys seem to have a understanding each other and phrase just automatically, Glen Larson, our baritone. Cuz all our parts John, were written by our, the man recalled the fifth prep. He was a man named Lincoln Maga, who's a genius pianist and a ranger. And, uh, sometimes he'd show a Marv, his high tenor part, Marv would read it and I'd get my melody Glenwood into it, the baritone part, without hearing a note of it. He knew right where he was supposed to go and what he was supposed to do.
And our co our base Ed Cobb, who had a four tive range in a wonderful bass, I remember it once early on, I said, you know, ed, I can teach you how to read music if you'd like. He said, no, no, no, no, no. I, no, I don't wanna know. I don't wanna know. I just wanna do it the way I've always done it. I want it to be natural. And as far as phrasing, uh, you know, we worked hard on it. My mom had trained me if there's a consonant in the word pronounced the consonant. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. So, uh, and if you sing, hurry, don't sing. Hurry, hurry, sing, hurry. And if you, if say whisper, then whisper the tone if the word is whisper. So I got a lot of that from my mom. And as I say, the four of us kind of fell into it, uh, naturally, I guess we certainly never phrased with the ease <laugh> of the Mills brothers that we managed to get by.
John Mills (00:55:16):
You guys did terrific. Um, similar, the g the guy's mother was, uh, sang light opera. And, uh, and their father was a concert bass singer. So I had actually, I've seen a playbill, I doubt if that's what it was called then, but of him doing like solo concerts in 1910. So they had this musical back. And I guess whether you were in radio or doing a live performance, uh, the idea was, you know, if the audience couldn't understand what you were saying, well that didn't help. Right. So, yeah, when you talk about, you talk about phrasing, enunciation, uh, articulation, I, I think that when hat in hand, and also, you know, the feel of a song, uh, is kind of like that pillow that you lay against, right? So you can do your phrasing, and if the song is rushed or outta temple, or, you know, if somebody's pushing it too fast, or, you know, if you're working with a band that, uh, slow means soft and, and, and loud means fast, <laugh>, you know, sometimes there, there's no in between.
And it's, it's hard to, uh, to talk 'em down. Everybody isn't very, you know, you can't always work with Count Bai, man. Or, or with, you know, I mean, some, yeah. Yeah. But the interesting thing about, you know, live musicians is it's not always like you can work with the greatest musicians in the world, but if they're phoning it in it, it's not gonna come, come over. Right? You work with musicians who are really struggling to get everything that they're supposed to get. And that gets across to the audience, you know, even more so than any mistakes. So all of this works hand in hand with the ability to deliver the phrasing, uh, that you wanna put over in a song. If you listen to Sinatra, I mean, isn't, you know, besides, is, you know, isn't the whole thing with Sinatra, his phrasing Right. The way he's delivered.
That's right. And if you listen to his orchestrations, and of course the greatest, you know, arrangers in the world and the greatest studio musicians in the world, you know, the nothing was ever in his way. Same thing with Sarah Vaughn, all fra, I mean, obviously the most delicious voice ever, and one of those tremendous ranges. But it's all phrasing. And it's because, you know, well, if you listen to her stuff, I mean, it's like strings <laugh>, you know, and maybe some sweet trio, you know, you, you didn't always have, you know, like she didn't need all these punchy things going on everywhere. And that just gave her the room to phrase, you know, uh, uh, I don't, I think it's, it's one of the most underrated things that, that a singer can ever do, is how to articulate and how to phrase so much so that today's software and computers, you know, they, they create, uh, you know, ways to correct pitch or to, to, you know, to, to stretch a node or, you know what I mean? I mean, obviously the software, people realize how important it is. So
Bruce Belland (00:58:12):
<laugh> well, your dad and I, I'll see you in my dreams. The song is Someone took You outta my Arms. No Note, someone took you out of my arms. Just a and we used to do a satire about a singer going soft, I will leave you. So wait, wait a minute, wait a minute. And I saw Wayne Newton in Vegas one night. He tends to be fairly glib, and he opened with Where have all the flowers gone? Long time. And he gets to where have all these young men gone, gone to graveyards? Yeah. One in all. <laugh>, Wayne. Wayne, you're talking about kids dying in Warren going, what? What are you doing? Snapping your fingers going, yeah, graveyard, <laugh>,
John Mills (00:59:00):
You know? Amen. But I remember when Wayne was a kid and working in Vegas when he was too young to walk through the casino.
Louise Palanker (00:59:08):
I think they lied about his age too, because, you know, his age, his voice didn't drop till he was 21. So I think they told folks he was, he was 18 because he was tall, but he was 13
Bruce Belland (00:59:18):
<laugh>. Yeah. Yeah.
John Mills (00:59:19):
He had a beautiful voice when he was a kid, man. I mean, oh yeah. He always had a beautiful voice. But yeah, I, I get what you're saying. Uh, you know, listen to any great solo artist or any great, uh, group, I mean, the sync, you know, another thing for phrasing could be the syncopation of, of whatever that phrase is that you're sending. So it doesn't matter if you were in a jazz thing, you know, guitar players try and sound like sax players and sax players try and articulate like, you know, great guitar soloists. And, um, if you're in a different era of music, you know, uh, the Boswell sisters had had to sound, but they still had to phrase, you know, whatever it was they were putting. And because you're singing in a vocal group, you know, you can't do two or three different phrasings.
You know, it's like, it needs to be in sync. And the other thing I noticed about the guys, um, and this was true, like even to late in my dad's life, is the breath control he had, uh, it, I don't know where it came from. I mean, this guy probably smoked two, three packs of cigarettes a day since he was 10. I don't know how he did it. <laugh>. I do remember that when I would take him for a physical or something, like even late in his life, even when he wasn't well, people were amazed at how his lungs were just like, you know, when they tell him to take a deep breath and, and they would say, okay, you can stop now. I mean, you know, because he could just, he had this capacity and then when they, when they sang their notes, they knew how much air to put behind him. And this guy had a real breathy sound man. So he sounded like he was just like, you know, he'd send you this loving fog or whatever, but it just, he never cheated a note, you know, if you listened to any of the endings of his notes. Yeah, yeah. They were just, you know, they were just as beautiful as, as the beginning of 'em. So I think phrasing means a lot, uh, wheezy. I,
Louise Palanker (01:01:18):
I, I, yeah, me too. I just wanna ask one question of Skip before we go. I'm just wondering, cause I don't know if we've ever talked about how your relationship with your father grew during those years that you were traveling together, uh, as, as partners, I guess would be, you know, as father and son. But, you know, and I'm sure he's, he's always your father within that. But how did you come to know one another and, and grow together during, during that journey?
John Mills (01:01:47):
You know, I mean, it's different working. Uh, my, I, I tried to take something outta all of them, you know, from, from on stage, from doing the Mills Brothers show, the Mills Brothers show was, um, unlike anything I've, I've ever had a chance to do musically. I mean, I always did my own music. I was a composer also. I always liked the idea of doing, you know, some hip stuff or whatever. But, you know, you remember I was the guy who told 'em, I didn't think Cab Driver would ever work in 1968, <laugh>, you know? And of course that's why they never listened to me. So, um, cuz it's 68, I mean, you know, I'm listening to The Temptations and, you know, there's so much stuff going on. Uh, but that said, working with him was, he was great. I mean, my feeling was Harry was gone and Weezy, you knew Harry a bit.
So you can, you might, you might pick up some aspects of this. Harry wasn't an arrogant fellow, but Harry knew who he was and he knew what he had accomplished over his career. And that wasn't about being prideful, but he did require people to treat him with a respect that he gave to them. And so, when I started working with my father, and now you can imagine, okay, if we're working for people who've been booking, well, the first thing you're going to hear is, well, there's no way, just like you mentioned, is there any way three guys could sound like four? Well, there certainly wasn't any way. Two guys could sound like three, right? And I'm like, listen, man, he's always gonna be Donald Mills. So I don't, I don't care. You know, however, whatever we do, a I'm never gonna embarrass the group. You know, I'm never, even when Herb, uh, first started, um, uh, going into rehearsal with my dad and I, I remember Herb had some trepidations because if Herb left, when he left, he left on top.
Yeah. And he really never wanted to, he was concerned. He didn't wanna get involved in something that was gonna be lessened than what it was that they had accomplished. And that wasn't an ego, that was just a reality. Right? Yeah. Yeah. Uh, and he worked very hard, and it was harder for him to sing all those high tops at the age of 77 or whatever he was then than, than it was, you know, uh, when he was younger. So for him to, to stop was, it wasn't the end of the world. He had a beautiful life in Vegas. He, you know, with my dad, he just wanted to keep going, man. Um, the album that we did, the Still, there's You album. I think we first went into the studio in 91 or 92, somewhere around there. I know We, we, uh, we reformatted it for, for Digital CDs, I think in 95.
So I think it was in 91 or so. He was like already 76 years old at the time of recording. And his recording, I mean, he should have been Grammy nominated his, his, his, the way he did. You always heard the one You Love just on that album was just remarkable. So he was a guy who never lost his chops. He always enjoyed singing. And when I started working with him, my, I, I first took the, the position, like I just, I wasn't gonna let anybody, you know, uh, diminish him. Yeah, yeah. You know, uh, uh, we used to put on our contracts, you know, when people hired us, it, it was John and Donald Mills of the Mills Brothers. And the idea wasn't to give my name first. The idea was he did not ever wanted to do concerts, that his fans would come see and expect something different than what was on stage.
Yeah. He didn't wanna put a fake group of guys together that could just sing. You know, some guys, you know, I remember, I won't, I won't mention any names, but I remember one guy telling another guy in a group, you know, just go get you and three nobodies and you can keep doing your, you know, your show. Well, that was never his thing, man, you know? Yeah. We never just tried to put bodies on stage. So I spent, I joined him when I was 27 years old man. And I spent my time, first of all, just making sure that things were good for him, things were comfortable for him. That when we went to San Francisco, we didn't have some promoter who was trying to put him in some place. He wouldn't stay when he was a teenager. No. You know, we're still at the Fairmont, you know, or, or whatever.
So yeah. So a lot of that, uh, carried on. And he was always great by me. And if you remember, if you ever see any early footage of us together, the only thing I ever changed was like the brothers, when they sang, you know, they always used one microphone. And we did that forever until it seemed like he, he might have lost a little, uh, never his tone, but maybe the, you know, the, the force of his voice. So rather than me, I started backing off a bit just to keep that blend. But at some point in time, I, I made it a point. Then I had them bring, you know, two microphones to the stage and then get a nice balance of his voice consistent, because he was always the sound anyway, man. I'm just trying not to get in his way. And everybody we ever worked with, you know, tho those were his buddies and his friends.
And, and, uh, I was, I was just lucky enough to, to be along for the ride, man. And you know, when you working with people who I consider Giants, and they're looking at him like, oh my God, I'm on the stage with this guy, you know, <laugh>, I worked with Woody Man before, you know, before he passed. Not, not like his band, like Woody Man. And we're sitting backstage and he's like, he's curled over. Like, you know, you know, like, it might be easier to kneel than to stand up and then when his music hits, right? Yeah. And he's getting ready to take the stage. He just unfolds like a, like a military staff, di sergeant man, his back goes straight. And he just took the stage with such command, this is how these guys work. This is how your generation was Bruce, you know, you guys so took so much elegance, pride, and, and professionalism and, and knowing how honorable, how, how nice it was that an audience would actually come to see you sing and listen and have a great time.
And this is the other thing we, you asked me, like, working with my dad, it's so different because we've worked, I don't know, I don't know how many places all over the world. It was not like today. You know, like if, if you knew, if you had friends in the audience, it was a nice surprise, right? Or maybe if you had some, uh, you know, some relatives show up or whatever, you know, today, man, you do a show, like the promoters almost expect you to call every one of your friends and their cousins and their buddies and, and, you know, and if you can get them to buy drinks too, we might be able to pay you guys. I mean, it's like the biggest, you know, and it's like, where did, where did that go, man? Yeah. Yeah. Because these artists, man, they, they, they filled the room, you know?
And because I worked with the kind of music that it was, it did not keep me from working with any type of artist. I mean, I worked with like the Eddie Arnolds of the world, you know, uh, all the country cats, man, all the great jazz guys, you know, all it, it's just, it's just this beautiful, beautiful body of work. And me working with him, to go back to finishing your question, there is nothing that could compare to that. He was just, he was as great to me as he was when I was seven years old. He was trying to teach me how to hit a seven iron, you know, <laugh> golf course. You know, I mean, he was just, he was very protective also, he always put me over when we talked. He always, uh, would, would, uh, you know, when when we would slay a show, he, he'd always, he wasn't like me, me, me.
He was, he was always pointing it over. And if you ever look at any of the stuff, the, the little footage that we might have on stage together, you can see it in his eyes, man, when we catch each other's eyes and look at each other, I think, I think I made him, uh, uh, you know, I think he was very happy. And I think it's a just an odd thing, familiarly, you know, that we were able to continue on, um, as, as long as we did. And he also knew I wanted to do other music, you know? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. But, uh, but this was a, uh, a great opportunity. And
Bruce Belland (01:10:09):
You can have lost the, missed the flight. You got four hours sleep. The food was terrible at the hotel, and here they are instantly, boom, you know, and you get off stage and realize how tired you are. But it, it's a, it's a great, uh, great energizer. And the devotion with which the Mills brothers were always received, I mean, what they represented, uh, you know, how many other groups sang songs during World War II that will never forget that brought couples closer, were separated by the Army till then. That, that's, it's, uh, what a tribute. John. I gotta tell you buddy <laugh>, you come, come from a jean pool <laugh>.
John Mills (01:10:47):
Well, you know, I thank you. It, it wouldn't mean anything, uh, it wouldn't mean half as much. Uh, you know, and without being able to have these kinds of conversations, I've had 'em with many people, like I said, you know, the Ed Amess and all these cats, but I've never had a chance to really chronicle them. You know, I, I talked to Don Newcomb, who was one of the great dodger pitchers, you know, forever and, and cats, you know, and, and you know, all the, all especially, you know, uh, just bringing in the component of them being young black children, and then young black teenagers, and then young black men, and then growing into middle-aged black men and all the, the, all the turbulence that was going on in the country all around them, all the time, all the different changes and how they were always just there for each other, and how they were always there for everybody around them, you know?
Uh, a friend of mine asked, it is, it's always been tough to do like a Mills Brothers musical or something, which I pushed for a while. Uh, one of the guys was saying, you know, there's just no scandal in their lives. You know, there was just, you know, you know how books are sold and movies are sold, or, you know, you gotta talk about the dirt. Like, who did they hate? You know, or whatever. Uh, but I was telling them that for the Mills Brothers, the extraordinary thing to me was that they normalized being black in your house. You know, when they came on the radio, when they came on television, when they came on, you know, traveling around the world, you know, they were, they were in people's homes for so many years, day in and day out and day in. And this is way, you know, even when you talk about the 1930s films and stuff, right.
You know, or, or, uh, whatever they call those, uh, soundings, you know, uh, they, they, their extraordinary civil rights presentation was that they made it possible for everyone else. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. And they made their normal, they normalized, uh, you know, blackness in mainstream homes. And hey, man, that didn't change the world, but it sure made it a lot better for everybody I ever talked to, man. I mean, I, I talked to Sammy Davis. Sammy Davis told me he couldn't have done anything he without the Mills Brothers, you know, uh, Nat Cole, man, he, I mean, my dad introduced Marie to, to Na. That's how you got Natalie. You know, there's an extraordinary life that they lived that had very little to do with being on stage, but could not have happened had they not been on stage. Wow. So, anyway, Bruce, I love you, man. And, uh, I love you too, buddy. We can meet wherever is close, or wherever is far any of 'em in Santa Barbara. Maybe we can go up there one day.
Bruce Belland (01:13:29):
Oh, I love it. Well, I'm 86. I want to, I'm gonna do this before my bucket gets kicked.
Louise Palanker (01:13:34):
You know, I'm gonna hook it up, Bruce. I'm gonna hook it up. I wanna say to you, skip, you know, and I know you know this, but you gave your father the most beautiful gift that, that he could not only continue singing, doing what he loved, what made him feel the most like himself and the gift that he had, but then your gift and, and seeing the man that you had become on stage next to him after sharing that space with his brothers, now sharing it with his son. I can't you, you, I know, I know, you know how profound that is, but it's just beautiful, just beautiful. And, uh, I think Fritz had one more.
Fritz Coleman (01:14:08):
Oh, no, I just wanted to say, uh, uh, a couple of, first of all, I think the Mills brothers and their style and their juvi on stage and the way they impeccably dressed and their, um, and, and their, uh, choreography all traveled. You, you mentioned it earlier, John, in 1968, talking about Motown. I think those guys, those, you know, the tops and the temps and all those guys saw the importance of that elegance and making audience as comfortable that way. And that was the Mills brothers.
John Mills (01:14:42):
I, I think even if they didn't, you know, Barry Gordy and, and you know, Barry had a staff of people who, who trained, who may, you know, his artist become stage worthy. Mm-hmm. <affirmative> mm-hmm. <affirmative> and, uh, costumers and choreographers and, and, uh, you know, that, that whole thing. So, uh, yeah. I mean, I, I, I, I took do note, man, I, I sat backstage with Harry Belafonte one, one night. Uh, he was, we were in Cohasset, Massachusetts. They used to have this tent there that, that people would work or forget what they called it. But, uh, and he was closing one night. We were gonna play there the next day, and I saw him and my dad just sit back in his trailer, and they must have talked for two hours, man. And I'm just like, taking this shit in, pardon my language, <laugh>, because it's, it's just remarkable.
I mean, you know, and, and to my dad, like, Harry's like a young kid, you know, and he's already an older guy, but you know what I'm saying? I mean, and there, there's just this, uh, I, I don't know how to explain it, man. I, I, I don't know who li whose lives they didn't touch, you know, whether it was, uh, uh, musically or, uh, you know, with all the different media that they, you know, you know, from the phonographs all the, Hey, man, you mentioned, uh, uh, till then and the war stuff, uh, this last Christmas, not this one, but the one that passed before there was this movie with, uh, DiCaprio, uh, don't Look Up. And he, he does like this whole scene in this car where he's playing till then to his girlfriend, wife, I, I can't remember the, the, you know, and, and he's got this kid in the back and he's describing, man, this is the Mills brothers, and listen to these words. And Harry's singing till, I mean, it's just a, and he, they did like 10 minutes of Mills Brothers stuff in this movie that was just out at the end of, you know, 2021. Yeah.
Louise Palanker (01:16:33):
John Mills (01:16:33):
Decades later. I mean, this is, this is where it is, man. You know, and it's, it's a magnificent thing, and I don't take it lightly.
Fritz Coleman (01:16:40):
I wanna talk about Till then, since you've brought it up, because Bruce earlier talked about how impactful that song was. It was recorded in 1948, the Mills Brothers version. No,
Louise Palanker (01:16:50):
It was recorded earlier than that. Cuz it was, it was, that was during the war. During the war.
Fritz Coleman (01:16:54):
Oh, okay. Uh, I, I, I don't know where I got that date wrong, but anyway, uh, it was, it was so resonant with families that had kids fighting abroad, then it was re-released by a band called The Classics in 1963, which made the song relevant to people who had kids fighting in Vietnam. So it got recycled for the same emotion all those years later. Pretty important.
Bruce Belland (01:17:18):
And the Hilltoppers had a hit on it in the fifties.
John Mills (01:17:21):
Yeah. I mean, a lot of those songs, you know, even the Mills, like when you said they did it in 48, they may have, because they rerecorded their own songs, you know, several times, uh, different albums and different, different, uh, labels and, and, and stuff like that. So, yeah, I mean, you know, and they were all also fortunate just to have these, these, they, they all chose great music, you know, they, they wouldn't do a song unless they all liked it. Right. And I mean, look at, look at all of the, you know, the tombs that just have left, uh, Paul McCartney, you know, uh, uh, on Kisses on the Bottom, I think it was, you know, he had written a song for them, um, called, uh, my Baby's Regret or something like that. I, excuse me if I messed it up, Mr. McCartney, sir McCartney <laugh>, uh, I actually have a copy of the lead sheet here that he had sent, uh, to Henry Miller's office.
Weezy remembers Henry, uh, uh, for them to record. But, uh, Harry was already getting a little bit, you know, sick and they never had a chance to record it. So I listened to a recording that he did with Wings. Uh, and I just recently had a good friend of mine, my, my sound engineer met, uh, Paul McCartney's guitar player with Wings, who remembers recording that song. And, uh, McCartney just redid it with, uh, Diane Crawl, and I think she was on piano and, and, uh, uh, uh, John Clayton on Bass and these cats when he did kisses on the Bottoms. And I think he also does, uh, bye by Black person. You know, the beat, you know, even the Beatles man were, you know, they just, they, they were, they understood. You know what, what, what, and the last I'll leave you with this was Elton John.
Um, I had a friend who played, played Horn on, on when, when he was traveling, not this last year, but, you know, several years ago, man. And that's what he would talk about. He said like, on the road they would talk about the Mills Brothers stuff that they were doing, man. So That's amazing. Amazing. You know, it's, it's, it's a world of, I don't, I don't, you know, that, and a cup of coffee gets you a cup of coffee, but I do share these things with my children so that you have a conversation if they want, you know, with anybody that, that means much to them. And, um, and I'm, I'm good with it, man,
Louise Palanker (01:19:31):
You know. Well, I wanted to show, I wanted to show you one thing, Bruce, uh, because I, you know, it's just possible. This is from Syros. Uh, and, uh, this may be the night that you, that you met Harry. I don't know, but it's, uh, it's a picture of them with their mom, with their mom and dad. So, uh, on the back it says April 9th, 1956. So I don't know if that was the night, but,
Bruce Belland (01:19:54):
Well, I was, see I was born in 36 and I was 15 when that happened. So I, I knew I should have listened in math class. I don't
Louise Palanker (01:20:01):
<laugh> No, I think, I think that could be a, a, a li a little beyond when you met him, but pretty much in that, in that, in that pocket. And, uh, what year was that? So this, you had just been born, skipped. This is April 9th, 1956.
John Mills (01:20:18):
I wasn't Graduat graduated, graduated from high, from high school. Yeah. I, I wasn't born yet, but I was just thinking, uh, you know, their dad worked with them, I think up until 58. So he might have been, you know, working with the group then, cuz he spent 22 years with them. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, uh, and, and fork to be in that pi in that picture with them, that that was their mom. Uh, that, that's, that's a keepsake man. That's, yeah. I was born in May, so my mother was probably pissed at my dad wasn't home <laugh>.
Louise Palanker (01:20:48):
She was very pregnant in that, in that moment. All right. So we have what we, what we're doing until we have sponsors for our show is we're gonna let, uh, uh, our favorite causes be our sponsor and our shout out. So who are we helping help others? Tonight
Fritz Coleman (01:21:03):
We're going to, uh, talk about the Children's Burn Foundation or organization very close to my heart. I'm on the board of directors there, you know, a person's life can instantly change with a burn injury. Now this really spring to people's attention. Recently with Jay Leno having his accident, he got burned at a gasoline fired, his classic car garage. He was treated at the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks. Yes. Which is one of the original supporters of the Children's Burn Foundation. Fortunately, Jay's having a fast and miraculous recovery. We're thankful for that. But for children, recovery can be a prolonged, painful and expensive experience. Without access to comprehensive care, that child and their family will suffer devastating physical, financial, and emotional harm. They have access to full help and resources through the Children's Burn Foundation. We also offer burn prevention and education for both kids and parents.
These are kids from all over the world, including young burn victims from the Ukraine. And this time of year, we like to ensure that Children's Burn survivors are able to escape the stress of their surgeries and their treatments and find happiness in normalcy. Every year, 500 child burn survivors and their families gather for festivities, including food and drinks and toys and dinner, and, uh, donations by generous donors. If you'd like to donate, please, you won't find a more worthy group of dedicated human beings than child, uh, children's Burn Foundation. Go to child burn.org. You can learn all about their heroic work and hopefully hit the Donate Now button. And we thank you.
Louise Palanker (01:22:36):
And here come your closing credits. Thank you so much for joining us. We would love to continue this conversation with you on Instagram and Twitter, where we are at Media Path Pod and on Facebook where our show page is, media Path Podcast. And our Facebook group is called Media Path with Fritz and Weezy podcast community. You can find full video podcast episodes loaded with bonus visual content on our YouTube channel Media Path podcast. You can write to us at Media Path firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you enjoy the show, please give us a nice rating and a review in Apple Podcast using words for instance, like magnificent and groundbreaking, and talk about us <laugh> and talk about us on social media, if you would. So kindly do that. You can sign up for our Fun and Dishy email@example.com. We wanna thank our wonderful guests, John Mills and Bruce Belland. Our team includes Dina Friedman, John Maddox, Sharon Bill beo, bill Fiac, Thomas Hubble, Mason Brown, Garrett Arch, and you. Our theme music is by me and John Maddox. I am Louise p Planker here with Fritz Coleman, Bruce Bellon and John Mills. Be well and wise and we will see you along the media path. Bruce,
Yeah, Bruce, you are almost too good at this. Fantastic. But we enjoyed being on your show,
Bruce Belland (01:23:48):
Oh, my wife's gonna give me such static. I could.