Passport Video // 2004 // 43 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // May 27th, 2004
The rich tradition of four-part harmony
Every era seems to have its own distinct musical thumbprint, and we each tend to gravitate towards the music that resonates with the various stages of our lives. As a child of the 1970s, I grew up on the music of Chicago, Blood Sweat and Tears, The Steve Miller Band, Elton John, and Steely Dan. Yet, the musical influence of my parents gave me an appreciation for Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. It's not surprising that an opportunity to travel back to the era of swing jazz and boogie woogie blues would be quite enticing.
Passport Video graciously supplies us with this version of the way-back machine. Our destination? The 1930s, an era rich with vocal harmonies whose music surpassed even the most prolific bands and orchestras of the time. Two of the best examples of this harmonic convergence were The Delta Rhythm Boys and The Mills Brothers, whose pioneering styles laid the foundation for such artists as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Harpers Bizarre, The Mamas and The Papas, and The Manhattan Transfer.
What began in 1934 as an experimental Langston University vocal group, Lee Gaines (bass), Elmaurice Miller (tenor), Traverse Crawford (tenor), and Essie Atkins (baritone) quickly saw their fortunes evolve. They were the toast of New Orleans as the Frederick Hall Quartet, whose reputation brought them south of the border (into Argentina and Brazil) and even greater success in 1936. Returning to the States almost a year later as The Delta Rhythm Boys, they found themselves with a regular CBS radio gig and roles in several high profile Broadway shows. Decca signed them to a recording contract in 1940, which was quickly followed by a Universal Pictures film deal.
Success brought lineup changes to the group, with Carl Jones replacing Miller at tenor, and Kelsey Pharr taking over for Atkins at baritone. It worked well. By 1945, the Boys had more than 20 singles and 11 films under their belts, and were singing backup for such high profile artists as Charlie Barnett and Ella Fitzgerald. Their tight harmonies and finger popping rhythms became industry legend.
The first half of Swing Brother Swing is dedicated to the Boys and their film music. These nine black and white soundies are some of the earliest music videos ever made and are mesmerizing to watch. While many of the segments are nothing more than stand up performance numbers (with the Boys looking like a group of deer caught in the headlights), highlights include the playfully choreographed "Undecided," the comedic inspired "Dry Bones" (complete with dancing skeleton and petrified custodian), and the fully staged Louis Jordan-esque "Jack You're Playing the Game."
The Delta Rhythm Boys survived various changes and incarnations throughout their 50-year career. Despite all their success, they somehow only managed to have one song reach the top of the charts -- "Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin'." Their storied history came to a close in 1987, with the death of the group's founder, heart, and soul, Lee Gaines, but their legacy will live on forever.
Where The Delta Rhythm Boys were made men, The Mills Brothers were born into the industry. Sons of Piqua, Ohio barbershop quartet leader John Mills Sr, John Jr, Herbert, Harry, and Donald Mills began their careers as children and went on to create one of the most uniquely gifted vocal teams in musical history. Not only did they share a collective ear for perfect pitch, each of the boys were able to accurately recreate the sounds of various musical instruments to complement their upbeat tempos. Radio audiences were routinely fooled by what they thought they heard, and their record label often included a disclaimer stating the only instrument being used was a guitar.
Their early success was quick and impressive, but like many groups of the era, as interest dwindled, so did the opportunities. When John Jr. died suddenly of pneumonia in 1936, the boys were ready to call it quits, but their father stepped in to fill the void, bringing with him Bernard Addison on guitar. To make matters worse, they were overseas as WWII began in 1939 and the only boat they could get out on was to Australia. They returned to the states via South America, but that wasn't until 1941. By that time, most people thought they had gotten out of the business.
Yet, fortune would smile on the Mills Brothers again in the mid-1940s, with the release of "Paper Doll," a song created in just 15 minutes. The single was an instant hit and would go on to sell more than six million records. Amazingly, they would go on to top this success a year later with "You Always Hurt the One You Love." With the popularity of the Big Bands, their sound became more of a commodity and it would be almost ten years before they scored one last chart-topping single, "Glow Worm."
The second half of Swing Brother Swing is dedicated to The Mills Brothers and the early portion of their impressive career. Unlike The Delta Rhythm Boys, Harry and Donald gave the Brothers a considerable amount stage persona. These were comfortable in their own skin and loved what they were doing. Of the nine soundies included in this collection, pay particular attention to the mid-career guest appearance with Nat King Cole on his prime-time series, Donald pinning over a young Dorothy Dandridge in "Paper Doll," Harry hamming it up as an irascible coot in "Old Rocking Chair," and a dance-off ahead of its time in a vocal-less version of Duke Ellington's "Caravan." You'll notice Harry is missing in four of these films, a time during which he was off serving his country.
John Sr. retired in 1957 at the age of 75, leaving the boys a trio and a prolific one at that. Despite various health issues and Harry's near blindness, The Mills Brothers continued to tour the country and the world, making frequent guest appearances on prime-time television shows and musical specials. Harry's death in 1982 triggered Herbert's retirement and it looked the end. Not ready to call it quits, Donald picked up the pieces and toured with son John for the next 16 years, accepting a Lifetime Achievement Grammy for his brothers and father in 1998. Donald passed away a short time later.
Presented in 1.33:1 full frame format, Sing Brother Sing does the best it can with long neglected source material. The transfers are riddled with dirt and scratches, but the fact that they have survived at all says something. Passport has gone to great lengths to clean up the audio for this presentation, with a 2.0 Stereo upgrade. Even still, they begin by reminding viewers that some of the resulting tracks still exhibit distortion. Again, it's enough for most of us just to have these great performances preserved and presented on DVD -- and with well-crafted menus to boot!
Nothing in the way of bonus features, which isn't shocking. However, there is an incredible documentary on The Mills Brothers created for PBS several years ago. Perhaps one of these days it too will make its way to DVD.
Commendations all around for the Passport Video team that pulled this collection together. It's a quick trip down memory lane, one you can revisit time and again. Now get out of my courtroom so I can listen to my Mills Brothers records in peace. Court adjourned!
Review content copyright © 2004 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Passport Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 43 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site
* Piqua's Sons: The Mills Brothers