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Archive for March 6th, 2014

Music, Maestro, Please: The Mills Brothers Embrace The 1960s on “Cab Driver”

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Mills Brothers - Cab DriverBy the point The Mills Brothers’ new anthology Cab Driver: The Dot and Paramount Years: 1958-1972 begins in 1958, Herbert, Harry and Donald Mills had already been superstars for nearly thirty years.  Known for their tight harmonies and sophisticated scatting as much as for their ability to mimic musical instruments with their voices, The Mills Brothers scored their first U.S. No. 1 hit in 1931 on the Brunswick label with “Tiger Rag,” an oldie from 1917 (!).  Hollywood stardom followed at Paramount and Warner Bros., and the brothers broke a barrier for African-American entertainers when they played a command performance before the King and Queen of England in 1934.  Tragedy threatened to derail the group in 1936 when founding member John Jr. died of pneumonia, but they pressed on with father John Sr. until 1957, singing with luminaries like Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong along the way.  Through this entire period, The Mills Brothers were Top 40 mainstays.  In late 1957, they left the venerable Decca label for relative upstart Dot, which is where this new 28-track compilation from Cherry Red’s Poker Records imprint picks up.

Cab Driver: The Dot and Paramount Years: 1958-1972 explores in depth this rarely-anthologized period of The Mills Brothers’ long recording career.  This is the period in which the jazz/swing vocal greats came to terms with rock and roll, sometimes addressing it and other times ignoring it, but always remaining true to their singular vocal sound.  Cab Driver concentrates on the group’s Dot single releases rather than on the albums which were frequently themed by concept: an album of re-recorded old hits (some things never change!), a country album, a Hawaiian album, a Latin album, etc.    On singles, the brothers had more of an opportunity to stretch and show their vocal versatility.  They flirted with doo-wop (a cover of The Silhouettes’ “Get a Job” which opens this collection), country (a fine cover of Skeeter Davis’ melancholy “The End of the World”), Broadway (the title song from Bob Merrill’s musical comedy Take Me Along), pop (a reworking of Nat “King” Cole’s hit “Dance, Ballerina, Dance”) and jazz (the Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh standard “Don’t Blame Me”), and even created a blues-bossa hybrid (!) with Fats Waller’s (!!) “Honeysuckle Rose Blues Bossa Nova” in 1966.

As of 1968 – the year of The Graduate, White Light/White Heat, Music from Big Pink and The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) – The Mills Brothers hadn’t seen a chart hit since 1959.  That changed with the release of “Cab Driver,” from “Something Stupid” songwriter (and brother to Van Dyke) C. Carson Parks.  The twangy, country-meets-classic pop ballad struck a chord, going all the way to the Top 25 of the Pop chart and Top 5 Adult Contemporary.  The Mills Brothers went “once more ‘round the block” with its follow-up, “My Shy Violet” from the team of Earl Shuman and Leon Carr (“Hey There, Lonely Girl”).  Its barbershop quartet-inspired harmonies earned the brothers another Top 5 AC hit, and a none-too-shabby No. 73 Pop placement.  “Cab Driver” and “My Shy Violet” started a run of chart hits on the Pop, AC and Country charts for the still-eclectic trio.

After the jump: more on Cab Driver, including the complete track listing with discography, and order links! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

March 6, 2014 at 09:49