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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!

In 1970, the Mills Brothers were switched over to Dot’s parent Paramount label.  “Between Winston-Salem and Nashville, Tennessee” was in a country vein; its flipside, “Smile Away Each Rainy Day,” originated in the Johnny Mercer/Henry Mancini score to Blake Edwards’ film Darling Lili.  Herbert, Harry and Donald even addressed the younger generation on “Strollin’” and tackled racism on the ironically-titled “Sally Sunshine.”  But though the times were a-changin’, the Mills Brothers proved adept at changing with them.

Cab Driver: The Dot and Paramount Years closes with 1972’s “Sally Sunshine,” but the group remained at Paramount for one more year, even returning to the C. Carson Parks songbook with “A Donut and a Dream.”  A final recording contract came from the Ranwood label before The Mills Brothers called it a day in the studio in 1975.  The end of a 40+-year run of hits didn’t keep them from performing live, though, and the original line-up prospered onstage until 1981 when Harry was forced to retire.  (He died the next year.)  Donald and Herbert pressed on with Donald’s son John III until Herbert passed away in 1989; after that, Donald and John III carried on the Mills Brothers name and even recorded an album Still There’s You in 1994.  Donald’s death in 1999 marked the passing of the last surviving original member, but he lived long enough to be bestowed with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys marking his family’s musical significance.  John III still keeps the family’s legacy alive today.

Poker’s Cab Driver includes a 16-page full-color booklet with numerous images and thorough liner notes from Laurence Cane-Honeysett.  Nick Robbins, who regularly spiffs up recordings for both the Ace and Big Break labels, has remastered here.  This overview of one of the lesser-known periods from a  great American vocal group can be ordered at the links below!

The Mills Brothers, Cab Driver: The Dot and Paramount Years 1958-1972 (Poker DECKCD 119, 2014) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

  1. Get a Job (single 45-15695, 1958)
  2. Music, Maestro, Please (single 45-15827, 1958)
  3. Yellow Bird (single 45-15858, 1958)
  4. You Can’t Be True, Dear (single 45-15909, 1959)
  5. Te Quiero (single 45-15950, 1959)
  6. Take Me Along (single 45-15987, 1959)
  7. I Miss You So (single 45-16049, 1960)
  8. Highways Are Happy Ways (single 45-16091, 1960)
  9. Ballerina (single 45-16258, 1961)
  10. I Found the Only Girl for Me (single 45-16360, 1962)
  11. The End of the World (single 45-16451, 1963)
  12. It Hurts Me More Than It Hurts You (single 45-16579, 1964)
  13. Don’t Blame Me (single 45-16579, 1964)
  14. You’re Making the Wrong Guy Happy (single 45-16705, 1965)
  15. Bye Bye Blackbird (single 45-16733, 1965)
  16. Honeysuckle Rose Blues Bossa Nova (single 45-16972, 1966)
  17. Cab Driver (Drive By Mary’s Place) (single 45-17041, 1967)
  18. My Shy Violet (single 45-17096, 1968)
  19. The Ol’ Race Track (single 45-17162, 1968)
  20. The Jimtown Road (single 45-17198, 1969)
  21. Guy on the Go (single 45-17235, 1969)
  22. Up to Maggie Jones (single 45-17285, 1969)
  23. It Ain’t No Big Thing (single 45-17321, 1969)
  24. Between Winston-Salem and Nashville, Tennessee (single PAA-0046, 1970)
  25. Smile Away Each Rainy Day (single PAA-0046, 1970)
  26. I’m Sorry I Answered the Phone (single PAA-0095, 1971)
  27. Strollin’ (single PAA-0117, 1971)
  28. Sally Sunshine (single PAA-0147, 1972)

Tracks 1-23 originally released on Dot Records; Tracks 24-28 originally released on Paramount Records

Written by Joe Marchese

March 6, 2014 at 09:49

3 Responses

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  1. They deserve more attention, indeed. It would be even better to get proper CD reissues of their Decca discography, especially the overlooked 1940’s and early 50’s.

    Kevin

    March 6, 2014 at 16:32

  2. I was in ninth grade when “Cab Driver” was on Top 40 radio, and remember seeing the Mills Brothers perform the song on Ed Sullivan’s show. I was just looking at a KQV (Pittsburgh) Hit Parade survey of the time, and thinking about the variety of music that the Top 40 format accommodated: besides the MIlls Brothers, there were the 1910 Fruitgum Company, Sam & Dave, the Small Faces, Paul Mauriat, Sly & the Family Stone, Petula Clark, and acts called the Balloon Farm and George Torrence & the Naturals whom I don’t remember at all. They don’t make formats like that anymore.

    Ed

    March 7, 2014 at 09:27

  3. On “Cab Driver” nice to hear some Mickey Baker-ish string-bending in ’67!!

    bob

    March 7, 2014 at 12:17


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