The Mills Brothers

20th Century Masters - The Millennium Collection: The Best of the Mills Brothers

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The simple joys of the Mills Brothers remain as undiminished as they were standard-setting. With their healing set of voices in the Great Depression and war years, the members of this blithe black pop vocal group were sentimental, debonair gentlemen with the smoothest, nicest, friendliest, classiest three-part harmonies around and welcoming smiles as gentle as their harmonic blend. A bridge between more sinful jazz and the '30s crooners, with a mellow vocal tone that seemed cheerful no matter how sweet their sorrow, the Mills Brothers were so timeless that they were unaffected by the volatile musical eruptions of the mid-20th century. Like goodwill ambassadors who never fell out of favor, the group racked up hits for years, then somehow became even more popular 20 years in, after the explosion of the early R&B groups they inspired (Ink Spots, Orioles, Clovers, Ravens) gave them friendly competition, as did the next wave of '50s doo wop acts (who dropped the lone guitarist strumming along quietly). Until the final Mills brother, Donald, died on November 13, 1999, the singing sibs from Ohio had reason to acknowledge the warmhearted cheers of 70 years of gratified audiences. Few acts could have had such an influence on later rock & roll (the bass, tenor, and baritone) and still have been so placid. Of course, the Mills Brothers did an awful lot of recording over so many decades, so this 12-song, 34-minute set seems skimpy to the extreme. For one thing, it ignores their first 11 years, when they became famous simulating brass with nothing but voices. A much better deal is 1995's two-CD, 48-track sampler, The Anthology 1931-1968, which, unlike this, shows off their more uptempo jaunty side in equal measure (see collaborations with jazz stars Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Al Jolson). But this best-of is a distillation for those with no patience, and as such it serves up their three best-known, blockbuster hits, "You Always Hurt the One You Love," the six-million selling "Paper Doll," and the melancholic, 1944 war-separation lament "Till Then" (done even better later by the Orioles). It also includes their final hit, 37 years after their debut, 1968's number 23 "Cab Driver," and there's no falloff. These days, when a doo wop trio steps onto your subway car, one thinks of the old Carmichael, Berlin, Mercer, and Hodges songs these men sang so sweetly. Few sounds have ever felt more universal, for grandmas nostalgic for the more innocent pop parade, or for young people who like rich harmony singing. "Up the lazy river" this goes, and it's a mellifluous float at that.

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