Donald Mills was the last of the original Mills Brothers, the four part harmony group that set the standard in the thirties. Unlike their contemporaries, the Ink Spots, they really were brothers.
Through his later years, despite losing part of a leg (a cruel penalty for smoking), Donald kept performing and his rich velvet voice never faltered.
He toured Australia with his son John for G’day Hollywood Productions in 1999 and fortunately, I was chosen to be in his backing band. Over eighty then, he sang, conducted and imitated his way through lovely 'trombone' solos in their jazz hit Opus One, an antidote to their saccharine Paper Doll and kept the energy flowing through the hour long show.
He died later that year, but the legacy had passed to younger groups and for a time in the sixties, singing groups multiplied. We had the Lettermen, Hi-lows, Beach Boys, The Supremes, Howard Morrison from NZ and many more but in Oz, the Delltones were our favourites, identified by the tall, long faced Pee Wee Wilson. I last saw Pee Wee in 2006, heading out of Rosslyn Harbour near Proserpine, Queensland on his big fishing boat when he yelled across the water, directing me to the fuel wharf.
He didn’t recognise me of course. Forthy years earliker, I was a young and faceless studio musician at Festival Records doing the best I could to make my way, anxious, determined and in the end, relieved to have survived in a world where one bad session and the phone stops ringing. That recording, Get a Little Dirt on Your Hands, became their best seller to date..
About then, their manager approached Dennis Wong, owner of Chequers, the most famous night club in Sydney and the place to establish credentials. Dennis had no experience of singing groups and I got the impresssion he was guided more by overseas fame than his own judgment but he agreed to an audition.
So, there we were at rehearsal with the four young singers along stage front and sitting at the nearest table were Dennis and Bill Watson, their manager. We launched into the repertoire and they did sing well. But they were not the famous Mills Brothers or Ink Spots so Dennis was not sure what to make of it all. He was clearly impressed, but his verdict floored us.
He got up from the table giving every impressison he would hire them, smilingly nodding his approval as he looked over each of the four, then turned to Bill.
‘Velly nize!’ he said in his Chinese accented English. ‘How much you wan?’
The fee was quoted and Denis thought for a bit then pointed to Pee Wee and Noel.
‘I take two!’