Donald Mills — last surviving member of the world-famous singing Mills Brothers, who were among the first celebrity performers to break racial barriers in radio, film and society in the 1930s — died Nov. 13 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center of complications from pneumonia. He was 84.
Mills’ career spanned 75 years and last year he accepted a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement for the singing group.
The Mills Brothers started performing in 1922 in Piqua, Ohio, when Donald Mills was 7 years old. The group — with brothers Donald, Herbert, Harry and John — was known for its tight harmony and uncanny ability to imitate instruments.
The brothers scored their first million-selling disc hit in 1928 with “Tiger Rag.” In all, they sold an estimated 50 million records.
The success of “Tiger Rag” led to a contract with CBS that made the Mills Brothers the first black artists to have a commercially sponsored national radio show.
Their signature hits included “You Always Hurt the One You Love,” “Glow Worm,” “Yellow Bird” and “Paper Doll,” which sold 6 million copies in its initial release.
They recorded with some of the biggest names in show business, including Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Ella Fitzgerald and the bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
The brothers also appeared in several movies, including “The Big Broadcast of 1932,” “Strictly Dynamite” and several Dick Powell starrers, including “Twenty Million Sweethearts” (1934) and “Broadway Gondolier” (1935).
They are credited with being among the first black entertainers to gain wide acceptance among a non-black audience.
When brother John died in 1936, their father, John Mills Sr. stepped in to replace him. When Harry and Herbert decided to retire in 1982, Donald recruited the youngest of his six children, also named John, and they sang as John and Donald Mills of the Mills Brothers.
Donald Mills’ final recording, “Still, There’s You,” was produced in 1994 and recorded with son John.
Mills is survived by six children, 21 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Forest Lawn’s Chapel of the Hills in Burbank. The public is welcome to attend.
Family suggests donations in Mills’ name be made to Project Angel Food of Los Angeles.