The sound of the close harmony groups that were popular in the big band era is clearly influenced by black American musical traditions – but the most succesful groups tended to be white (the Starlighters, Four Freshmen, Hi-Lo’s etc). It wasn’t until the late 50s – and the rise of record labels like Motown – that black groups began to dominate the field.
The Mills Brothers were one of the few shining exceptions – and one of the most successful, selling 50 million records. They began as a barbershop quartet and the original lineup were, indeed, brothers. They developed their USP fairly early – they were accompanied first by a ukulele and later by guitar but all the other ‘instruments’ were imitated by the brothers themselves. By 1930 they were popular national radio stars and made their first recordings in the same year. They frequently recorded with other artists – most notably with Bing Crosby (on Dinah amongst other early 30s sides) and Louis Armstrong.
By 1940, perhaps sensing that the trick might have a limited shelf life, they were providing fewer of their ‘instrumental’ solos and backings – but they did reappear occasionally as on this 1942 recording. The Brothers continued to have hits into the 60s and a version of the group maintains a web presence and occasionally tours even today. They enjoyed perhaps their greatest success in the war years. I’ll Be Around was a big hit and, Paper Moon (its original B-side) an even bigger one.
Although most of the greats went on to record Alec Wilder’s beautiful song, the Mills’ recording was amongst the earliest and their version was the first one most people would have heard.