Left to right: Steve Harris, Lonnie George, Jim Harris and Duaine George will sing 21 Mills Brothers' hits in Camelot Theatre's production, “Spotlight on The Mills Brothers.” - Photo by Steve Sutfin

'Spotlight on The Mills Brothers'

In its latest "spotlight" production, Camelot Theatre revives the memorable vocal harmonies of the Mills Brothers. The four brothers — John Jr. (basso and guitarist), Herbert (tenor), Harry (baritone) and Donald (lead tenor) — were born in Piqua, Ohio, in the early 1900s. The four-part harmonies they sang outside their father's barbershop connect them with the very first barbershop quartets, although the brothers frequently were accompanied by a guitar, unlike the a cappella barbershop groups of the day.

"They were one of the first black groups that really made a lot of inroads and played to a lot of people," says singer Duaine George. "I would say they were probably one of the first successful black groups and the longest running."

Duaine and his brother, Lonnie, along with their cousins, Jim and Steve Harris (who are also brothers), will be the featured vocalists when Camelot Theatre Company presents "Spotlight on the Mills Brothers — a Little Biography and a Lot of Music!"

Musical direction and arrangements are by Michael Vannice, script by Dennis Nicomede and narration by Brian O'Connor. The live combo features Al Dinardi on guitar, Dennis Freese on woodwinds, Don Harriss on keyboards, David Miller on bass and Steve Sutfin on drums.

The Mills Brothers' music combined elements of jazz and pop with the vocal stylings of African-American minstrel shows and a barbershop quartet. When John Jr. died in 1936, he was replaced by his father, John Sr.

During one of their early performances, Harry discovered he had forgotten his kazoo, their accompaniment, but he made do by imitating the sound of a trumpet by cupping his hand over his mouth. Soon after, the brothers incorporated this novelty into their act. Each of them learned to create the sound of an instrument with his mouth — John on tuba, Herbert on second trumpet and Donald on trombone. This unique imitation orchestra helped contribute to their signature sound.

The Mills Brothers appeared on several popular radio programs, including "Rudy Vallee's Fleischmann's Yeast Hour," and released their top-selling singles "Tiger Rag" and "Nobody's Sweetheart" in 1931. Three years later, they became the first African-Americans to perform before British royalty — King George V and Queen Mary.

In the spotlight production, brothers Duaine and Lonnie George and Jim and Steve Harris will not be assigned the role of a specific brother, but will assume a specific singing part. The quartet will perform 21 of the Mills Brothers' hits, including "Up a Lazy River," "I'll Be Around," "Paper Doll," "You Never Miss the Water 'Till the Well Runs Dry," "Daddy's Little Girl," "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" and "Standin' On the Corner."

Duaine, Lonnie, Jim and Steve grew up listening to the Mills Brothers and learned to appreciate their jazz harmonies.

"They've always just had this mellow tune to them, and I've always enjoyed black vocalists anyway because they have this wonderful temper to their voice," Duaine says.

All four have extensive backgrounds in vocal music. Duaine was one of 30 finalists in a national vocal competition and is a member of the Southern Oregon University's Jefferson State Choral Coalition. Lonnie has sung in the choirs at Brigham Young University and SOU and in several church productions. Jim also has performed in church singing groups as well as in several a cappela groups. Steve played French horn in an Army band and sang bass in the Robin Lawson Quartet and the Ohlone Chamber Singers.

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