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Irving Mills (born Isadore Minsky; January 16, 1894 – April 21, 1985) was a jazz music publisher and musician, also known by the name of "Joe Primrose." Mills died in 1985 in Palm Springs, California and is interred at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery.
Mills was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, but some dispute he was born in Odessa, Russia. His father, Hyman Minsky, was a hat maker and came from Odessa with his wife Sophia Minsky. His father died in 1905, forcing Irving and his brother to work odd jobs including bussing at restaurants, selling wallpaper, and working in the garment industry. By 1910 Mills was listed as a telephone operator. After working various jobs involved with the music world such as Friars, Proctor's Theatre, and eventually as a song plugger for Emmet Welsh. He married his wife in 1913 and they relocated to Philadelphia. By 1918 he was working for publisher Leo Feist and his brother Jacob was working as a manager for McCarthy and Fisher. In July 1919 the brothers decided to start Jack Mills Music which would be renamed Mills Music in 1928.
The Mills brothers discovered a number of great songwriters, including Sammy Fain, Harry Barris, Gene Austin, Hoagy Carmichael, Jimmy McHugh, and Dorothy Fields. He greatly advanced and even started a few of the careers of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Ben Pollack, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Will Hudson, Raymond Scott and many others.
Although he only sang a little, Irving decided to put together his own studio recording group. He started the group Irving Mills and his Hotsy Totsy Gang with Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Arnold Brillhardt, Arthur Schutt, and Manny Klein. Other variations of his bands featured Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Red Nichols (Mills gave Red Nichols the tag "and his Five Pennies.")
One night Mills went down to a little club on West 49th Street between 7th Avenue and Broadway called the Kentucky Club. The owner had brought in a small band from Washington, D.C. and wanted to know what Mills thought of them. Instead of going out and making the rounds he stayed all evening to listen to the band. That band was Duke Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra, which he signed the very next day. They made numerous records together, not only under the name of Duke Ellington, but using groups that incorporated Duke's sidemen, who were great instrumentalists in their own right.
Mills's contract with Ellington was a very favorable one; he owned 50% of Duke Ellington Inc. and thus got his name tag on quite a number of tunes that became popular standards: "Mood Indigo," "(In My) Solitude," "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," "Sophisticated Lady," "Black and Tan Fantasy," and many others now listed on the ASCAP website. He also pushed Ellington to record for Victor, Brunswick, Columbia, the dime store labels (Banner, Romeo, Perfect, Melotone, Cameo, Lincoln, and others) and even Hit of the Week. In spite of having a limited vocabulary, Mills was a deft lyricist. He sometimes used a ghost writer to complete his idea and sometimes built on the idea of the ghost writer. He was instrumental in getting Duke Ellington hired by the Cotton Club.
Mills was one of the first to record black and white musicians together, using twelve white musicians and the Duke Ellington Orchestra on a 12-inch 78 rpm record featuring "St. Louis Blues" on one side and a medley of songs called "Gems from Blackbirds of 1928" on the other side, Mills himself singing with the Ellington Orchestra. Victor Records – soon to become RCA Victor – initially hesitated to release the record, but when Mills threatened to take his artists off the roster, he won out.
Mills thought he should ensure that the Ellington Orchestra always had top musicians and protected himself by forming the Mills Blue Rhythm Band, using them as a relief band at the Cotton Club. Cab Calloway and his band went into the Cotton Club with a new song Irving co-wrote with Calloway and Clarence Gaskill called "Minnie the Moocher".
One of his most significant innovations was the "band within a band" concept, recording small groups to record hot small group sides for the various dime store labels. He started this in 1928 by arranging for members of Ben Pollack's band to make records under a bewildering array of pseudonyms on dime store labels like Banner, Oriole, Cameo, Domino, Perfect, etc. while Pollack had an exclusive contract with Victor. Quite a number of these dime store small group records are considered major jazz classics by collectors. He printed "small orchestrations" transcribed off the record, so that non-professional musicians could see how great solos were constructed. This was later done by Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and many other bands.
Irving also formed Mills Artists Booking Company. It was in 1934 that he formed an all-female orchestra, headed by Ina Ray. He added the name Hutton and it became the popular Ina Ray Hutton and her Orchestra. In 1934 as well, Mills Music began a publishing subsidiary, Exclusive Publications, specializing in orchestrations by the likes of Will Hudson (1908–1981) who co-wrote the song "Mr. Ghost Goes to Town" with him and Mitchell Parish in 1936.
In late 1936, with involvement by Herbert Yates of the American Record Corporation, Mills started the Master and Variety labels, which for their short life span were distributed by ARC through their Brunswick and Vocalion label sales staff. (Mills had previously A&R'ed for Columbia in 1934–36, after ARC purchased the failing label.) Irving signed Helen Oakley Dance to supervise the small group records for the Variety label (35 cents or 3 for $1.00). The Master label sold for 75 cents. From December, 1936, through about September, 1937, an large number of records were issued on these labels (40 were issued on Master and 170 on Variety). Master's best selling artists were Duke Ellington, Raymond Scott, as well as Hudson-De Lange Orchestra, Casper Reardon and Adrian Rollini. Variety's roster included Cab Calloway, Red Nichols, the small groups from Ellington's band led by Barney Bigard, Cootie Williams, Rex Stewart, and Johnny Hodges, as well as Noble Sissle, Frankie Newton, The Three Peppers, Chu Berry, Billy Kyle, and other major and minor jazz and pop performers around New York.
By late 1937 a number of problems caused the collapse of these labels. The Brunswick and Vocalion sales staff had problems of their own, with competition from Victor and Decca, and it wasn't easy to get this new venture off the ground. Mills tried to arrange for distribution overseas to get his music issued in Europe, but was unsuccessful. Also, it's quite likely that these records simply weren't selling as well as anticipated.
After the collapse of the labels, those titles that were still selling on Master were reissued on Brunswick and those still selling on Variety were reissued on Vocalion. Mills continued his M-100 recording series after the labels were taken over by ARC, and after cutting back recording to just the better selling artists, new recordings made from about January 1938 by Master were issued on Brunswick (and later Columbia) and Vocalion (later the revived Okeh) until May 7, 1940. The last recording was number WM-1150–1055 recordings in total.
Mills was recording all the time and became the head of the American Recording Company, which is now Columbia Records. Once radio blossomed Mills was singing at six radio stations seven days a week plugging Mills tunes. Jimmy McHugh, Sammy Fain, and Gene Austin took turns being his pianist.
He produced one picture, Stormy Weather, for 20th Century Fox in 1943, which starred Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Zutty Singleton, and Fats Waller and the dancers the Nicholas Brothers and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. He had a contract to do other movies but found it "too slow" so he continued finding, recording and plugging music.
Among the artists Mills personally recorded were
- Irving Aaronson and his Commanders
- Vic Berton's Orchestra
- Billy Banks Orchestra
- Cab Calloway Orchestra
- Chocolate Dandies
- Duke Ellington and his Orchestra
- Frank Froeba Orchestra
- Sonny Greer and his Memphis Men
- Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears
- Baron Lee and the Mills Blue Rhythm Band
- Jimmie Lunceford
- Wingy Manone Orchestra
- Red McKenzie
- Benny Meroff Orchestra
- Mills Cavalcade Orchestra
- Irving Mills and his Hotsy Totsy Gang
- Mills Music Masters
- Red Nichols & His Five Pennies
- Louis Prima Orchestra
- Jay Randell Orchestra
- Chuck Richards
- Clark Randall Orchestra
- The Raymond Scott Quintette
- Tommy "Red" Tomkins Orchestra
- Joe Venuti
- The Whoopee Makers
- Will Hudson–Eddie DeLange Orchestra
- The Swingsters
- The Modernists (Benny Goodman)
- Lud Gluskin Orchestra
- Red Norvo & His Swing Septet
- Rex Stewart Orchestra
- Benny Carter Orchestra
- Buster Bailey Orchestra
- Joe Haymes Orchestra
- Manny Klein Orchestra
- Bloom, Ken. American song. The Complete Musical Theater Companion. 1877–1995’’, Vol. 2, 2nd edition, Schirmer Books, 1996.
- Clarke, Donald (Ed.). The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Viking, 1989.
- Larkin, Colin. The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 3rd edition, Macmillan, 1998.
- Press, Jaques Cattell (Ed.). ASCAP Biographical Dictionary of Composers, Authors and Publishers, 4th edition, R. R. Bowker, 1980.
- Sadie, Stanley; Krummel, Donald W. The New Grove Handbooks in Music, Music Printing and Publishing, Macmillan Press, 1990.
- Bob Mills: Irving Mills 1894–1985 (Retrieved February 22, 2010)
- Irving Mills (Internet Broadway database; retrieved February 22, 2010)
- Irving Mills discography at Discogs