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Mills was born to Jewish parents in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City. He founded Mills Music with his brother Jack in 1919. Between 1919 and 1965, when they sold Mills Music, Inc., they built and became the largest independent music publisher in the world. He died in 1985 in Palm Springs, California. His interment was at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery.
Irving and Jack discovered a number of great songwriters, among them Sammy Fain, Harry Barris, Gene Austin, Hoagy Carmichael, Jimmy McHugh, and Dorothy Fields. He either discovered or greatly advanced the careers of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Ben Pollack, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Will Hudson, Raymond Scott and many others.
Although not a musician himself (he did sing, however), Irving decided to put together his own studio recording group. In Irving Mills and his Hotsy Totsy Gang he had for sidemen: 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 (Irving gave Red Nichols the tag "and his Five Pennies.")
Duke Ellington 
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 little band from Washington, D.C. and wanted to know what Irving thought of them. Instead of going out and making the rounds he found himself sitting there all night listening to the orchestra. That was Duke Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra, whom he signed the very next day. They made a lot of records together, not only under the name of Duke Ellington, but built groups around Duke's side men who were great instrumentalists in their own right.
Mills was not a composer, but his contract with Ellington was a very favorable one; he owned 50% in 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. In spite of a limited vocabulary, Irving had a poetic sense of beauty and knew how to create a lyric, sometimes using a ghost writer to complete his idea and sometimes building 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" 78 rpm disc performing "St. Louis Blues" on one side and a medley of songs called "Gems from Blackbirds of 1928" on the other side, himself singing with the Ellington Orchestra. Victor Records -- soon to become RCA Victor—first hedged on releasing the record, but when Mills threatened to take his artists off the roster, he won out.
Irving thought that 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 sort of relief band at the Cotton Club. Calloway and the 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 innovations was the "band within a band," recording small groups (he started this in 1928 by arranging for members of Ben Pollack's band to record hot small group sides for the various dime store labels, (while Pollack had an exclusive contract with Victor) out of the main orchestra and printing "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-girl 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, Irving 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 amazing amount 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. In such a short time, an amazing amount of fine music was recorded for these labels.
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 hoped for.
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.
Irving was recording all the time and became the head of the American Recording Company, which is now Columbia Records. Once radio blossomed Irving 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 Twentieth Century Fox in 1943, which starred jazz greats Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Zutty Singleton, and Fats Waller and the legendary 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