Irving Mills

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Irving Harold Mills (né Isadore Minsky; 16 January 1894 Odessa, Ukraine – 21 April 1985 Palm Springs, California) was an American music publisher, musician, lyricist, and jazz artist promoter. He sometimes used the pseudonyms Goody Goodwin and Joe Primrose.

Early life[edit]

Mills was born in Odessa, Ukraine, although some biographies state that he was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan[1] in New York City.[a][2] His father, Hyman Minsky (1868–1905), was a hat maker who had immigrated from Odessa to the United States with his wife Sofia (née Sophia Schifre; born 1869).[citation needed] His father, Hyman, died in 1905, forcing Irving and his brother, Jacob (aka "Jack"; 1891–1979), 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.

Mills married Beatrice ("Bessie") Wilensky (maiden; 1898–1976) in 1911 and they subsequently moved to Philadelphia. By 1918 Mills was working for publisher Leo Feist. His brother, Jack, was working as a manager for McCarthy and Fisher, the music publishing firm of lyricist Joseph McCarthy (1883–1943) and songwriter Fred Fisher (1875–1942).

Founding of Jack Mills Music

In July 1919, Irving Mills and his brother, Jack, founded Jack Mills, Inc., which was renamed Mills Music Inc. in 1928.[2]

Selected discoveries[edit]

The Mills brothers discovered a number of great songwriters, including Zez Confrey, 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,[b] 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 (1904–1998) (clarinet, soprano and alto sax),[c] 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.")

Duke Ellington[edit]

One evening, around 1925, Mills went to a small club on West 49th Street between 7th Avenue and Broadway called the Club Kentucky, often referred to as the Kentucky Club, formerly the Hollywood Club.[3] The owner had brought in a small band of six musicians from Washington, D.C., and wanted to know what Mills thought of them. Instead of going out and making the rounds, Mills stayed the rest of the evening listening to the band, Duke Ellington and his Kentucky Club Orchestra. According to lore, Mills signed Ellington 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 managed Ellington from 1926 to 1939. His contract with Ellington, by standards of any era from then and now, was a very favorable one. Mills 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", 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.[4]

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".[5]


Band within a band concept

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, and Perfect — 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 several other bands.

Booking company

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.

Music publishing

In 1934 as well, Mills Music began a publishing subsidiary, Exclusive Publications, Inc., specializing in orchestrations by the likes of Will Hudson (1908–1981)[b] who co-wrote the song "Mr. Ghost Goes to Town" with him and Mitchell Parish in 1936.

Record labels

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, a 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. 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. Starting March 8, 1939, an Ellington session, the prefix "W" was added to matrices (e.g., WM-990 and WM-991). This matrix series was then used until WM-1150, the final being a session by the Adrian Rollini Trio performing "The Girl With the Light Blue Hair," Voc/Okeh 5979, May 7, 1940, New York City. There were 1,055 session in the series.[6]

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.[citation needed]

Selected recording artists[edit]

Among the artists Mills personally recorded were:

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ U.S. records reflect that Irving Mills was born in Russia, more specifically, Odessa, Ukraine.

  2. ^ a b c Will Hudson (né Arthur Murray Hainer; 1908–1981) was a composer

  3. ^ Arnold Brillhardt (né Arnold Ross Brilhart; 1904–1998), saxophonist, married (around 1933) Verlye Mills Davis (maiden; 1911–1983) a harpist; they divorced in 1966


General references


Inline citations
  1. ^ "Jazz Publisher Irving Mills Collaborated With Ellington," Herald Statesman, April 22, 1985, Sec A, pg. 4
  2. ^ a b "Jack Mills", Perfessor Bill (Ashburn, Virginia), William George Edwards (ed.) (né William George Motley III; born 1959), information culled from the following sources:
    See: "St. James Infirmary Blues"
    (retrieved 27 October 2015)
  3. ^ Composers Voices From Ives to Ellington: An Oral History of American Music, by Vivian Perlis, Libby Van Cleve, Yale University Press (2005), pg. 353; OCLC 182620709
  4. ^ The Duke Ellington Reader, by Mark Tucker (born 1954) (ed.), Oxford University Press (1993), pg. 274; OCLC 26801506
    Reprint of, "I Split With Duke When Music Began Sidetracking," by Irving Mills & Charles Emge (né Charles Gant Emge; 1905–1957), Down Beat, November 5, 1952
  5. ^ "The Marketing of Duke Ellington: Setting the Strategy for an African American Maestro," by Harvey G. Cohen, PhD, Journal of African American History, Vol. 89, No. 4, Autumn 2004, pps. 291–315; OCLC 203303735, 5545839543 (retrieved May 10, 2016, via JSTOR:
  6. ^ "Irving Mills – Record Producer: The Master and Variety Record Labels," by Jim Prohaska (Cleveland), IAJRC Journal, Spring 1997 (retrieved May 10, 2016)

External links[edit]

Note: Bob Mills (né Robert Irving Mills; 1922–2005) was Irving's son — one of seven siblings, five of whom were male