His “Elvis” was Duke Ellington, but he did far more than manage the careers of the Duke, Cab Calloway and Hoagy Carmichael. Irving Mills got his hand in every aspect of the music business—managing, publishing, recording and leading his own band. He may, in fact, be the unsung father of the modern music business in America.
A musician’s manager is sometimes just a person who oversees the finances and makes the bookings. But then, there are managers like Irving Mills (1894-1985), who was one of the architects of what became the music business — involving himself with managing talent, running record labels, getting into music publishing and distribution. All told, he had a profound impact on the music world by presenting an image along with his artists.
As such, Mills represented or, at the very least, started the careers of some of America’s greatest musical artists of the early 20th century, including Cab Calloway, Hoagy Carmichael, and the iconic Duke Ellington. As a white man overseeing the business affairs of mostly black American musicians, Mills had the vision to realize that Duke Ellington was not only a great musician but a leading force in American culture. Ellington and his orchestra defined not just the jazz but also the pop music of their day as well as expanding the categories of music that goes from dance music to neo-classical /jazz suites. Mills recognized that Ellington had the talent to pull off different aspects of popular music and make it into a highly aesthetic world where the Duke is the prominent figure.
Irving Mills introducing some of his artists:
Isadore Minsky from New York City by way of Odessa, Ukraine—better known to the music world as Irving Mills—was the father of the modern music business, that much hated and often abused industry that has created careers for musicians rich and poor, better or worse, in sickness and in health. Irving Mills was a visionary. He understood the importance of owning music as one owns any other property. So, he and his younger brother, Jacob (known as “Jack”), started their own music publishing business, Jack Mills, Inc., later known as Mills Brothers Inc.
The fact that he had experience running a band of his own, as well as managing other artists and organizing tours and publicity, meant that his fee was 50% of the income produced by the artists he managed. This was similar to the arrangement that Colonel Parker later had with Elvis Presley. The big difference between someone like the Colonel and Mills is that Parker started his career as a carnival worker and a con artist and always remained one. He promoted Elvis as a sort of side-show freak. Mills, on the other hand, truly respected Ellington’s art and treated him as an artist. Mills wanted Ellington to obtain riches, attention, and work on pretty much whatever he wanted artistically. For that, he took up to 50% of the Ellington profits, which was not unusual in those days.
The key to Mills’ managerial strategy was to promote the Ellington mystique. Sophistication was the foundation of the aesthetic that Duke and his Orchestra produced, and Mills played that aspect up to the hilt. Furthermore, Mills encouraged Ellington to be the primary songwriter of his orchestra. Most if not all of the songs that his orchestra performed were written by Ellington, with guidance from Mills, who often shared the song credit. Again, not an unusual procedure in those days.
Irving and Jack Mills had a knack for discovering unique talents, such as Hoagy Carmichael, a brilliant songwriter and an exceptional vocalist of his material. Another unique discovery was Raymond Scott, whose odd-sounding Big Band arrangements and songwriting for his orchestra influenced Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes composer Carl W. Stalling. Scott was also known as the father of early electronic ambient music and inventor of instruments, such as the Clavivox and Electronium, both of which were early versions of the synthesizer. Mills, through his music publishing company, also managed the talented lyricist Dorothy Fields, who wrote “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”
Irving Mills not only did work in the office, but he also got out of his chair to lead his own band, Irving Mills and his Hotsy Totsy Gang (1928-1930) which featured such musicians as Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Red Nichols, for whom Mills coined his band’s name: Red Nichols and his Five Pennies.
Irving Mills & His Hotsy Totsy Gang “Deep Harlem”
But, of course, Mills had found his own version of Elvis Presley in 1925, Duke Ellington, who brought brilliance within the jazz swing orchestra and whose songwriting put a tattoo on American culture. Legend has it that Mills was making the rounds of various nightclubs in Manhattan and was invited by the owner of the Kentucky Club, on 49th Street between 7th Avenue and Broadway, to see a band he booked, to get his advice. It was Duke Ellington with the Kentucky Club Orchestra. So smitten was he by what he heard, Mills signed on as Ellington’s manager the next day; he also served as the representative for the full band, brilliant players all.
What I find interesting about Mills is the thought that the artist is the brightest star, but it is usually someone behind the curtain who is shining the surface and taking care of that star. Mills wrote lyrics and Ellington composed the music, and together they wrote such classics as “Mood Indigo,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” Solitude,” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing).” Due to his lack of mastery of the English language, Mills worked with a ghostwriter to fine-tune his lyrics. Alternatively, he would often give an idea to a ghostwriter and they wrote the damn words. Nevertheless, Mills claimed, at the very least, that he titled the Ellington songs. Therefore, they shared the songwriting credits.
Duke Ellington and his Orchestra performing “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” in 1943:
Mills put his stamp on a specific quality on a world that he knew was essential. Ellington not only composed and performed great music but also had a profound presence in the Harlem Renaissance that started in the 1920s, which included Cab Calloway, Benny Carter Orchestra, The Chocolate Dandies, Billy Banks (on recordings he was known to be a female impersonator) and so forth. This is similar to Brian Epstein who had the entire Liverpool sound in his pocket, and Mills had his hand in the Golden Age of the Cotton Club and Duke Ellington.
Listening to early Ellington is tantamount to being thrown into the modern age. It’s the sound of Manhattan or any other Metropolis on the planet Earth. His music expresses sensuality and power. There is also a theatrical quality to the music, but that is probably due to the broad grasp of the landscape, and how it conveys an entire world. Ellington, I believe, was aware of the importance of his music and his experimentation of the juxtaposition of sound and vision. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to have been a customer at the Cotton Club in Harlem and be in the presence of this big sound by Ellington and his gang. We don’t know if for Mills it was just a business decision or if he shared a vision with Ellington; nevertheless, he gave Duke the canvas on which to work his magic.
In 1938, Mills started two record labels, Master and Variety, which signed Ellington and various members of his orchestras, such as Red Nichols, Johnny Hodges, and Cab Calloway, among others. The labels themselves failed, especially after Mills tried to obtain distribution in Europe, so the titles on hand were acquired by Brunswick (soon to be Columbia) and Vocalian (known later as Okeh). The competition with Victor and Decca was a bit much for such indie record labels at the time.
Beyond his work as a record label president, Irving Mills also kept on singing and was the head honcho of the American Recording Company, which eventually became Columbia Records. When radio got big, Mills was the singer for his compositions, as well as songs that he owned through his publishing company, on six radio stations.
Mills went to Hollywood to become a film producer, but he only produced one film, Stormy Weather (1943), which featured the talents of Cab Callaway, Lena Horne, Fats Waller, the jaw-dropping great tap dancers The Nicholas Brothers (Fayard & Harold), and Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.
Footage of the Nicholas Brothers & Cab Calloway from Stormy Weather:
It was a real filmed musical that ran for 77 minutes and had 17 musical numbers. Stormy Weather is one of the first all-black cast films, and it’s remarkable on many levels. Although Mills produced it, and the cinematographer and director were white, it was a film made for a black American audience that had its own theaters throughout major cities and rural areas, due to segregation. I haven’t the foggiest idea what Mills’ racial politics were, but he mainly was in the business to promote black American music.
In 1934, Mills, with agent Alex Hyde, approached vocalist Ina Ray Hutton to form an all-female band called The Melodears, or known as Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears. This 15-member ensemble, which existed until 1939, was the first all-female band to be recorded for Vocalian Records and RCA. Ina (aka, “The Blonde Bombshell of Rhythm”), was considered to be ‘white’ and was listed in the 1920 US Census as ‘mulatto’ and later in 1930 as a ‘negro.’ She was a remarkable singer and dancer as well as an orchestra conductor.
Mills lived, and eventually died, in Palm Springs, California, which is the graveyard for a specific member of a generation that had a magnificent presence in the show-biz world. To this day, if one reads record labels, the name Irving Mills will come up or Mills Brothers, Inc. Don’t fret. It’s a sign of quality.