The Mills Brothers sing a Valentine concert
The Mills Brothers starring John Mills (left) with Elmer Hopper (right).

By David Brooks Andrews/DAILY NEWS CORRESPONDENT GHS Posted Feb 09, 2009 @ 10:23 AM 

WALTHAM-Valentine's Day isn't just for giving valentines to the one you love. It's also a day to remember the moments you've shared over the years. That's why Reagle Players' decided to book the Mills Brothers for two concerts on Valentine's Day, with the hope that they will stir up warm and tender memories. Don't get so carried away by memories, however, that you think you'll be seeing the original Mills Brothers, the four African-American brothers from Piqua, Ohio, who started singing together as young children in 1922 and went on to become a musical sensation for decades, including a 12-year stretch between 1935 and 1947 in which they produced a hit each year. You won't be seeing them or their father, who replaced one of the original boys in the group when he died in 1936. They've all passed on, the last of them, Donald, in 1999, while in the midst of a tour with his son, John Mills II.

After his father's death, John Mills didn't miss a beat. He immediately picked up Elmer Hopper, who had performed with the Platters for 21 years, and for the last 10 years the two of them have continued to perform the Mills Brothers' songs and their unique sound. They're the ones that can be seen in Waltham's Robinson Theatre on Valentine's Day along with the Four Aces, carrying on the musical tradition that the original Four Aces established in the '50s and '60s.

Mills hasn't completely decided which songs he and Hopper will be singing. But he reeled off a number of possibilities during a phone interview from Culver City, neighboring Los Angeles, where he lives. He mentioned "Paper Doll" (" You have to do that," he said), "You Always Hurt the One You Love," "Glow Worm" and "Lazy River." There will be plenty of other love songs, as well.

"I can't imagine not doing every top tune that is (among) the most familiar," said Mills, while acknowledging how hard it is to get all of them into even a long set. "We'll do an hour and a half, and people will still come up afterwards and (ask about some favorite we couldn't squeeze in)."

The original Mills Brothers were known for their exquisitely blended harmonies and for creating the sounds of musical instruments with their voices, including trumpets, trombones, saxes and even a tuba. Mills and Hopper will provide both harmonies and the sounds of instruments.

When asked if it's hard to imitate instruments, he said, "If you were born in my family, you had to do that before you cried. I don't know if it's hard. I don't ever remember not being able to do that." He mentioned several contemporary musicians who have picked up on the Mills Brothers' tradition and have made imitating instruments their trademark, too.

Mills has had music in his blood since he was a child. He has fond memories of traveling during his summer vacations with his father and uncles when they performed in Denmark, Sweden, Germany and England, and hearing them perform with the Boston Pops conducted by John Williams, who was standing in at the time for Arthur Fiedler.

Coming of age in the late '60s and early '70s, Mills played in bands, wrote music, and loved listening to fusion jazz and artistic rock music. It was a world apart from the music of the Mills Brothers, but in 1982 he joined his father to carry on the family tradition. He admits he had to leave some opportunities behind. But in place of it, he feels that he was saved from a world that he could easily have burned out in pop bands. And unlike many of his musical contemporaries, he has had the privilege of sharing the stage with musical legends, including Count Basie, Woody Herman, Patti Page, Eddy Arnold, Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan. He's sorry that he hasn't had a hit tune yet, like his musical partner Hopper had on the "Love Machine" album. "The trade off was Sarah Vaughn asking to record one of my songs," he said. "What do you want in life?"

And he got to work for years with his dad, whom he described as "one of the most resilient human beings I ever met in my life" and "one of the greatest singers I ever had the pleasure to hear, let alone share the stage with." He also said of his father, "He was nice to everybody. He said, 'The only stars are in the sky,' and he lived that way. He never tried to impress anybody."

The original Mills Brothers may not be mentioned in many black history books, but they made a major contribution, crossing the color line in the '30s and '40s, helping to loosen up the rock-hard soil of racism. They traveled around the world performing and were the first African-Americans to give a command performance before the King and Queen of England in 1934, even though the night before, the four brothers couldn't check into the same hotel where their white manager and agents were staying. Mills was told that they had to spend the night, whether all or part of it, out in the rain. His Uncle John developed a long illness after the trip, and Mills wonders whether that night in the rain might have contributed to his death.

"They were ambassadors, if you will, without any labels. You can't imagine the pride black people had in this group that were broadcasting nationally over radio, sometimes six or seven shows a day under different sponsorships," said Mills. He pointed out that they made many people very wealthy, including those producing their records. And they sponsored black golfers and paved the way for other black musicians. Sammy Davis Jr. once told him that he couldn't do what he had done without the Mills Brothers coming before him.

Mills feels that race wasn't an issue for many of their fans. "I don't think they ever saw race," he said. "People are big until you reduce them to some kind of small conversation."

On Valentine's Day, Mills and Hopper will be doing their all to emulate the sound and feel of the original Mills Brothers hoping that you will feel so at home you can "smell the bread baking in your oven."

The Mills Brothers and the Four Aces
Feb. 14 at 2 and 7 p.m.
Reagle Players, 617 Lexington St., Waltham
Tickets: $35 to $45, $25 for children ages 5 to 18