Irving Mills

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


Mills was born to a Jewish family[1] in Odessa, Ukraine, although some biographies state that he was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan[2] in New York City.[lower-alpha 1][3] 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). 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 (1876–1976)[4] 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).

He died in Palm Springs, California in 1985 at age 91.

Music publishing

In July 1919, Irving Mills and his brother, Jack, founded Jack Mills, Inc., which was renamed Mills Music Inc. in 1928.[3] Mills Music acquired the bankrupt Waterson, Berlin & Snyder, Inc. in 1929. Irving Mills and Jack Mills (18921979) (Irving's brother and business partner) sold Mills Music February 25, 1965, to Utilities and Industries Corporation (a utility company based in New York). In 1969, Utilities and Industries Corporation merged Mills Music with Belwin, another music publisher, to form Belwin-Mills.[5] Educational publisher Esquire Inc. (who had recently sold the magazine) announced its acquisition of Belwin-Mills in 1979.[6] Gulf & Western acquired Esquire Inc. in 1983 and sold the Belwin-Mills print business to Columbia Pictures Publications in 1985.[7]

The Mills Music Trust

Utilities and Industries Corporation restructured Mills Music as The Mills Music Trust. At the time of the sale, the top 10 earning compositions were:

  1. Stardust
  2. When You're Smiling
  3. The Syncopated Clock
  4. Moonglow
  5. Sleigh Ride
  6. I Can't Give You Anything But Love
  7. Caravan
  8. Blue Tango
  9. Mood Indigo
  10. Who's Sorry Now?

For the year ending 1963, 114 titles brought in 77 percent of the royalty income for five years. The total number of compositions, at the time of sale, were estimated to be in excess of 25,000, of which, 1,500 were still producing royalties. In 1964, Mills had royalties of 1,331,000 dollars. The company encompassed 20 music publishing subsidiaries (some of which were acquired for $300), as well as publishing concerns in Britain, Brazil, Canada, France, then West Germany, Mexico, the Netherlands, and Spain.[8]

Structure of the trust

The Mills Music Trust traded in units OTC (over-the-counter) under the symbol MMTRS. The trust received payments from EMI Records based on a complex formula that changed in 2010, when the trust passed almost all of the funds to unit holders.

Selected discoveries

Both Jack and Irving 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,[lower-alpha 2] 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),[lower-alpha 3] Arthur Schutt, and Mannie 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

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.[9] 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.[10]

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".[11]


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)[lower-alpha 2] who co-wrote the song "Mr. Ghost Goes to Town" with Mills 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.[12]

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.

Selected recording artists

Among the artists Mills personally recorded were:

Notes and references


  1. U.S. records reflect that Irving Mills was born in Russia, more specifically, Odessa, Ukraine.
  2. 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

  • American song. The Complete Musical Theater Companion (2nd ed.) (Mills in Vol. 2 of 4), by Ken Bloom, Schirmer Books (1996); OCLC 11444314
  • The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Donald Clarke (ed.), Viking Press (1989); OCLC 59693135
  • The Encyclopedia of Popular Music (3rd ed.) (Mills is in Vol. 5 of 8), Colin Larkin, Muze (1998); OCLC 39837948
  • ASCAP Biographical Dictionary of Composers, Authors and Publishers (4th ed.), (Jacques Cattell Press (ed.), R. R. Bowker (1980); OCLC 7065938
  • Music Printing and Publishing, Stanley John Sadie & Donald William Krummel, PhD (eds.), Macmillan Press, New Grove Handbooks in Music (1990), pg. 340; OCLC 21583943

Inline citations

  1. Cherry, Robert; Griffith, Jennifer (Summer 2014). "Down to Business: Herman Lubinsky and the Postwar Music Industry". Journal of Jazz Studies vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 1-24.
  2. "Jazz Publisher Irving Mills Collaborated With Ellington," Herald Statesman, April 22, 1985, Sec A, pg. 4
  3. "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)
  4. "Bessie Mills - U.S. Social Security Death Index (SSDI) - MyHeritage". Retrieved August 27, 2018.
  5. "Mills Will Merge With Belwin, Educational Pub". Billboard. October 4, 1969. p. 8.
  6. "Belwin-Mills: Esquire Buying Firm" (PDF). Billboard. October 28, 1978. p. 103 via American Radio History.
  7. "Gulf & Western Unit Sells Belwin-Mills Publishing". Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition; New York, N.Y. New York, N.Y., United States, New York, N.Y. March 25, 1985. p. 1. ISSN 0099-9660. Retrieved September 1, 2019.
  8. George M. Rood (1935-2000), A Share of "Star Dust" on Wall Street Sale of Mills Music Makes it Possible to Invest in Songs, The New York Times, February 26, 1965
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. "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 JSTOR 4134056)
  12. "Irving Mills – Record Producer: The Master and Variety Record Labels," by Jim Prohaska (Cleveland), IAJRC Journal, Spring 1997 (retrieved May 10, 2016)
Note: Bob Mills (né Robert Irving Mills; 1922–2005) was Irving's son — one of seven siblings, five of whom were male
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