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That Irving Mills was primarily a manager of entertainers (mostly jazz and blues musicians and singers who were often Black), an impresario and a music publisher, can make one ask why he has this web page devoted to him, a page reserved for a songwriter. The simple answer is that he receives songwriter credit, usually as lyricist, for nine of the American standard songs currently included in the Cafe SongbookCatalog of The Great American Songbook(See above.) -- not to mention many others. The simple answer, however, leaves out the most important and most interesting parts of his story.
Mills, born in 1894, grew up in the immigrant ghetto of the lower east side of New York City. His exposure to popular music started early when he worked as a page in a theater district restaurant with "a fine orchestra" and soon after landed a job at the Friar's Club where he met some of the biggest names in show business such as George M. Cohan. From there he got hired into a vaudeville theater in the neighborhood of Tin Pan Alley where all the music publishers resided. His singing ability got recognized and landed him a job as a song plugger promoting the songs of a music publishing house.
Mills quickly gained a reputation for being smart and ambitious as well as aggressive in the pursuit oh his ambitions. After he and his family moved to Philadelphia when he was nineteen, Irving and his older brother Jack started their own music publishing business, Mills Music. As Irving's son Bob tells it, by the time they sold Mills Music, Inc. in 1965, the business they had built had become "the largest independent music publisher in the world" (See Bob Mills' web biography of his father).
But even such an accomplishment as this was not in itself the reason Irving Mills has a "songwriter page" on Cafe Songbook. That has much more to do with the manager/impresario/recording business side of Mills' musical life. After Mills had begun to acquire songs to publish and to sign up talent to perform and record those songs, a chance discovery he made while making the rounds of the city's music clubs wound up leading to one of the most important figures in twentieth century jazz getting put on the map. Irving's son Bob Mills tells the story:
One night [c. 1925] he 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 who he signed up the very next day.
James Lincoln Collier in his biography of Ellington states, "In general Irving Mills has been treated badly by history." The rap on Mills has often been that he "rode to riches" on Ellington's career, that he put his own name on many of the songs giving himself creative credit for lyrics and/or music, and thus receiving a share of the royalties over and above the publsher's share. The conventional wisdom became that many years later when Ellington broke off the relationship, Mills got what he deserved. Collier and other Mills biographers don't see it exactly that way. Collier writes,
Mills earned a lot of money with Ellington, some of it unfairly. But there is a good deal more to it than that, for Irving Mills made Ellington famous, and Duke recognized this. For one thing, in 1925 Irving Mills was already a successful music publisher, on the road to big money with or without Duke Ellington. For another, at that time Duke recognized that he was a green horn, that he could learn a lot from Irving Mills, and that he needed a white manager to run interference for him through the jagged, broken field of show business. . . .
On the other side, Mills, no matter how much he cheated Duke, especially by putting his own name on Ellington's songs, understood and respected him. . . . However Mills may have manipulated Ellington, he was essential to his success. Without Irving Mills, or someone like him, the Ellington music would almost certainly have been much different, and perhaps not come into existence at all. Mills was a music publisher and knew that the big money would come from songs. As a consequence, he continually urged Duke to write, got the songs recorded, and pushed them hard (Collier, pp. 67-68, hardcover Ed.).
John Edward Hasse in his biography of The Duke, puts it this way:
The brash, shrewd Mills was scouting talent for his music publishing company and recording ventures when he heard Ellington one night at the Club Kentucky. He offered The Washingtonians [as Ellington's band was called because he had come to New York from Washington D.C.] a chance to record on Vocalion, a subsidiary of the big Brunswick record company. They jumped at the opportunity to get their music for the first time on a major record label. "This was," said Ellington, with an evident mixture of gratitude, irony, and his characteristic public generosity, "really the beginning of a long and wonderful association" (Hasse, p. 89, hardcover Ed.).
Stuart Nicholson who tells Ellington's story through the recollections of others provides the following quotation:
Cab Calloway [another of Mills's finds and clients]: "[Irving Mills] broke down so many darned barriers for Negro musicians you couldn't count them . . . white clubs that had never had a black band before and some of them were reluctant to let one in. But Irving Mills pounded their doors and paved the way" (Nicholson, p. 150, hardcover Ed.).
Mills provided very well for the black musicians in his hire, especially when they traveled in the south, where as Mills put it to one of the booking agents in Texas, "Look, I want to be assured of protection," being afraid of the reaction of local whites. Ellington's band, thanks to Mills had all any white band had and more. Here's how Sonny Greer, Ellington's drummer described their protected accomodations:
They never seen nobody like us. Down South, you know, confliction, segregation. They had heard different coloured aggregations that come through on a little ragged-ass bus or something like that, but we had our own Pullman car, had our own baggage car, we had full possession of the diner, nobody could come in our Pullman car because the door stayed locked. . . . We had our own lighting equipment, own stage, one of the first bands to use a roll-down stage, one of the first bands with all them overhead pinpoint lights, [our own] electrician. They never seen that. That's the way Irving Mills made us travel (Nicholson, pp. 162-163).
Bob Mills account of his father's role in writing lyrics for Ellington songs is perhaps not the most objective but may reflect Mills' contributed, (and he did provide creative input) came about:
Ellington and Mills collaborated on quite a number of tunes that became popular standards: "Mood Indigo," "Solitude," "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," "Sophisticated Lady," "Black and Tan Fantasy," and many others that you'll find listed on ASCAP's 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.
RedHotJazz.com summarizes the relationship betwee Mills and Ellington thusly:
[Mills] association with Duke ran deep; besides being their manager he wrote lyrics to several of Ellington's songs and sang on many of their records. Duke and other members of his orchestra had mixed emotions about their business relations with Irving Mills. In general they held him in high regard, but felt that as publisher he sometimes took author's credit and royalties that were not deserved. On the other hand nearly all agreed that much of Ellington's early commercial success was because of Mills business skills. It should be noted that the addition of publishers' names to songs was common practice in those days and the same accusations were leveled at most publishers of the era.
So this, as murky as the "this" may be, is how Irving Mills, music publisher, impresario, and manager of some of the great figures of jazz and blues, came to have his own songwriter page at Cafe Songbook.
During the first half of the twentieth century the world of American entertainment thrived despite the barriers placed before it by racial and ethnic prejudice. Two of the groups who were major players, African-Americans and Jews both had to contend with these forces. Racism and ethnic bias, of course, were a factor in every aspect of American society, but in the world of entertainment, the performers and their fellow practitioners in the industry such as songwriters, producers and so forth, were often idolized in public but rejected in more private settings. All this made life in the world of show business a complex affair.
In the view of Ellington biographer John Edward Hasse, Jews and Blacks experienced a kind of teamwork as they came face to face with discrimination:
At that time, Jews and blacks were on the outskirts of American society. Yet they both used music and entertainment to circumvent certain barriers and find a more visible place in the mainstream of American culture. Blacks such as Bert Williams, Eubie Blake, Florence Mills, and Duke Ellington seized opportunities to take center stage. While a number of Jews -- Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor , Sophie Tucker -- also took center stage, others -- Harry and Albert Von Tilzer, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Billy Rose --wrote songs for that stage. Some -- Leo Feist, Ted Snyder, the Witmarks, Shapiro and Bernstein -- published their songs. And still others -- like Irving Mills, Florenz Ziegfeld, Joe Glaser, the Shuberts -- found the talent for that stage. One of the richest sources for the the talent and the songs was African-Americans who saw new opportunities opening through these new ethnic entrepreneurs. The two groups, blacks and Jews, formed a symbiotic relationship (Hasse, p. 89).
Irving Mills (This section is currently in preparation)
"In this promo film from 1931 New York music publisher, impressario, record mogul, booking agent and sometimes singer/violinist, Irving Mills introduces the three main attractions of his agency, Baron Lee and the Blue Rhythm Band, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway" (fromharryoakley).
Mills sang on occasion with an early Ellington ensemble, The Harlem Hot Chocolates.
"The St. James Infirmary Blues," with Irving Mills on vocal backed by his client Duke Ellington and the Harlem Hot Chocolates, c. 1930. the lyrics for this classic American blues are sometimes credited to Joe Primrose, a pseudonym used by Mills.
Irving Mills' Hotsy Totsy Gang
"The Hotsy-Totsy Gang records made under Irving Mills name between 1928 and 1930 assembled some of the greatest White Jazz musicians of the era and often produced spectacular results. Sometimes Mills sang on the records, other times he just arranged the record dates and selected the musicians. As a singer Mills was not without talent' (redhotjazz.com).
"My Lit'l Honey And Me" (1929)
Irving Mills and his Hotsy Totsy Gang - -- "Although not a musician himself (however, he did sing), 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'." (fromedmundusrex)
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Master List of Great American Songbook Songwriters
Names of songwriters who have written at least one song included in the Cafe Songbook Catalog of The Great American Songbook are listed below.
Names of songwriters with two or more song credits in the catalog (with rare exceptions) are linked to their own Cafe Songbook pages, e.g. Fields, Dorothy.
Names of songwriters with only one song credit in the catalog are linked to the Cafe Songbook page for that song, on which may be found information about the songwriter or a link to an information source for him or her.
Please note: Cafe Songbook pages for songwriters are currently in various stages of development.