This Day in Jewish History

1985: Irving Mills, a Businessman, Not a Humanitarian, Dies

The musical Mills brothers were happy to work with black musicians, which was not done at the time – and brought the world the likes of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.

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On April 21, 1985, the music publisher and producer Irving Mills died, at the age of 91. Open-minded and with an intuitive gift for identifying talent, Mills helped create the business of popular music in the 20th century. Mills Music, the publishing house he and his brother Jack founded, would become the largest independent music publisher in the world, and worked with such artists as Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael, Cab Calloway and Benny Goodman.

Irving Harold Mills was born Isadore Minsky on January 16, 1894, and was apparently not American-born after all. Although most sources say he was born in New York, independent music historian Bill Edwards, on his website Red Hot Jazz, quotes U.S. census forms indicating that both Irving and Jack were born in Odessa: The young boys arrived in the United States on July 25, 1896, together with their parents. They lived in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Those parents were Hyman (Chaim) Minsky and the former Sophia Schifre, both from Odessa, in what was then part of the Russian empire. After Hyman, a hatmaker, died of tuberculosis in 1905, both sons went to work, doing a wide variety of jobs.

From page to stage

Irving worked as a page at Shanley’s, a restaurant in New York’s theater district. That was followed by a job at the Friars Club, the private club for professional comedians and entertainers. Although this gave him an opportunity to personally meet many performers, he wanted to see them in action – and so got a backstage job at Proctor’s Theater.

Working at the stage door, he had frequent contact with song pluggers – representatives of music publishers who wanted to get inside to pitch their wares (new songs) to the talent. Since he had a strong voice himself, Mills was able to land a job doing the same, for a music publisher in Philadelphia.

It was during a work trip to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1913, that Mills met Bessie, the woman who would be his wife for the next 63 years, until her death in 1976. They had seven children together.

After gaining experience independently in the music business, Irving and Jack started their own company, Jack Mills Music, in 1919. Nine years later, it became simply Mills Music.

The brothers felt pressure to build up an inventory of songs, and so began signing up composers left and right.

‘A dollar don’t care where it’s from’

Irving was the brother with a great skill in identifying talent, and as ragtime and then blues became the fads, he bought up music from numerous black composers – something that was not done at the time by white businessmen.

From Irving’s point of view, however, “A dollar don’t care where it’s from, whether it’s black [or] green,” as he is quoted as saying in Terry Teachout’s 2013 biography of Duke Ellington.

Mills first heard Ellington at the Kentucky Club, New York, in 1926 and signed him to a contract the next day. For the next 13 years, he managed Ellington and his band, published their music and produced their records. He named many of Ellington’s compositions – including “Mood Indigo” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” – and often wrote lyrics for them, thus earning a credit as cowriter.

By all accounts, Mills treated his black clients honestly and without prejudice. As a manager, he was the first to have blacks and whites play music together, and he had the clout to make the record companies accept this. He was a businessman, not a humanitarian, but Teachout notes that Ellington, for example, “was not known to have uttered a disagreeable word about Mills.”

For his part, Mills wrote of Ellington that he was a “great creative artist, and the first American composer to catch in his music the true jazz spirit.”

Working out of the iconic Brill Building on Broadway, the Mills Brothers published, licensed, recorded and managed musical acts. Irving in particular created dozens of little mini-ensembles out of the large bands he worked with, so that musicians could accommodate any sort of musical project that came along.

When the Mills brothers finally sold their company to the Utilities and Industry Corporation, in 1965, it was for the then-gargantuan sum of $5 million.

Irving moved to Palm Springs, where he continued publishing music. He died there on this date in 1985. Jack Mills had died six years earlier, on March 23, 1979.