Irving Mills

Irving Mills

Irving Mills (January 161894–April 211985) was a jazz music publisher, also known by the name of "Joe Primrose."

Mills was born in New York City. He founded Mills Music with his brother Jack in 1919. Between 1919 and 1965, when they sold Mills Music, Inc., they built and became the largest independent music publisher in the world.


Irving and Jack discovered a number of great songwriters, among them Sammy Fain, Harry Barris, Gene Austin, Hoagy Carmichael, Jimmy McHugh, and Dorothy Fields. He either discovered or greatly advanced the careers of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, Ben Pollack, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Will Hudson, Raymond Scott and many others.

Although not a musician himself (he did sing, however), 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").

Duke Ellington

One night 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, whom he signed the very next day. They made a lot of records together, not only under the name of Duke Ellington, but built groups around Duke's side men who were great instrumentalists in their own right.

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. He put Duke Ellington into 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" 78 rpm disc performing St. Louis Blues on one side and a medley of songs called "Gems from Blackbirds of 1928" on the other side, himself singing with the Ellington Orchestra. Victor Records first hedged on releasing the record, but when Mills threatened to take his artists off the roster, he won out.

He also discovered and signed Blanche Calloway and her brother Cab Calloway.

Irving thought that 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 sort of relief band at the Cotton Club. Calloway and the band went into the Cotton Club with a new tune Irving wrote with Calloway and Clarence Gaskill called "Minnie the Moocher".


One of his innovations was the "band within a band," recording small groups (he started this in 1928 by arranging for member of Ben Pollack's band to record hot small group sides for the various dime store labels, while Pollack had an exclusive contract with Victor) out of the main orchestra and printing "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 many other bands.

Irving also formed Mills Artists Booking Company. It was then that he formed an all-girl orchestra, headed by Ina Ray. He added the name Hutton and it became the popular Ina Ray Hutton and her Orchestra.

In late 1936 with involvement by Herbert Yates of Consolidated Film, Irving started the Master and Variety labels, which for their short life span were distributed by ARC through their Brunswick and Vocalion label sales staff. 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, an amazing amount 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. In such a short time, an amazing amount of fine music was recorded for these labels.

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, but was unsuccessful in arranging for distribution overseas to get his music issued in Europe. Also, it's quite likely that these records simply weren't selling as well as hoped for.

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. The last recording was number WM-1150....1055 recordings in total.

Irving was recording all the time and became the head of the American Recording Company, which is now Columbia Records. Once radio blossomed Irving 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 Twentieth Century Fox in 1943, which starred jazz greats Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Zutty Singleton, and Fats Waller and the legendary 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.


Irving lived to be over 91 years old. In spite of his limited formal education Irving Mills was comfortable in any company. His place in the history of jazz is founded primarily on his business skills rather than his singing and songwriting abilities (which were considerable), but it was his management skills and publishing empire that were central to the history and financial success of jazz. Because of his promotion of black entertainers a leading black newspaper referred to him as the Abraham Lincoln of music.


Among the artists Mills personally recorded were
*Irving Aaronson and his Commanders
*Vic Berton's Orchestra
*Billy Banks Orchestra
*Cab Calloway Orchestra
*Chocolate Dandies
*Duke Ellington and his Orchestra
*Frank Froeba Orchestra
*Sonny Greer and his Memphis Men
*Baron Lee and the Mills Blue Rhythm Band
*Jimmie Lunceford
*Wingy Manone Orchestra
*Benny Meroff Orchestra
*Mills Cavalcade Orchestra
*Irving Mills and his Hotsy Totsy Gang
*Mills Music Masters
*Louis Prima Orchestra
*Chuck Richards
*Clark Randall Orchestra
*Joe Venuti
*The Whoopee Makers
*Jay Randell Orchestra
*Will Hudson–Eddie DeLange Orchestra
*Tommy "Red" Tomkins Orchestra
*The Swingsters
*The Modernists (Benny Goodman)
*Ina Ray Hutton and Her Melodears
*Lud Gluskin Orchestra
*Red Norvo & His Swing Septet
*Rex Stewart Orchestra
*Benny Carter Orchestra
*Buster Bailey Orchestra
*Joe Haymes Orchestra
*Manny Klein Orchestra
*Red Nichols & His Five Pennies

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