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Mills: A Life Of Being In The Swing

April 28, 1985|LEONARD FEATHER

'Duke Ellington's Manager Dead at 91," the headlines read Monday.

Well, yes, that first and foremost, but there was a great deal more to the Irving Mills story. Among other things, he was the E.F. Hutton of the music world; when the songs he published were heard, everybody listened, whether it was "Mood Indigo" or "When You're Smiling" or "Solitude" or "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" or "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing."

He was also the Florenz Ziegfeld of Harlem, the man who converted the Cotton Club from a little-known uptown rendezvous to a world-renowned showcase for black talent.

On the day those headlines appeared, Gregory and Maurice Hines and Lonette McKee were seen on KCET in "Backstage at the Cotton Club." What they had to say about black show business offered a far more comprehensive picture than that portrayed in the recent (but already almost forgotten) movie in which they had leading roles.

The timing was oddly coincidental, for less than 48 hours before the airing, Irving Mills, once president of Cotton Club Productions, had died in a Palm Springs hospital.

Like most of the significant facts and principal figures of that era, Irving Mills was ignored in "Cotton Club." "When they started work on the picture," he told me in a television interview a couple of months ago, "some people involved with it came to see me. I told them about my connection with the club, and of course I thought the great productions we put on there, the revues and the music, would be the highlights. But they made a gangster movie, and the millions of people who never went to the club but saw the movie don't know the difference."

Irving Mlls' career spanned 72 years. He was best known as the man who brought Duke Ellington and Cab Colloway to fame--at the Cotton Club. Impressed by the Ziegfeld shows, he convinced the Cotton Club owners that the same elaborate concept--gorgeous show girls, talented singers and dancers, a fine orchestra--could be improved on, using black artists.

"I got Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields to write the score for the first show, and brought in Duke's band to play it. We had 24 hours during the history of the Cotton Club, starting in 1927."

By 1927 Irving Mills had been in show business 14 years, the first six as a song-plugger, singing in dance halls and theaters. In 1919 he started Mills Music, which would become a multimillion-dollar publishing empire. But simultaneously he was producing what were then called "race" records, with Alberta Hunter and other blues singers.

He had a recording career of his own, producing sessions under a variety of names, such as Irving Mills and his Hotsy Totsy Gang. Members of that gang at one time or another were Hoagy Carmichael, who was on the date that produced his "Star Dust" in 1929; Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Joe Venuti, Benny Goodman, Jack Teagarden, Gene Krupa, Bix Beiderbecke--all sidemen at $25 a session. Mills sang on some of the records and even on several of the early Ellingtons.

By the mid-1930s, Mills was riding high, managing the Duke, Calloway, an all-girl jazz orchestra led by Ina Ray Hutton, and building the Cotton Club's reputation to the point where, as he put it, "Playing there was for blacks what playing the Palace or the Ziegfeld was for whites."

In several respects, the rise of Irving Mills was a very American success story; this was underlined immediately after Pearl Harbor. "I had five sons who all joined the service in one day: two in the Army, two in the Marines, one in the Navy. I was appointed a captain in the California State Militia, and my wife, Bess, went to work for the USO."

Along with the move from New York to Los Angeles came Mills' first major involvement with motion pictures. In 1943, he helped to produce "Stormy Weather." The title song had been a hit for Ethel Waters at the Cotton Club; it now became an equally big hit for another Cotton Club alumna, Lena Horne, who starred along with Bojangles Robinson, Fats Waller and Cab Calloway. It was the first major feature film with an all-black cast and a jazz orientation.

Over the years, Mills' talent-managing activities receded, and by 1965 he had sold Mills Music; but retirement was not for him. He soon acquired another company and remained active, a reminder of a long-gone era, almost up to the end.

In 1976, he lost his wife after 65 years of marriage. Over the past few years, his hearing began to fail him. Last week, as his health deteriorated and he had to be hospitalized, he drew his daughter Florence close to his bedside and said: "I've had a wonderful life. You've been a marvelous daughter; I love all my sons, I loved my wife. I don't feel my life can have the quality it has had, and I don't want it prolonged anymore."

That is what is called going out in style.

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