From the early 1930s onward, well into the early 1950s, the Mills Brothers were the most popular black vocal harmony group nationwide. As the 1930s progressed, and their fan base increased, the quartet began to rely less on the imitation of musical instruments and more on a unique and swinging blend that influenced every other vocal group in jazz. In the mid-1940s they were still performing wordless vocals in the style of small jazz combos but were focusing more on ballads, often with an up-tempo chorus included toward the end of the song.

Johnny Black’s “Paper Doll” had been in the band books of Louis Armstrong, Harry James, Glenn Miller, and Stan Kenton, but it took the recording by the Mills Brothers to elevate the song to that of a major hit. The Mills Brothers recording was #1 on Billboard’s “singles chart” for twelve consecutive weeks in 1943 and 1944 and was a part of their stage presentation from that point forward

The Mills Brothers made two sets of Soundies, four in 1942 and four more in 1944. Each and every release is a gem, and while the group’s Soundie Paper Doll is well known, it is worth revisiting. Not only does the group give a sterling rendition of the tune, but Dorothy Dandridge, whom we will discuss in more detail in an upcoming post, plays (and dances) the part of the “paper doll.” The three girls sitting on the brothers’ laps are Avenelle Harris, Juanita Moore and Lucy Battle, all active on the Los Angeles nightclub and theater scene.