The mills brothers, animators of the unseen stage

Jacob Smith*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


The Mills Brothers were a vocal quartet who rose to fame in the 1930s with a distinctive vocal style that featured group harmonies, the imitation of musical instruments, and the incorporation of dramatic scenes into popular songs. That style doesn’t easily fit within the paradigm usually applied to popular singers of the radio age-the “crooners”-and instead, the Mills Brothers are best understood through reference to scholarship on puppetry, ventriloquism, and animation. The Mills Brothers provide an overlooked case study in Black transmedia stardom during the 1930s; the group’s multimedia presence at that time included network radio, phonograph records, live performances, three Fleischer Brothers sound cartoons, and appearances in several Hollywood films. The group’s unique vocal style was perhaps best captured in the Fleischer cartoons, and this chapter argues that they are better appreciated as animators than crooners; that is, as virtuosic practitioners in the art of sonic illusion.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationMedia Ventriloquism
Subtitle of host publicationHow Audiovisual Technologies Transform the Voice-Body Relationship
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9780197563625
StatePublished - Apr 22 2021


  • African american music
  • Animation
  • Barbershop
  • Black performance
  • Fleischer brothers
  • Mills brothers
  • Mimicry
  • Puppetry
  • Radio
  • Stardom
  • Transmedia
  • Ventriloquism
  • Voice

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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