Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Mills Brothers -- "Caravan" (1938)

"Caravan" is one of Duke Ellington's signature pieces.  One source claims that he recorded it more than 350 times.

"Caravan" was written by one of Ellington's trombonists, Juan Tizol.  Tizol, who grew up in Puerto Rico, first learned the violin, but then switched to the valve trombone.  Tizol also played the valide trombone, which is a hybrid valve-slide trombone.

Juan Tizol
The story goes that sheet music was costly in Puerto Rico when Tizol was learning to play, and that music teachers would turn music upside down and have their students play it that way after mastering a piece right side up.  Ellington's son Mercer claimed that Tizol composed the melody to "Caravan" by inverting another melody.

Here's one Ellington performance of "Caravan," which features not only a Juan Tizol valve trombone solo but also a violin solo:

The Mills Brothers were four African-American brothers who were born in a small Ohio town between 1910 and 1915.  They were the first black vocal group to become really popular with white audiences, and ended up charting 71 singles between 1931 and 1970.  (They also appeared in 20 movies.)

When they were just getting started, the Mills Brothers would use kazoos to imitate other instruments.  In one amateur contest at the local opera house, Harry Mills forgot to bring his kazoo on stage, and had to imitate a trumpet just with his voice.   This worked so well that all four learned to imitate instruments.  John (the bass singer) mastered tuba, and accompanied the group on ukulele or guitar.  Herbert, Harry, and Donald learned to mimic trumpet, trombone, and saxophone.

The Mills Brothers
Most Mills Brothers' record feature conventional close-harmony or scat singing, but they pulled out the instrumental impersonations quite often.  When I listened to "Caravan," I couldn't believe that those horn-like sounds were being made by human voices.  But my research confirms that the only musical instrument on the recording is a guitar.

Here's the Mills Brothers' version of "Caravan" -- and, yes, it's an instrumental despite the presence of four voices:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. One of the member of the Rockapella group is a "human orchestra" carrying on the tradition that probably goes back way before the Mills Brothers. When I think of the Mills Brothers, I remember the 78 rpm album from my parents' collection (back when we really did have "albums") of the Ink Spots, a similar group.