Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in March 2008. The “month or two” has now grown into nearly a decade! They say good things come to those who wait.
By all that we hold dear, PopularSong.org should be addressing The Mills Brothers in the “Artist” section, with a full bio and discussion of their significant impact. Fact is, we’ve got an editor working on that, but you may have to wait a month or two. It’s difficult to find something new to say about such a prolific and storied group — we don’t like to serve up some old rehash. In the meantime, we’ll delve a little deeper into a tune from the great American songbook that is indelibly linked to the brothers Mills: “Glow Worm.”
Glow little glow worm, fly of fire…
The lyrics of the song are possibly a bit confusing at first listen, as any child can tell you that a firefly is not a worm! This is derived from the fact that the song was originally composed in 1902 by Paul Lincke, with German lyrics by Heinz Bolten-Backers, then translated by Lilla Cayley Robinson. Throughout Europe the glow worm is the wingless female larva of the species Lampyris noctiluca, which glows, and resembles a worm. This species is not readily found stateside, and so when the great Johnny Mercer re-worked the lyrics for a 1950s U.S. audience, he made it into a song about the insect we know as the common firefly. This insect, the Photinus pyralis, features both male and females that glow.
Enough about biology. The lyrics as we know them do incredible twists and turns, with typical Mercer wordplay:
Thou aeronautical boll weevil
Illuminate yon woods primeval
See how the shadows deep and darken
You and your chick should get to sparkin’
Of course Mercer couldn’t anticipate that one of his lines would eventually create confusion for a whole new generation of Americans:
You’ve got a cute little pocket mazda
Which you can make both slow and fasta
Prior to being a well-known automotive brand that arose in the 1970s, “Mazda” was a name trademarked by General Electric for a line of incandescent light bulbs. Although this brand was discontinued in 1945, the meaning was still quite clear to listeners seven years later.
Considering all the “sparkin'” and other quirks of this version, “Glow Worm” supports the case that Mercer was one of the best lyricists in the history of popular song. Considering how many hits he had not only as lyricist but also as vocalist, it’s a bit surprising then that his composition skills were allegedly sub-par at best.
The Mills Brothers version hit the top of the charts in December 1952. The recording had a sound that harkened back to a decade earlier, when Glenn Miller ruled the universe. It was a blasting, big band sound for good reason: the orchestration was done by Hal McIntyre, a founding member of the Glenn Miller Orchestra from 1937-1942. The saxophonist learned from the best; each part was spot-on perfect. It also explains why, whenever the Mills Brothers performed with lesser accompaniment, the music couldn’t possibly stack up to the record.
For their part, The Mills Brothers could sing just about anything, in just about any style, with or without accompaniment. They began singing as children, and imitated the sounds of instruments to enhance their act. Legend has it that a misplaced kazoo led to this. So when the AFM strike caused the bands to go on hiatus in the early 1940s, the Mills Brothers were one of the few who make a record sound reasonably close to having a regular orchestra. [Editor: It is this writer’s opinion that the impact of their impersonation skills is overstated, and that it was the harmonic talents of the Mills Brothers vocals that sold records.]
By using a full swing band, “Glow Worm” was recorded without any need for a vocalized trumpet sound or even the trademark ukelele, it simply permits the Mills Brothers to do what they do best…sing. The combination of a full-blown Glenn-Miller style orchestra and Harry Mills’ ultra-smooth lead result in something as close to perfection as a recording can get. The song so well defined the term “standard” that it remained well-known even to Americans born after 1952. Although generations born after the close of the baby boom may not be able to hum it, most would identify it as a standard upon hearing it, and many would claim to know it.
Over the years of performing “Glow Worm,” The Mills Brothers gave it just about every tempo change and twist you can imagine, but ultimately fell back on the uptempo swing originally imparted by McIntyre. It certainly wasn’t the biggest hit of their career, but eventually it may prove to have the most staying power.