For as long as Beverly Mills can remember, her brother Aaron Mills has played bass guitar. "I've got a picture of him and my [oldest] brother sitting on their twin beds, playing their guitars," she says. "He and my brother would close themselves in that room and just stay in there for hours. Aaron's passion started there."
And from there, Mills' passion, talent and work ethic have carried him to decades of success: performing with trumpeter Donald Byrd, top-charting R&B band Cameo and Grammy Award-winning hip-hop duo Outkast. Now Mills, 56, has settled in Durham, where he performs with his own groups when not on tour.
"Aaron is hard on himself," says Larry Blackmon, who recruited Mills to join Cameo. "He doesn't settle. He expects greatness out of himself and pushes himself. I hope he doesn't have to leave the planet in order for everybody to understand how unique he is as a performer and musician, because there aren't many people left out there like Aaron."
"When I didn't have a bass but had a guitar, my dad [Elvin Mills Sr.] told me to take two strings off—the B and the E strings—and make it play like a bass," Mills says, "'cause my brother wanted to play guitar, so I had no choice."
The Mills' Asheville home was a mere 6 feet or so from Welfare Baptist Church, the nexus of spiritual and musical growth for the closely knit family. "If I didn't go to church, I was still in church," Mills explains. "I could still hear them singing!" With his father teaching him, Mills began playing for the 60-member congregation alongside his brother, mother (Ruth Mills, a pianist), and several aunts and uncles who sang in the choir. Formal practice was one Wednesday or Thursday night a week, but Mills walked next door most afternoons to rehearse new songs with his mother. "I'd take my guitar over there after school and she would tell me I couldn't go outside until I learned that song."
At home, Mills' father, a jazz saxophonist who once played with Lionel Hampton, spun Miles, Dizzy and Coltrane records on Friday nights. "He would say, 'Can you play that? Well, you can't play 'til you can play that,'" Mills remembers.
Before Mills hit his teenage years, his father was managing an eight-piece family band, The Antiques, which played sold-out shows and became the premier backing band in Asheville, supporting touring soul acts like Sam & Dave and Joe Tex. "The club owner would tell my dad, 'I need your boys to play next Friday. Can they handle it?'And we'd start rehearsing," Mills says.
Mills and the group performed regionally, often for a full weekend. Sometimes they'd return to Asheville just in time to drop the boys off Monday morning at the door of Asheville High School, where Mills played trumpet. The baby of the bunch, Mills describes himself as a shy teenager. He turned his energy toward the bass. "I just took all my time and focused on playing," he says.
But his single-minded passion for playing prevented him from holding a regular job.
"That's probably one of the things that would burn my daddy up most about him," Beverly Mills recalls. "If someone asked him to play Friday night in Greenville, he wouldn't go to work. He would go play and he would lose his job."
Mills' first professional tour was with Chuck Jackson, a Pittsburgh R&B singer signed to Motown and Scepter Records. "This was big time and I was goofing up," he says of his first night. After the show, saxophonist Stanley Beard confronted him. "He just made me cry. He told me I had to get it together, and I got it together."
Mills also recorded some songs with Willie Hobbs, a Southern soul man he'd previously backed with The Antiques, which piqued his interest in session work. "Once I was bitten by that bug, I was like, 'Oh God, I've got to do this.'"
Mills refers to these opportunities as his "launching pad." "It was a way to be heard, and I could see the light if I continued to do this. I could see myself doing this for the rest of my life."
Mills came to Durham to join trumpeter Donald Byrd, who was starting a jazz program at North Carolina Central University. Byrd assembled a septet dubbed New Central Connection Unlimited, a funky jazz ensemble with commercial aspirations. The group toured for a year behind its Super Trick album and single, both released by United Artists Records in 1977.
New Central Connection Unlimited shared bills with Cameo, and Mills' performance impressed founder Blackmon. "From growing up close to the Apollo Theater and watching musicians from the time I was 5 years old, I pride myself on knowing talent," Blackmon says. "Aaron just captivated me because there are few people who are so able to express themselves musically, and even fewer that do it visually as well."
After New Cental Connection Unlimited disbanded in 1978, Mills was heartbroken—but not for long. He had just returned home from church when he received a call from Blackmon, who invited him to join Cameo as its bassist.
Blackmon flew Mills to New York the next day. Mills rehearsed with the band for four hours on a Tuesday, and he played his first Cameo gig in Cleveland 24 hours later. "They gave me a tape and I wrote all the bass parts out to the songs they were doing in the show," Mills explains. "The music was like a piece of cake after playing with Donald Byrd. If you were a musician with him, you had to be able to read, write, have good ears and be disciplined. You had to be on top of your game."
Cameo's rhythm section—Mills on bass and Blackmon on drums—became one of its trademarks. "There are few bass players that interpret the pocket as much as Aaron does," Blackmon praises. Mills' energetic nature helped fuel Cameo's wild shows, another of its calling cards. "He would start off with his solo and at the climax, we would have an explosion happen and Aaron would take off in the air with his bass, his legs swinging and all," Blackmon describes. "But as much as it was about stage presence, he also interpreted live very, very well."
Yet, Mills, accustomed to Byrd's high standards, didn't feel Cameo's musicianship quite measured up. He intended to stay with Cameo only temporarily. But when Secret Omen, Cameo's first album with Mills, became the group's first gold record, he changed his mind. "When that happened, I said, I better hang around for a while," Mills says.
The recently married Mills couldn't refuse the money—and the opportunity to see the world.
After five years in Cameo, Mills left in 1983 to form MCB with Cameo keyboardist Tommy Campbell and trombonist Jeryl Bright. Their sole release had limited success in the U.S. but did better internationally. So Mills rejoined Cameo in 1985.
"They had our love the whole time," Blackmon explains. "When people are happy doing what they want to do, you get more than you would if you compel the person to stick around while they wanted to explore other things musically."
Mills' rearrival coincided with the recording of Word Up, which shot Cameo into superstar status. The title track became a hit, peaking at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100, and follow-up single "Candy" topped the R&B charts in 1987. The album reached platinum status and opened doors for collaborations with Miles Davis and Stevie Ray Vaughan. "That was the height of my career, meeting [Miles]," Mills says.
His success resonated with his father. "I think my father had a desire to do more [musically]," Beverly Mills says, "and I think Aaron caught hold of that dream and made it manifest. He never let it die and that made my father proud."
Blackmon remembers the bond between Mills and his father. "[Aaron's] pop used to come around a lot, and you could feel where Aaron got his intensity from."
But while Mills' arrival pleased his father, his constant schedule—performing as many as 230 dates per year and recording when off tour—strained relations with his wife. "I would fly her out, though once we started having kids, she naturally wanted me to be there," he says. "One day, she just told me that she'd had about enough, but I chose to play music."
Though Cameo slowed from its one album per year pace of the '80s, they released a few albums over the last two decades and continued to tour. The band had just returned from Japan in 2000 when they faced a Sunday night layover in Atlanta and no flights home until morning. Then at 5 a.m., Mills was roused from his sleep by a knock on his hotel room door. Cameo sound engineer Shy Boy was on the other side. "He asked me, 'Do you wanna go record?'" Mills remembers. "I said, 'OK, give me about 20 minutes to get myself together.'"
The pair ended up in the studio of Atlanta hip-hop duo OutKast. "Andre 3000 and Big Boi were sitting there. They played 'Ms. Jackson' and asked me what I heard. I plugged in and recorded that bassline in one take."
OutKast queued up "So Fresh, So Clean" for Mills to record next. Since then, Mills has played bass for eight other tracks on Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, including Grammy-winning singles "The Whole World" and "Hey Ya!"
Mills briefly toured with the group and gave Andre 3000 bass lessons. His connections through Organized Noize producer Rico Wade led to sessions on Cee-Lo Green, Bubba Sparxxx and Gwen Stefani recordings.
"In order to keep my name out there, I wanted to play on any hip-hop artist that's selling records. That keeps my sound out there," Mills says. "You want to be where the action is, and hip-hop music is what's selling."
As Mills' Cameo engagements have become more sporadic, he's found more time to engage his musical passion through other avenues. "Until you learn how to play a little bit of everything, you're not a complete musician," Mills says.
He's returned to his jazz roots, performing every Sunday since mid-March at Durham's Broad Street Cafe with pianist Martin Eagle, guitarist Wayne Kee and drummer Eric Mrozkowski. "Jazz just frees me up to be me," Mills offers. "It's not like you have to play the same thing, a repetition bassline. You can just play."
The quartet has guest musicians sit in weekly—trumpeter Tom Browne lends his horn from time to time—and plan to continue performing there. Though Mills would love to take the Aaron Mills Project on the road, he's encouraged by local jazz fans. "I'm so glad to see people supporting jazz."
Mills also performs Thursday nights at Devine's Restaurant in Durham alongside PM Bulldozer guitarist Pat Madison and drummer Post Postlethwait as rock-influenced outfit On The Fly. He produced local bluesman Bobby Hinton's Liquor House Roots album in 2006 and is currently in the studio himself, working on his solo CD after so many sideman gigs. After more than a year of recording, Mills hopes to release the collection in late August, a hodgepodge of the genres he's explored. He still plays at church, too: two services—8 and 11 a.m.—at Durham's MJT Ministries, whenever he's off the road.
"It keeps me intact spiritually, cause there's a lot of demons out here," he explains. "There's nothing like giving to the Father. That's where it comes from, so you've got to give a little time to Him."
Mills still feels his best years are ahead of him. "I've had some success in my career, but I don't think I've reached that peak yet," he says. To his friends and family, he's already made an impression, and perhaps he's just holding himself to a standard that continues to climb.