The Versatile Three musical group was featured on a promotional poster in 1917, by the Herman Darewski Music Publishing Company, London. Pictured are Gus Haston, Charles Wenzel Mills (of Quincy, Ill.) and Anthony Tuck. National Portrait Gallery, London.
MARY LOU MONTGOMERY
The Versatile Four, a musical group of American black vaudeville performers, entertained His Royal Highness Prince Arthur of Connaught, grandson of Queen Victoria of England. The command performance followed Prince Arthur of Connaught’s marriage to Princess Alexandra, in October 1913.
At the time of the command performance, the Versatile Four was the second of twelve acts on the bill at Collin’s Music Hall in London, England. According to a story in the Feb. 6, 1914 edition of the Quincy Daily Herald, a footnote on the bill announced that the Versatile Four would not be available for the second performance on that date, due to the command performance.
Quincy’s interest in the entertainment venue was based upon its close association with the Versatile Four’s pianist and vocalist, Quincy native Charles Wenzel Mills, considered to be a piano prodigy.
As a child
Charles W. Mills was born May 5, 1883, in Quincy, Ill., to George and Laura Daniels Mills. His parents, who were both born in Missouri, were married in November 1868 in Adams County, Ill. During the early years of their marriage, George worked as a cook in order to support his family.
Laura Mills died in 1892, when Charles was about 9 years old.
At the turn of the 20th century, George, his second wife, Harriet, and two of his children, Edith and 16-year-old Charles Mills, were living at 831 Vine St., Quincy. That address would remain as home for the Mills family until after George Mills’ death in 1921.
Charles attended and/or graduated from Quincy High School, and studied piano under the guidance of Scott Daniels.
Launches music career
Charley Mills was well known in Quincy, providing musical accompaniment for a variety of entertainment venues during the first decade of the 20th Century. Mills provided the music for a stag party given by Joe B. Perkins of 926 N. Eight Street, Quincy, in March 1905.
Charley Mills and Billy Bryson teamed on the piano and violin, respectively, for a party thrown by Eben Turner and Ed Long, at the Arcade Quincy in December 1906. Fifty couples were on hand to dance to the music.
And for several seasons Mills operated the calliope and played the piano for the dance bands aboard the J.S. Riverboat Mississippi River excursions.
He moved east, and in 1909 graduated from the Music department of Lebanon Valley college in Annville, Pa.
The Quincy Daily Herald of Aug. 14, 1913 noted: “He played in saloons and at the parks here for a number of years (then) went away and was lost to sight.”
Rather than being “lost,” Mills was honing his skills and paving the path for others to follow, by performing ragtime music, which is considered by some to be the precursor to jazz.
Charles Wenzel Mills joined a group of musical artists in New York to form the “Versatile Entertainers Quintet.” The group performed at James Reese Europe’s Clef Club in May 1910. Others in the core group included Anthony Tuck, banjoist; and Charles Wesley Johnson, a Chicago drummer.
The quintet was hired to accompany Vernon and Irene Castle during the summer of 1913 on a tour of France.
The following November, the group members joined with banjoist Gus Haston, and they formed “the Versatile Four.” The musicians continued to tour Europe until the outbreak of the first world war, when they returned to the States for a time.
The Quincy Daily Journal made mention of the fact that Charles Mills was in Quincy for a visit with his father, George Mills, during early October 1914. While in Quincy, he teamed together with Felix Eugene Butler of Washington, D.C., for a concert at the Eighth and Elm Streets Baptist Church in Quincy.
Mills told the Daily Journal: “Things are pretty exciting in London at the present time, but that people still take time to listen to music.”
Charles Mills continued to tour with the popular musical group – also known as the Versatile Three and the Versatile Four, until about 1926.
During the second decade of the 20th Century, they made records for the Diplomat Orchestra, and for English Columbia.
The work paid well, Mills said in a letter home from Europe, which was published in part in Quincy’s newspaper. His statement was confirmed by an article in “The New Age“ out of New York on April 25, 1912. “The Versatile Entertainers Quintet, (are) probably the highest salaried artists now before the public.”
On Sept. 23, 1915, that same newspaper said of The Versatile Four: “Hastons, Mills, Johnson and Tuck, are favorites at the Metropolitan (in London.)”
Charles Mills’ father, George, died in 1921. George had worked as a janitor, and was a landlord. In 1910, he owned 17 houses in Quincy. Survivors included two daughters, Mrs. Edith Willis and Mrs. Carrie Cook of Chicago, in addition to Charles, who was working in London at the time of his father’s death. There was also one grandson, George Briscoe.
After he left the band, Charles remained in Chicago, living with his sister and brother-in-law, Edith and Matthew Willis, who owned property at 4807 Forrestville Ave., Chicago. George Briscoe lived with the family as well.
Charles died on Dec. 7, 1946, and is buried at Woodland Cemetery in Quincy, Ill. His brother-in-law, Matthew Willis, died March 24, 1947. Charles’ sister, Edith, died on April 12, 1943, and is buried at Woodland Cemetery in Quincy. George Briscoe, Charles’ nephew, died Sept. 7, 1948, and is also buried at Woodland Cemetery.
Advertisement promoting the Versatile Four, New York Times Oct. 22, 1914. Newspapers.com
Advertisement featuring the De Kalb theater, where the Versatile Four were performing. The Chat, Brooklyn, NY, Jan. 11, 1913, newspapers.com
Source for recording information in part: “Artist Biography by arwulf arwulf”
Follow this link to hear a sample of music recorded by The Versatile Four.
Mary Lou Montgomery retired as editor of the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post in 2014. She researches and writes narrative-style stories about the people who served as building blocks for this region’s foundation. Her collective works can be found at www.maryloumontgomery.com