Mills was born in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City, but some dispute he was born in Odessa, Russia. After working various jobs involved with the music world such as Friars, Proctor’s Theatre, and eventually as a song plugger for Emmet Welsh. By 1918 he was working for publisher Leo Feist and his brother Jacob was working as a manager for McCarthy and Fisher. In July of 1919 the brothers decided to start Jack Mills Music which would be renamed Mills Music in 1928. The Mills brothers discovered a number of great songwriters. Although he only sang a little, Irving decided to put together his own studio recording group. He started the group Irving Mills and his Hotsy Totsy Gang with Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Arnold Brillhardt, Arthur Schutt, and Manny Klein. Other variations of his bands featured Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, and Red Nichols (Mills gave Red Nichols the tag “and his Five Pennies.”. Mills’ subsequent contract with Ellington was a very favorable one; he owned 50% of Duke Ellington Inc. and thus got his name tag on quite a number of tunes that became popular standards: “Mood Indigo,” “(In My) Solitude,” “It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” “Sophisticated Lady,” “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and many others. Mills was one of the first to record black and white musicians together, using twelve white musicians and the Duke Ellington Orchestra on a 12″ 78 rpm disc performing “St. Louis Blues” on one side and a medley of songs called “Gems from Blackbirds of 1928” on the other side. One of his innovations was the “band within a band,” recording small groups (he started this in 1928 by arranging for members of Ben Pollack’s band to record hot small group sides for the various dime store labels. Irving also formed Mills Artists Booking Company. It was in 1934 that he formed an all-female orchestra, headed by Ina Ray. He added the name Hutton and it became the popular Ina Ray Hutton and her Orchestra. In 1934 as well, Mills Music began a publishing subsidiary, Exclusive Publications, specializing in orchestrations by the likes of Will Hudson (1908-1981).
In late 1936, with involvement by Herbert Yates of the American Record Corporation, Mills started the Master and Variety labels, which for their short life span were distributed by ARC. By late 1937 a number of problems caused the collapse of these labels. Mills was recording all the time and became the head of the American Recording Company, which is now Columbia Records. Once radio blossomed Mills was singing at six radio stations seven days a week plugging Mills tunes. Jimmy McHugh, Sammy Fain, and Gene Austin took turns being his pianist. He produced one picture, Stormy Weather in 1943. This hot record was made in 1929.