Fostering Houston’s LGBT music scene has been Andy Mills’ passion.
by Brandon Wolf
He’s played the piano for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s White House soirées, marched in her husband’s funeral procession, managed the hottest bar on Fire Island as well as Mary’s Naturally in Houston, bar-crawled with Judy Garland, and was honored as the 1982 Houston Male Pride Marshal. “But I’ve remained the same person, living and enjoying life one day at a time,” Andy Mills says, as he reflected on his memorable life recently with OutSmart magazine.
As he sits in his modest but comfortable apartment on Heights Boulevard, wearing oxygen tubing that gently hums, he is in a happy mood, not one of regrets. He has survived AIDS, and still holds his own against the lung cancer that has left him with but 20 percent of one lung. He is a grateful person, and surprisingly independent despite his delicate health.
A Pivotal Figure in Houston’s Early Gay Musical Groups
Mills founded the Montrose Symphonic Band (now the Houston Pride Band) in 1980 and the Montrose Singers (the forerunner of what is today known as Bayou City Performing Arts) in 1979.
In honor of his distinctive place in Houston’s LGBT community, “A Concert and Tribute to Andy Mills” will be presented by the musical groups he founded on January 31 at 7:30 p.m. in the sanctuary of Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, 2025 West 11th Street.
In 1981, Mills co-founded the national Gay and Lesbian Chorus Association with four other conductors. Later he helped form the Lesbian and Gay Band Association. Today they have grown into international associations that keep choruses and bands around the world connected. “The first combined chorus concert brought together 900 singers in New York City at Lincoln Center,” Mills says with pride. “The first combined band concert was 250 musicians in the Hollywood Bowl.”
Mills has chosen to turn his tribute into a salute to all LGBT musicans around the globe. “There are now over 200 choruses with 12,000 men,” Mills says with amazement. “Also a complete orchestra and 25 bands, representing another 1,000 musicians.
“I love all these people,” Mills continues. “Whether I’ve met them or not, they are all my children.” For the first and only time during the interview, his eyes fill up with tears. It’s obvious that music and Andy Mills are synonymous.
Mills’ Early Life
Mills was born in 1936 in Freemont, Ohio. He was the middle child, with an older sister and younger brother.
When he was three, his parents opened a horse-riding school near Columbus. “They were both excellent riders,” Mills says. When the business venture did not work out, his parents turned to teaching school—his father teaching history and coaching, and his mother teaching English.
At the age of 15, Mills lost his father unexpectedly to a brain tumor. That left his mother a single mom with three kids. She knew fine china well and got a job in an upscale china shop. Since she was also an excellent pianist who could play by ear, she earned additional money playing at popular piano bars at night.
In the ninth grade, Mills began to take private piano lessons, and he practiced on his mother’s upright grand piano. Although she did not give him formal lessons, now and then she would look up from her reading to correct a wrong note.
At school, he sang in the choir and played in the marching band. “I played the tuba,” Mills says. “That’s the only instrument that was still available.” He had hoped to play the saxaphone.
In the tenth grade, Mills became the band’s drum major. “Big tall hat and tails,” he laughs. This gave him his first experience as a conductor, something that he gravitated toward instinctively.
In the summers he worked at the local yacht club, filling boats with gas and washing them. He was able to earn up to $500 per week in tips. With this financial independence, he started visiting piano bars downtown.
In 1952, at age 15, he walked into the Scenic Bar in Toledo. “All I could see was a sea of men,” Mills says. The management knew he was underage, but Mills had already learned how to impress people with his maturity and gentility. They liked him and watched out for him.
He began dating men in the their 30s. “I learned early what the meaning of ‘chicken’ was,” Mills laughs. One night, when he was 17, a date dropped him off at home and his mother happened to see them kiss goodnight.
She told him he needed to see a psychiatrist. He responded, “No, mother, you’re the one who needs to see one. Before I came out, I was barely passing. After I came out, I’ve had straight A’s. I’ve been the student council president for two years, the drum major and assistant band director, a member of the choir and its student director.”
In 1955, Mills graduated from high school. He won a full four-year college scholarship. “It was called ‘The Dairy Football Scholarship,’ but they were unable to find a football player in the area who qualified academically, so they picked me.”
Mills began attending the University of Toledo. “The music department was two rooms upstairs,” he says. “It was not very challenging.”
But during his first semester, Mills met a 6’9” basketball player, and they fell in love. His new lover had a basketball scholarship at Ohio State, so Mills moved into an apartment with him in Columbus and enrolled in the Ohio State music program.
Mills was excited with the opportunities and facilities at this new educational venue. Because he was working his way through school—and also practicing 30–40 hours each week—he spent six years earning his music degree.
Into the Military
Mills decided that joining the military would be the best way to continue his education. He enlisted in the Navy, and was guaranteed a position as the concert pianist for the Navy Band. He was required to attend the Army’s music school first, to learn the basics of military music. Following that, he attended the Navy’s music school in Washington DC.
By 1962, Mills had gotten his foot in the door and was impressing his superiors. When a substitute teacher was needed for music theory, he was assigned the job. Finally he was ready to become a member of the Navy Band. As promised, he was a concert pianist for their symphonic band, and was also appointed an assistant conductor. Being one of the 125 members of the Navy Band was an honor—in 1962, only one in 100 applicants was accepted.
Each member had to play two instruments—one for the symphonic band and one for the marching band. Mills played drum in the marching band. As the official band of the U.S. Navy, their uniforms were custom-tailored. Located in Washington DC, they were often requested to provide music for diplomatic events.
During his four years in the prestigious band, he was twice requested to play the piano at the White House, as background music for social hours. “Mrs. Kennedy always came up afterwards and personally thanked me,” Mills says.
When President Kennedy was assassinated, the marching band was included in the funeral procession on Monday, November 25, 1963. It was a bitterly cold day, Mills remembers. “We wore our peacoats and dress hats. Underneath we had as many layers of undergarments as possible.”
The band members assembled at 6 a.m. and were bussed to the U.S. Capitol. They waited in the cold until JFK’s body was removed from the rotunda and placed on a military caisson. About 10:30 a.m., the band began marching the route to the White House. From there, they marched to St. Matthew’s Cathedral and waited for the hour-long mass to end.
Their final duty was to march in the magnificent procession of military units to Arlington Cemetery. Since the Navy Band was not included in the graveside services, they marched down a side street inside Arlington’s gates and were bussed back to their starting point. For nearly 10 hours that day, they were constantly on their feet, standing or marching, all without food or benefit of restrooms.
Mills says that 50 percent of the band’s time was spent on the road, as a public relations tool of the U.S. Navy. At the time, there was a new nuclear submarine that the Navy was taking to ports around the world, and they often performed at those events.
Life in Germany and New York City
In 1965, Mills’ enlistment was up, so he left the Navy to follow his new lover, Sam Cannon, to Germany where Mills worked part-time as a cook. Now a civilian again, he won an opportunity to study under conductor Herbert von Karajan of the Berlin Philharmonic.
In 1967, at the age of 31, he fell twice and dislocated his wrist. His future as a pianist was over. He dreamed of becoming an opera conductor, but that card was not in the deck that life dealt him. He moved to New York City and began working in restaurants and bars.
Mills quickly distinguished himself, and began managing a restaurant on 13th Street. After the restaurant’s bar became the new “in” place to go, he became friends with Judy Garland, who showed up regularly with such friends as Martha Raye and Kaye Ballard. After closing time, he would join them as they bar-crawled until 5 a.m. in the morning.
In 1970, his partner settled in Houston to sing with the Houston Grand Opera. By this time, Mills was managing the Ice Palace, a wildly popular gay disco in Fire Island’s Cherry Grove. He spent the off-seasons in Houston.
Moving to Houston
In 1973, Mills moved to Houston permanently and found a job as the dining room captain at the Plaza Club. He was then hired by a club corporation to develop new clubs in such places as Chicago, Las Vegas, and Baton Rouge.
By 1977, he wanted to stay full-time in Houston, and was hired by Jim Farmer to manage Mary’s Naturally. This was the beginning of his involvement with LGBT activism.
A small gay band had organized in 1978 and marched in the 1979 March on Washington. The members wanted to do more, and they asked Mills to help them form a symphonic band. He agreed, and the Montrose Symphonic Band was born in 1980.
The year before, Mills had organized the Montrose Singers. The success of an existing San Francisco choir proved that gay choruses could be an effective cultural outreach to the straight community, and Mills wanted to do the same in Houston.
During this time, Marion Coleman was operating her legendary lesbian club, Kindred Spirits. In typical fashion, she offered her bar during off hours as a rehearsal venue.
Mills’ growing involvement and visibility in Houston earned him the honor of 1982 Male Pride Marshal—the same year his friend Coleman was elected Female Pride Marshal. Coleman loves to tell a story of
how their parade car was passing by Mary’s as Mills’ friends on the roof were yelling for him to throw them souvenir doubloons that bore the profiles of Mills and Coleman on them. Several attempts failed before Coleman finally smiled and lobbed a copious supply of the trinkets up to the roof with her softball arm.
In 1985, Mills entered into a relationship with a third partner, whose parents were Baptists. Although they visited once a year and acted cordially, when his partner died in 1988, they literally threw Mills out of the house they had shared. It was a heartbreaking and much-too-common occurrence in those days.
Mills suffered a nervous breakdown, and moved to Los Angeles. He found a job managing a four-star restaurant, and especially enjoyed his friendship with MCCR’s Rev. Troy Perry, who lived in the city.
A New Direction
In 1991, Mills returned to Houston, and was hired on as the dining room captain at the very exclusive Doctors Club in the Medical Center. The late Gary Van Otteghem was the financial director there at the same time.
1994 brought a diagnosis of full-blown AIDS to Mills. He was approved for disability income, and regretfully retired from the active and involved lifestyle that he so loved. For the next two years, he tried working as the bar manager at Renata’s Restaurant before finally accepting the fact that it left him too fatigued.
Mills did have enough strength to work a few hours a week at Resurrection Church’s former location on Decatur Streeet, tending to the yard and planting flowers. He continued this until the church moved in 2000.
In the early 2000s, the Pride Band went through a quick succession of directors, and found themselves faltering. Mills took time to help them plan several events while they regained their footing.
Every four years, the GALA Choruses group that Mills helped create in 1981 holds an international festival, with thousands in attendance. Mills has always made it a point to be there. The next festival will be in July 2016 in Denver.
Mills also enjoys leisurely afternoons now and then, socializing at famiiar clubs such as Brick and EJ’s. And Mills tries never to miss any performance by the Pride Band or the Gay Men’s Chorus. He utilizes a portable oxygen unit on his trips away from his apartment.
“My life has been exciting—the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met,” says Mills. His love for music endures because he sees music as the great unifier. “If everyone in the world sang and played an instrument, we’d never have any more wars.”
What: A Concert and Tribute to Andy Mills
When: January 31, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, 2025 West 11th St.
Details: Donations accepted
Brandon Wolf also writes about Urvashi Vaid in this issue of OutSmart magazine.