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Before bassist/singer/songwriter Aaron Mills hit his teenage years, his father (a jazz saxophonist who once played with Lionel Hampton) 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. 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. He turned his energy toward the bass and took all his time to focus on playing. But his single-minded passion for playing prevented him from holding a regular job.
Mills' first professional tour was with Chuck Jackson, a Pittsburgh R&B singer signed to Motown and Scepter Records. 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. Mills refers to these opportunities as his "launching pad" to continue his work in the music business. He 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 Larry Blackmon.
After New Central 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. Cameo's rhythm section—Mills on bass and Blackmon on drums—became one of its trademarks. Mills' energetic nature helped fuel Cameo's wild shows, another of its calling cards. 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. After MCB, Mills recorded a few singles for Sylvia Robinson's Sugar Hill label and eventually rejoined Cameo in 1985. This 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.
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 Aaron and Cameo's sound engineer Shy Boy ended up in the studio of Atlanta hip-hop duo OutKast to record a bassline for "Ms. Jackson" and "So Fresh, So Clean." 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.
As Mills' Cameo engagements have become more sporadic, he's found more time to engage his musical passion through other avenues. 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. 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. 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. He still plays at church, too: two services—8 and 11 a.m.—at Durham's MJT Ministries, whenever he's off the road.