by Johnnie Grant –
Asheville native Aaron “Electric Man” Mills will play at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium October 6, 2018.
Aaron Mills is a renowned bassist, singer, songwriter, and producer, and his deep local roots helped him achieve his success.
He has played with renowned soul and gospel acts since his youth, performed as part of Cameo for 30 years, and recently came off a year-long residency at the Westgate Hotel in Las Vegas (2016-17).
Now, with Cameo taking a month off, Mills is doing his own mini-tour, travelling across the country with his own pick-up band of top-notch sidemen and studio musicians.
Growing up in Asheville, and as a student at Asheville High, where he played the trumpet, Aaron watched his father—a jazz saxophonist who once played with Lionel Hampton—manage an eight-piece band. Even as a teen he performed with The Antiques in the band’s regional appearances, often for a whole weekend.
The Antiques played sold-out shows and became the premier backing band whenever touring soul acts like Sam & Dave and Joe Tex came to his hometown. Aaron’s first professional tour was with Chuck Jackson, an R&B singer signed to Motown and Scepter Records; he also recorded with Southern soul man Willie Hobbs. Those experiences piqued his interest in session work, and were his launching pad to a career in the music business.
As a student at NC Central University in Durham, he met trumpeter Donald Byrd, who was starting a jazz program at the university. Byrd assembled a septet dubbed New Central Connection Unlimited (N.C.C.U.), 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.
N.C.C.U. sometimes shared billing with Cameo, and a 1978 Mills performance impressed Cameo founder Larry Blackmon enough to invite him to join the combo as its bassist. Mills flew to New York the next day, rehearsed for four hours, and was playing 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 briefly left Cameo in 1983 to form MCB, with Cameo keyboardist Thomas “TC” Campbell and trombonist Jeryl Bright, recording singles for Sylvia Robinson’s Sugar Hill label. After two years, he rejoined Cameo, just in time to record Word Up, which shot the group 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.
Cameo continued to record and tour through the 1990s, and in 2000 Mills joined sound engineer Shy Boy in the studio of Atlanta Hip-Hop duo OutKast to record a bass line for “Ms. Jackson” and “So Fresh, So Clean.” He also played bass on eight other tracks on Stankonia and Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, including Grammy-winning singles “The Whole World” and “Hey Ya!”
Over the years Mills has played sessions for Cee-Lo Green, Bubba Sparxxx and Gwen Stefani recordings; in 2006 he produced bluesman Bobby Hinton’s Liquor House Roots album; and in 2016 released his own hit single, “Independent.” And, like any musician with deep gospel roots, he still plays in church at Durham’s MJT Ministries whenever he’s off the road.
Now, with Cameo taking off the month of October, Mills is excited to have a chance to perform in his hometown.
The Big Funk Festival 2018 takes place Saturday, October 6, 2018 at the US Cellular Center in the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, 87 Haywood Street in Asheville. For tickets, contact the US Cellular Center Box Office, (828) 259-5736, or visit uscellularcenterasheville.com.