Monday, September 29, 2008

Brief History of Girl Sibling Harmony Groups (1925 -1959)

Long before the success of the 60s girl groups, female harmony singers enjoyed great popularity from the 20s onwards. The Andrews Sisters would certainly be the best remembered but there were others before them. The popularity of pop music exploded after the Second World War assured The Andrews Sister and their sorority great success. Sibling groups both male and female predated the Jackson Five and Osmonds by decades but they all share one thing in common, they came from a musical family. The Boswell Sisters (1925-1936) were brought up in uptown New Orleans and the trio was made up of Connee (confined to a wheelchair after a childhood accident), Martha and Helvetia (Vet). From their early teens the girls appeared in local theatres and on radio stations before they made their first record in 1925 for Victor Records. When the group moved to New York in 1930 and appeared on national radio their career took off. The Boswell Sisters released records on the Okeh and Brunswick labels, the latter are considered their best vocal jazz works. The group was standout vocalists capable of singing complex arrangements with tempo, key and mood changes and played with the very best jazz musicians in New York including Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, Benny Goodman and many others. The group became so popular they were allowed to change arrangements of popular songs. Until this time this was a practice frowned upon by the music industry. Some of their lyrics were considered racy for the time but the group enjoyed a successful run of hits before they broke up. Although Vet and Martha retired from show business Connee, went on enjoy a mildly-successful solo career. The Boswell Sisters chalked up 20 hits during the 1930s including the number one record "The Object of My Affection" in 1935. Their more popular recordings were made with the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra and they appeared in several movies including "The Big Broadcast," (1932) where they sang "Crazy People" in company with Cab Calloway, Bing Crosby and the Mills Bros. The Boswells were also regulars on Bing Crosby's radio program. Ella Fitzgerald was a fan of the group and based her own singing style on Connee Boswell and The Andrews Sisters started their career as imitators of the Boswell Sisters. Their influence upon female singing groups was profound.

The Pickens Sisters (1932-35) reached national (US) stardom in the 1930s with their own radio show, concert tours and records. The sisters were from Macon, Georgia and their father was a cotton broker who played piano and sang with their. The girls were taught to harmonize at early age and Jane formed a group with sisters, Patti and Helen. At first they sang to entertain friends, and at church and school socials. When the family moved to Park Avenue in Manhattan in 1932 they signed for Victor Records. Promoted as "Three Little Maids From Dixie", they were Victor’s answer to the Boswell Sisters although their music had more ‘pop appeal.’ The girls appeared in Thumbs Up on Broadway and in a movie, Sitting Pretty. The group earned $1 million in five years but dissolved when two Patti and Helen left to get married. Jane Pickens Hoving carried on and sang in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 in a cast that included Fanny Brice and Gypsy Rose Lee. In 1940 she played opposite Ed Wynn in Boys and Girls Together on Broadway." In 1949 she won acclaim for starring in the lead of Regina, the musical version of The Little Foxes. At her peak she was considered to be the most beautiful woman on Broadway with a voice and frequently performed benefits for charitable causes, including events for orphans, hospitals, youths, veterans and the disabled. She had her own television show in 1954 but as her singing career faded she dedicated herself to raising money for charities and became an accomplished artist. Eventually, Jane became a prominent Newport socialite and divided time between Park Avenue (NYC) and Bellevue Avenue.

The King Sisters (1931 - 59) were brought up in Oakland with their father William ‘King’ Driggs, a professor of music and voice teacher. To supplement the family income the Driggs performed as a travelling family orchestra while the children were young. The oldest girls, Maxine, Luise, and Alyce (alto), formed a vocal trio at high school and performed in the Oakland area. The Driggs Sisters debuted on Oakland radio station KLX and performed three times a week, with their brother Karleton (piano accompanist). In 1932, the family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, and the girls became regulars on KSL. Influenced by The Boswell Sisters, they sang with perfect intonation and an unfailing sense of rhythm. In 1934 they joined the Horace Heidt orchestra as the King Sisters and were later joined by younger siblings Yvonne (soprano) and Donna, and a friend Anita and as 'The Six King Sisters'. A year later the group was reduced to four when Maxime and Anita left to get married. The new quartet developed a jazz-based four part harmony and became the first female quartet to do so. The King Sisters performed until 1938 they broke up. Artie Shaw asked them to reform in 1939 and they toured and broadcast with his orchestra. Later in the same year they joined the Alvino Rey Orchestra and began recording on Bluebird label (a subsidiary of RCA Records). Now known as 'The Four King Sisters' this body of work is considered to be their best. Donna and Alyce King sang in low harmonies which gave the group a distinctive sound. Unfortunately the group had less commercial success than they perhaps deserved and but by the forties most of their recorded material fell into the novelty category. Due to ‘the Call-Up Draft” the orchestra became depleted and eventually broke up. The King Sisters began working as a separate act and between 1941 and 1945 they had thirteen hits including "It's Love, Love, Love, ""I'll Get By", "The Hut-Sut Song", "San Fernando Valley" and "Candy". They also appeared in several movies including Cross Your Fingers (1941), Sing Your Worries Away (RKO - 1942), Larceny With Music (1943 - Universal), Follow The Band (1943), Meet The People (1944), Cuban Pete (1945) and On Stage Everybody (1945). Throughout the end of the forties and fifties, the girls dropped the 'Four' from their name and became 'The King Sisters' again. They continued to record into the early sixties. Long after the King Sisters stopped performing they kept themselves busy with their families and continued to keep an interest in the industry.

The most successful female group in the history of popular music was The Andrews Sisters (1932 -1959) who came from Minnesota. Patty (lead soprano) was seven years old when the sisters, LaVerne Sophie Andrews (contralto or bass), and Maxene Angelyn Andrews (second soprano) started the group. Soon they were winning local talent contests and although they did imitations of the Boswell Sisters eventually they developed their own style. In 1932, they began singing accompanied by the Larry Rich Orchestra and toured the Midwest, performing in vaudevilles. In 1936 they joined Leon Belasco's society orchestra and started working with Vic Schoen, who later became their musical director. The sisters sang in close harmony yet belted out their songs from the top of their lungs. This gave them their sound of a blare of three harmonizing trumpets. Most big band leaders saw this as a perfect adjunct to swing but other was critical of the girls’ style. Their first major break came in 1937 when they were discovered by Dave Kapp who signed them to Decca Records. They recorded Bei Mir Bist du Schoen (To me, you are beautiful) which was a Yiddish tune and when it was released in 1938 it became the first million selling record for an all-female group. Over the next two years a string of best-selling records and performed with nearly all of the major big bands, including Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Buddy Rich, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Gene Krupa, Joe Venuti, Freddie Slack, Eddie Heywood, Bob Crosby (Bing's brother), Desi Arnaz, Guy Lombardo, Les Brown, Bunny Berigan, Xavier Cugat, Paul Whiteman, Ted Lewis, Nelson Riddle and Gordon Jenkins. The Andrews Sisters become firm favourites all over the world adored by teenagers and young adults engrossed in swing and jazz music. When the US entered the War The Andrews Sisters became the troops’ sweethearts and the girls worked tirelessly throughout the war entertaining them. The Andrews Sisters recorded a series of Victory Discs (V-Discs) which were distribution only to Allied fighting forces. Their war work was voluntary and the girls earned the title "Sweethearts of the Armed Forces Radio Service.” The girls hosted their own radio shows for ABC & CBS from 1944-1951 and their vocal versatility allowed them to pair with many different artists including Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Dick Haymes, Carmen Miranda, Al Jolson, Ray McKinley, Burl Ives, Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Dan Dailey, Alfred Apaka, and Les Paul. The Andrews Sisters were known for swing, boogie-woogie, and novelty hits but they also produced major hits in jazz, ballads, folk, country-western, seasonal, and religious titles. By the mid-1950s the sisters had recorded over 400 songs, including 6 chart toppers countless gold discs, and had appeared in 17 Hollywood films. In 1952 Patty left to go solo and Maxene and LaVerne tried to continue the act as a duo. The sisters reunited in 1956 and signed a contract with Capitol Records. They continued to perform together for another decade until Laverne died in 1967. Throughout their long career, the sisters had sold over well over 75 million records.

The Dinning Sisters (1935 -1955) were brought up in a musical family in Oklahoma where their father was a farmer and musical director in his local church. Their mother played the organ and the family sang together from an early age. Twins, Eugenia (lead) and Virginia (soprano) and older sibling, Lucille (Lou) formed at the group. The twins took the stage names Ginger and Jean and the quartet proved so popular and soon progressed to local radio with their own show. In 1935, the Dinning Sisters toured with Herbie Holmes and his band before moving to Chicago where they signed with the NBC radio network. The group had seven successful years there and became the highest paid radio act in the city. The girls frequently guested on other network shows and consummate performers they continued as a popular cabaret act. The Dinning Sisters featured in a movie with Ozzie Nelson's orchestra called "Strictly In The Groove." Their glamorous appearance and superb singing ensured a long movie career. Being from the country, they had a large country repertoire and became regulars on ‘National Barn Dance’ Saturday night radio program. Whilst in Hollywood the Dinning Sisters signed with Capitol Records and enjoyed tremendous success with their first album. The group’s phrasing, enunciation and perfect blend of harmony was ideal for ballads and this gave them their commercial success. Lou left the group in 1946 to get married before starting her own solo career. Jean Bundesen replaced her and stayed for three years until younger sister, Dolores (stage name Tootsie) took over. The group continued to perform into the 50s but eventually they disbanded. Jean Dinning maintained an active interest in the music business and wrote "Teen Angel" which was a Number One hit in 1960 for her youngest brother Mark Dinning.

The Bagelman sisters (Clara and Minnie) came from the Bronx in New York and sang Yiddish and English swing songs. They later changed their stage name to the Barry Sisters and became Claire and Myrna. The Barry Sisters (1940-1960) were the first girl group to bring popular adaptations of Yiddish folk songs to a mass audience and became leading exponents of Yiddish Swing. The duo was heavily featured on the New York radio show ‘Yiddish Melodies in Swing.’ Their fans considered them to be the "Yiddish answer to the Andrews sisters". Most of their music was arranged by conductor, and composer Abraham Ellstein. The Barry Sisters sang in nine languages and became internationally successful as nightclub performers and recording artists after the war. Throughout their peak the sisters featured regularly on the "Ed Sullivan Show," Jack Paar's show, and "Tonight," and recorded with other noted Jewish singers such as Barbara Streis and and Moishe Oysher.

The DeCastro Sisters (1947 -1954) were formed in 1945 after Peggy, Cherie and Babette DeCastro moved to the US from Cuba. They had enjoyed some success in Cuba but brought a lot of comedy to their act which made them big favourites in the Miami Beach club scene. Their flamboyant nightclub act soon won the patronage of Latin singing star, Carmen Miranda who put them in her film "Copacabana." In 1947, the De Castro Sisters appeared on the first live broadcast of KTLA, a Los Angeles television station and performed "Babalu." Later they dropped the Latin aspect of their act to become mainstream pop artists recording under the Abbott label and released "It's Love" and the flip side "Teach Me Tonight" in 1954. The B side proved popular and began to sell until it sold over 5 million copies to become a huge national hit. The group enjoyed several other hits in the mid fifties, including "Boom Boom Boomerang", "Too Late Now," "Snowbound for Christmas," "Give Me Time" and "Cowboys Don't Cry." By mid 1955 the sisters were becoming mainstays on the Las Vegas club circuit. The De Castro Sisters also featured as background singers on "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." Babette retired in 1958 and was replaced by her cousin, Olgita DeCastro Marino.

Jinny Osborn formed The Chordettes (1949-61) with Virginia Cole (stage name Janet Ertel), Carol Buschmann, and Dorothy Schwartz in the early forties. Jinny was very influenced by her father and although they started as folk singers they soon adapted traditional barbershop arrangements (cappella) for women's voices. After performing locally in Sheboygan, they won on Arthur Godfrey's radio program Talent Scouts in 1949. The Chrodettes held feature status for the next four years on the daily program and then recorded for Columbia Records. In 1952 Lynn Evans replaced Schwartz and in 1953 Margie Needham replaced Osborn who took time off for having a baby. Nancy Overton also was a member of the group at a later time. Archie Bleyer founded Cadence Records in 1953 and signed the Chordettes. The Chordettes sound was mainstream pop, though they flirted with the new rock music and their vocal style and arrangements, though not strictly vertical, they were distinctly influenced by barbershop theory. The group began a long partnership with arranger/producer Archie Bleyer and became one of the most popular girl groups of the era enjoying 13 hits. Their biggest was Mr. Sandman in 1954. The Chordettes appeared on the first American Bandstand as well as many popular radio and television shows throughout the time period of the groups’ success. The demise of The Chordettes came after Jinny Osborn left the group in 1961 and a suitable replacement could not be found.

The McGuire family grew up in Miamisburg, Ohio and sang in the church choir. Their mother was the ordained minister and the sibling group was made of Christine, Dorothy and Phyllis McGuire. By 1949 the girls were performing at church functions and military bases. They soon incorporated more popular songs and came to began to show potential. In 1952 the sibling group won a spot on the "Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts" show and replaced regulars, the Chordettes. The McGuire Sisters (1952 – 1959) stayed with the show for six years. Their close harmonies a low tessitura in the female range and vocals blended easily to make pleasant listening. The group enjoyed many hits throughout the 50s and beyond and were a popular cabaret act in all the prime venues. They were employed by Coca-Cola and received the highest fee in advertising history up to that time. At their peak in the late sixties The McGuire Sisters decided to call it a day. Phyllis continued with a solo career and Dorothy and Christine retired to spend time with their families. Phyllis McGuire had a close relationship with gangster Sam Giancana, this later became the subject of a movie entitled “Sugartime” (1995). The group did reform in the mid eighties and continue to perform.

The Clark Sisters (also known as The Sentimentalists) started singing in the 40s, Ann, Jean, Peggy and Mary had several chart hits including “ Sugar Blues.” They had an uncanny ability to mimic musical instruments. Prior to becoming the Clark Sisters the girls recorded with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra as the "Sentimentalists.”

The Lennon Sisters came from Los Angeles and the lineup was Dianne (lead), Peggy (high harmony), Kathy (low harmony) , and Janet Lennon (Middle harmony). The girls sang at high school and were introduced to Lawerence Welk via his son, Larry. The girls got their first break on The Lawrence Welk Show in 1955 and remained the mainstay of the show for thirteen years. The girls dubbed "America's Sweethearts of Song," sang in beautiful harmony and had a natural charm which soon endeared them to the viewers. The Lennon sisters had a couple of hits Tonight, You Belong To Me (1956) and Sad Movies (Make Me Cry) (1961). They recorded for several labels including Brunswick Records and they later recorded on Coral, Dot, Ranwood and Mercury. The group continued to perform well into the 80s.

The Bell Sisters (1951-59) were a school girl acapella duo made up of Cynthia Strother (16) and Kay Strother (aged 11). Bell was their mother’s name and in 1951 they appeared on a Los Angeles TV talent show called "Peter Potter's Search for a Song" with almost instant success. Self penned “Bermuda" arranged by Henri Rene sold over 1,000,000 copies and gave the girls a massive hit. Other minor hits followed including "Wheel of Fortune" and "Hambone" for the ‘Bermuda Kids” but none as commercially successful as their first hit. They appeared on many popular radio and television programs, including the Johnny Carson Show, the Colgate Comedy Hour, the Frank Sinatra Show, the Perry Como Show and the Dinah Shore Show. During the school breaks they took their act on the road and performed in New York, Montreal, Dallas, Maryland, Las Vegas and Reno. The girls appeared in several movies including Columbia’s "Cruisin' Down the River" (1953), Paramount’s "Those Redheads from Seattle" and Universal’s "Les Brown Goes to Town.” After their peak in 1952-1953, the Bell Sisters continued to perform around the United States at state fairs and by doing charity telethons for several years. Cynthia and Kay eventually gave up show business.

The De John Sisters was duo from Pennsylvania Julie and Dux De John (born DiGiovanni) were the daughters of a dry cleaner and worked in their parents' store after school. They sang in a local club and were discovered by a scout who worked for Epic Records, a subsidiary label of Columbia. Their first record was "Should I Run?" which was not a hit, but their next release, "(My Baby Don't Love Me) No More," written by the sisters with music by their brother Leo, became a major hit. In the late fifties they moved to the parent Columbia label, and made at least one single for United Artists Records and one for a small independent label, Sunbeam Records. The De Johns recorded "A Kiss And A Rose", "D'Ja Hear What I Say", "Pass The Plate Of happiness Around" and "He Loves Me" with Dougherty's Cafe Singers, and "C'est La Vie". In 1956 they recorded the seasonal tunes "The Only Thing I Want For Christmas" and "That's How Santa Claus Will Look This Year". The De John Sisters wrote many of their songs. They were one of the few girl groups to successfully hold their own with rock’n’roll and tailored their music for a more adult audience. They continued to record with "The Man With The Blue Guitar" and "Hotta Chocolatta", and "In My Innocence" and "Big D". By the late nineteen fifties they went back to Columbia Records for "Mu Cha Cha" and "Mah Little Baby (Shortnin Bread)", and "Don't Promise Me” in 1957. There was a record for United Artists with "Yes Indeed" and "Be Anything (But Be Mine)" on # 213, and finally a remake of Nat Cole's mid forties tunes "Straighten Up And Fly Right" and "The Wrong Guy" for independent Sunbeam Records on # 106. Not much more was heard from the de John Sisters on record, and the memories might have dimmed over the years.

The Fontaine Sisters (Marge, Bea and Geri Fontaine) were from New Jersey. Had a couple of hits with Perry Como before solo success. They recorded successful cover version of R & B and rock songs giving them the close harmony treatment. Inevitably however the trio’s popularity dipped as more record buyers preferred the original versions.

The Marlin Sisters vocalized in a great number of styles, and some of their recorded efforts were quite successful. They provided vocals on many popular recordings including “You can’t be true dear” with Eddie Fisher; "Blue Skirt Waltz" by Frankie Yankovic and his Yanks; "Jack On St. Clair Polka" with Eddie Habat and his Orchestra; and “Lonely little robin “with The Pinetoppers. The Marlin Sisters also recorded a number of songs with the big band of Ralph Marterie for Mercury. They also recorded songs in Yiddish with Nat Spencer and the band of Sam Medoff. In 1951, The Marlin Sisters sang on a number of different record labels "Bell Bottom Polka" and "The Tennessee Warbler" on Mercury. For London Records there was "Mockingbird Hill" and "The Girl I Left Behind", "Music In My Heart" and "The Metro Polka".

The Beverley Sisters were the trio and consisted of eldest sister Joy with twins, "Teddie" and "Babs" (Babette). Their style was loosely modeled on that of the Andrews Sisters and their UK hits included "Sisters", "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "Little Drummer Boy". They were the first UK female group to break into the U.S. top 10 with Greensleeves (1957). The dress alike sisters were widely credited as being the highest paid female entertainers in the UK for more than a twenty year period. They officially retired in 1967 but continued to make comebacks in concerts and matinee shows in the United Kingdom.

Worth a listen

The Andrews Sisters
Bei mir bist Du schön (1937)
Beer Barrel Polka (Roll Out the Barrel) (1939)
Ferryboat Serenade (La Piccinina) (1940)
Beat Me, Daddy, Eight to the Bar (1940)
Pistol Packin' Mama (recorded with Bing Crosby 1943)
Shoo Shoo Baby (1943)
Is You Is Or Is You Ain't (Ma' Baby?) (recorded with Bing Crosby 1944)
There'll Be a Hot Time in the Town of Berlin (When the Yanks Go Marching In) (recorded with Bing Crosby 1944)
Don't Fence Me In (recorded with Bing Crosby 1944)
Rum and Coca-Cola (1944)
Near You (1947)
I Can Dream, Can't I? (recorded with Gordon Jenkins & his orchestra 1949)
I Wanna Be Loved (recorded with Gordon Jenkins & his orchestra 1950)
Have I told you lately that I love you (recorded with Bing Crosby 1950)

The Barry Sisters
Hava Nagila (הבה נגילה)
Roumania, (Rumania, Rumania)

The Bell Sisters
Bermuda (1952)

The Beverley Sisters
I saw mummy kissing Santa Clause (1953)
The little drummer boy (1953)

The Bothwell Sisters
Shout, Sister, Shout!
The Object Of My Affection

The Chordettes
Mr Sandman (1954)
Born to be with you (1956)
Lollipop (1958)
Teenage Goodnight (1956)
Lay Down Your Arms (1956)
The Wedding (1956)
Born To Be With You (1956)
Eddie My Love (1956)
Just Between You and Me (1957)
Soft Sands (1957)
Lollipop (1958)
Zorro (1958)
A Girl's Work Is Never Done (1959)
No Other Arms, No Other Lips (1959)
Faraway Star (1961)
Never On Sunday (1961)

De Castro Sisters
Teach me tonight (1954)
Boom Boom Boomerang (1955)

The Dejohn Sisters
(My baby don’t love me) no more (1955)

The Dinning Sisters
Buttons and Bows (1948)
Once in a while (1950)

Fontaine Sisters
Hoop-de-hoop (recorded with Perry Como 1950)
You’r just in love (recorded with Perry Como 1951)
Hearts of stone (1954)
Seventeen (1955)

The King Sisters
It's Love, Love, Love
I'll Get By
The Hut-Sut Song
San Fernando Valley

The McGuire Sisters
Goodnight sweetheart goodnight (1954)
Muskrat Ramble (1954)
Sincerely (1955)
Something’s gotta give (1955)
He (1955)
Picnic (1956)
Sugartime (1957)
May You Always (1958)
Achoo-Cha-Cha (1958)
Compromise (1959)

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