By Jack Sharkey, August 24, 2017

 

To the modern ear, recordings of the Andrews Sisters sound quaint, a little boring and simple, but that’s a sad mistake we allow our modern ears to make for us. So much of our current music owes at least a nod to the groundbreaking work of the Andrews Sisters that it’s worth taking some time to look at their legacy.

 

 

Roots

As a teenager, LaVerne (1911-1967) started playing piano to accompany silent films at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis, exchanging her time and talent for dance lessons. She began teaching her younger sisters Maxene (1916-1995) and Patty (1918-2013) close-harmony singing that emulated the sound and style of the Boswell Sisters, a vocal group who was popular in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and before long a culture shift was born.

 

In 1930 the Sisters won a talent competition at the Orpheum and as the Depression hit, the family’s Minneapolis restaurant closed and the three sisters took their act on the road in order to support the family. Joining Larry Rich’s traveling variety show in 1932, they performed in almost 1,000 shows in an eleven month period. Playing vaudeville theaters across the country, fourteen year-old Patty was heavily made-up to make her look older in order to avoid complaints to the Labor Board and the scorn of local child protective services. It was during these years that the sisters honed their singing and dancing act – a happy coincidence that would place them squarely at the forefront of the coming changes in entertainment and politics.

 

By middle of the decade, the grips of the Depression were starting to ease a bit and swing music – featuring horns and jazz rhythms recently developed in places like New Orleans and Manhattan was starting to catch on with the public. Ironically, the Andrews Sisters’ style developed as they emulated the horn sections in the swing bands they were playing with. Vaudeville had helped them develop the ability to sing at the tops of their lungs, which in turn caused great consternation among the band leaders and horn players they worked with. Swing was an instrumental – and over-whelmingly male – musical style, and here were these barely twenty-something girls from Minnesota singing as loud as the horn sections and stealing the spotlight. But their talent and appeal was undeniable and before long even the biggest swing bands of the day were gladly sharing the stage with the Andrews girls.

 

  

Swing Time

In 1936 the Sisters were touring with Leon Belasco’s orchestra and enjoying a month-long residency at the New Yorker hotel in the heart of Manhattan – the heart of swing. Later in the year they performed on a live radio program. Jack Kapp, the founder of Decca Records, heard them Best of the Andrews Sistersand invited them to join his label. After a few mildly successful singles they cut Gershwin’s Nice Work If You Can Get It as an A-side with an obscure Yiddish song Bei Mir, Mist Du Schon on the B-side. The B-side was unusual in several ways: The popular style of the day was instrumental Big Band swing with a few crooners here and there but this song was deeply ethnic and unlike the currently popular tempos and rhythms. Those two facets combined to turn a throw-away recording sung phonetically into a monster hit – even by today’s standards. The Andrews Sisters were now a national act and Kapp convinced them to record more ethnically-based songs to garner more attention. Beer Barrel Polka was recorded by the Sisters at the insistence of Kapp (they hated the song, thinking it was too simple and beneath their musicianship), and it too became a monster hit.

 

 

The War Years

As the 1930s came to a close, the Andrews Sisters were the most popular singers in the country and the winds of war were blowing at gale force in Europe. Capitalizing on their fame, the Sisters moved to Los Angeles in 1940 to begin a film career. Their first movie Argentine Nights, was an embarrassment to the Sisters and critics alike, but audiences across the country looked beyond the horrible script, clothes and make-up and made the movie a minor hit.

 

America was not at war yet, but the culture was beginning to embrace the inevitable, and in early 1941 the Sisters joined Abbott and Costello for the hit Buck Privates.  The War Musical was born and at this moment the Andrews Sisters became an integral part of 20th Century American culture. A short 11 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Andrews Sisters featured their iconic Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy and In Apple Blossom Time in the film. Both songs were instant hits, but it was the way the Sisters appeared that would change their fortunes: Wearing tailored military-style uniforms, the Andrews Sisters became America’s absolute and undeniable sweethearts. Serviceman stationed around the world were reminded of family and loved ones back home, while the folks at home embraced the wholesome and sweet nature of these amazingly talented women.

 

Their music was light and cheery and a welcome respite from the dreadful daily news pouring out of Europe and the Pacific. Truly the times made the Andrews Sisters, but without the talent and seasoning they had, the times would have passed them by.

 

The War Years were tremendously grim. Soldiers and sailors had pinups like Bette Grable and Rita Hayworth to cheer them up, but the simple glamor and congenial appeal of the Andrews Sisters ruled the day. In 1944, the Andrews Sisters toured Italy, often playing on makeshift stages with just a guitar or accordion as accompaniment. They were warm and wholesome and a welcome reminder of home – they were America’s sisters and the soldiers and airmen on the front couldn’t get enough of their short respite from the war they were fighting.

 

The Andrews Sisters

As the War ended, they continued to reign supreme in the entertainment world making popular films with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope and recording a string of hits, but as the 1950s dawned music changed with the tastes of post-War youth. As with all huge, money-making acts on the downside of their popularity, their management tried a number of tricks, including making lead singer Patty a solo act, but as rock and roll took over after 1954, the Andrews Sisters were pretty much relegated to the Oldies circuit. But their legacy of innovation and pure talent hasn’t dimmed in the sixty years since.

 

 

The Legacy

Acts as wide ranging as the Beach Boys, the Carpenters, the Pointer Sisters, Bette Midler (who early in her career basically stole Patty Andrews' stage persona), Queen, Manhattan Transfer, Pentatonix and a host of others all owe their careers to the close harmonies and stage act of the Andrews Sisters, but there is an influence on recording technology and rock and roll that is often overlooked.

 

Les Paul and Mary Ford pioneered the method of overdubbing Ford’s vocals in their country and early rock and roll songs that created a sound that was at once new and a throwback to the close harmonies of the Sisters. These over-dubbed vocals became the standard for hits in the 50s and 60s, but without the innovation and incredible abilities of the Andrews Sisters it’s hard to say how the music would have developed or what the timeline would have been.

 

The Supremes started as a close-harmony group but soon took the styles of the Andrews Sisters – close harmony with a lead line taken by Patty for one phrase or measure – and expanded the style, moving the high and low harmony to the background and giving Diana Ross the feature throughout most songs. Soon other acts in the early 60s like Martha and the Vandellas and the Ronettes followed the same course, basically taking what the Andrews Sisters did to the next logical level.

 

Listening to their music and watching their films it’s easy to see a direct line from their vaudeville act in the 1930s and their appeal during World War Two right to the likes of Katy Perry, Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga. Christina Aguilera even took Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy and turned it into a raunchy "homage" in 2006 with Candyman.

  

There have been several re-mastered releases over the years, and even though the recordings are thin and anything but hi-fidelity, the music and harmonies of the Andrews Sisters should be part of every music fan’s library.

 

This video is from a V-Disk produced in 1941. Listen to Patty emulate a muted trumpet at the 2:37 mark.