The Andrews Sisters were by far the most successful female group of the pre-rock era. Patty (1920), Maxene (1917), and LaVerne (1915) grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Patty was only 11 when the trio caught the show business bug following a nervous first performance in a 1931 singing contest. LaVerne was especially hooked and convinced her sisters to leave school and travel the vaudeville circuit. Inspired by the harmonies and sound of the Boswell Sisters, the Andrews girls began as imitators but eventually developed their own clean, fresh, and unique vocal sound.
In the fall of 1933, while performing in a Minneapolis kiddie revue, the trio came to the attention of bandleader Larry Rich, who took them on the road to perform in a vaudeville show. Though none of the sisters could read music, their collective ears were so well tuned they could pick up a song just by hearing one or two plays. This expertise earned them a dollar a day from Rich (for all three girls). The group stayed with Rich for 18 months before moving on to Joey Howard’s troupe for seven months. Then, in rapid succession, they played with Ted Mack’s band, Murray Sherman’s orchestra (who paid them the enormous sum of $35 a week), and Leon Blasco’s band in 1936. The tour ended when the Mayfair Club in Kansas City burned to the ground, sending their arrangements and costumes up in smoke. Blasco went to New York for new charts and costumes; he returned with Vic Schoen, who would become the trio’s orchestra leader and arranger for decades to come. The band continued to tour, returning to New York in 1937, where it played the New Yorker Hotel until Blasco disbanded the outfit.
Returning to Minneapolis, the sisters had barely unpacked when the desire hit them again to make a go of it in New York. But this time their parents disapproved, so a bargain was struck in which the girls could go ion the condition that if they didn’t make it by the end of the summer they’d return home to stay.
Once back in New York they met a music publisher named Bernie Pollack of Mills Music at the New Yorker Hotel, who let them use his office to rehearse their act. (The New Yorker was one of numerous hotels where music publishers plied their latest songs. If a bandleader liked a tune and played it on one of the many radio shows broadcast from hotels like the New Yorker, the song could earn vast sums of money in airplay performance and subsequent sheet music sales.)
Along with Mama Andrews’ blessings came a 15 cent a day allowance for food, which was almost always spent at Hector’s Cafeteria. That King’s ransom bought the girls a sandwich and coffee that they split three ways.
The summer deadline was approaching, and work opportunities were scarce. One day, while the girls were rehearsing at Pollack’s office, Vic Schoen arrived with the news that he was now working with the Billy Swanson Band at the Edison Hotel. He convinced Swanson to listen to the girls, but after one chorus of “Sleepytime Down South” Swanson told them he wasn’t interested. Dismayed and upset, the girls began to leave the Edison Hotel through the dining room when a woman sitting in a booth noticed their distress and asked what happened. The lady was on Maria Cramer, and after hearing the girls’ story she confronted Swanson, asking why he wouldn’t give the girls a chance to sing on his radio show. Swanson said he couldn’t afford them, but Miss Cramer pressed on, asking ”Well what can you afford?” The beleaguered bandleader said $15, $5 each, to which Maxene responded, “We’ll take it!” Swanson was stuck. After all, Maria Cramer was the owner of the Edison Hotel.
When the trio showed up that Saturday to perform, they found that their staunch ally, Mrs. Cramer, had been called back to Brazil to be with her ailing husband. Left in the hands of Billy Swanson, they were lucky to get to sing the one song they performed on radio that night (“Sleepytime Down South” once again) before being unceremoniously canned. Meanwhile across town, Decca Records president Dave Kapp was riding home in a cab, listening with interest to the Andrews clan’s radio debut.
On Sunday the girls returned to the Edison to bid farewell to Vic Schoen; the Cinderella sisters’ carriage of dreams was to turn into a pumpkin the next day, the deadline for the return home. Suddenly a young man burst into the soda fountain area where the girls and Vic were perched on stools. He asked Vic is he knew the names of those girls who sang on the radio the previous night, because Decca’s Dave Kapp wanted to audition them. The trio whirled around on their stools as if in a Busby Berkeley musical and announced “We’re the girls!”
At nine a.m. Monday they auditioned with seven songs (including, yet again, “Sleepytime Down South”) and won Dave Kapp over. Now, instead of returning home, they were signed to Decca for $50 a record. (The young man Kapp had sent to find the sisters was theatrical agent Lou Levy, whose keen ear for hit songs would play an important part in the trio’s development.)
The Andrew’s first single was “Why Talk About Love” (1937), which received little public attention. Then Lou dug up a song from the 1933 Yiddish musical I Would If I Could. The song went by the unlikely title of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon,” and its January 1938 Decca release proved Levy to be a crafty song plugger: it went to number one on the Best Seller charts. And if that weren’t enough to make Lou and the girls a team, his marriage to Maxene certainly was.
Their next single, “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (#12) from A Damsel in Distress, hit the charts on January 8th, just one week after “Bei Mir,” and it was the first one of their many releases of associated with films. In all, they had nine chart singles in 1938. As if their hits weren’t keeping them busy enough, they performed on WBBM radio in Chicago five days a week and then flew to New York to record each weekend.
By the end on 1938 the sisters were earning $1,000 a week at the New York Paramount doing seven shows a day. In 1939 they had six chart records, including “Hold Tight Hold Tight” (#2). Their hits ran the gamut of international melodies in those first recording years, including Yiddish (“Joseph Joseph,” # 18, 1938), Latin American (Say SiSi,” #4, 1940), Italian (The Woodpecker Song,” # 6, 1940), Russian (Pross-Tchai Goodbye,” #15, 1939) and even Czechoslovakian (Beer Barrel Polka,” #4 1939).
Late in that year they began an association that became a career within a career: the girls had the first of 23 singles credited to Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters.
In 1940 they racked up seven more hits under their own name, including their second number one record, “Ferryboat Serenade.”
When war broke out The Andrews Sisters joined the star-laden victory caravan traveling via special train to entertain the soldiers. The three “jive bombers,” as they were affectionately described by servicemen, played more army, navy marine and air force bases than any other vocal group. They also sang on a variety of Armed Forces Radio shows and made many special recordings sent directly to U.S. forces overseas. Signed to Universal Film Studios, the girls performed in a number of wartime musicals including Follow the Boys, Private Buckaroo, Buck Privates in the Navy and Swing Time Johnny.
They also appeared in the film Hollywood Canteen, singing their 1944 hit “Don’t Fence Me In” with Bing Crosby (which followed “A Hot Time in the Town of Berlin,” also with Bing and also a number one record). During the war years the Andrews racked up an incredible 38 Billboard best-sellers, including nine with Crosby.
Though not their biggest hit, the singers’ best remembered work is the frantically paced 1941 pop-jazz classic “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (#6), it’s fame due in part to an excellent hit remake (#8) by Bette Midler some 32 years later.
By the end of the war, the Andrews trio had sold over 30 million records and were back playing the New York Paramount, only this time around they were earning $20,000 a week. They continued to record for six more years, issuing head-turning titles such as “Strip Poker” (#6), “Is You or Is You Ain’t My Baby: (#2), “Get Your Kicks On Route 66” (#14, “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” (#2), and “Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat” (#10). The postwar years were good to The Andrews Sisters: they hit the Billboard Best Seller list with 51 additional 78s between 1946 and 1951, including 12 more Crosby collaborations. Bing, however, wasn’t the only vocalist the girls supported on record. They also backed up Danny Kaye (Civilization,” 3), Dick Haymes (“Theresa,” #21), Burl Ives (Blue Tail Fly,” #12), Earnest Tubb (“I’m Bitin’ My Fingernails and Thinkin’ of You,” #30), and others.
Even the musicians’ union problems of the mid to late ‘40s didn’t put a halt to Andrews Sisters recordings. When they couldn’t get the musicians they needed the girls recorded the “Sabre Dance” in the spring of 1948 with Harmoni-Cats (harmonica players weren’t considered serious musicians, at least until the girls circumvented the union by using them).
By the time they called it quits as a trio in 1951 The Andrews Sisters had amassed a phenomenal 113 chart singles, sold 75 million records, and recorded ore than 1800 songs earning them 19 gold records and eight number ones. By the 1950s, they had appeared in 22 films. Their last number one was “I Want To Be Loved: in the summer of 1950, and the Decca label read just Patty Andrews, although Maxene an LaVerne backed her up.
With the trio disbanded, Maxene taught theatre at a college in Lake Tahoe and formed an organization to help wayward children and drug addicts.
In the mid-‘60s the trio began performing again on television, but activity halted in 1967 when LaVerne died. In 1974 Patty and Maxene appeared before audiences in the nostalgia-packed Broadway hit Over There. Maxene did her first and only solo album in 1985 on Bainbridge Records simply titles Maxene of The Andrews Sisters.
For their professionalism, sound quality, and success, The Andrews Sisters ruled pop music of the ‘30s and ‘40s.
– Jay Warner