Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Swingin' with the Andrews Sisters (part 1)

Dear Muse,

Some time ago, my cousin Siena expressed an interest in the Andrews Sisters.

Since this comes from a girl whose interests range from k.d. lang to Gregorian bell chants, I responded thus:

Still, I'm glad she brought it up, because the Andrews Sisters are well worth remembering. (And seeing how almost nobody I know today does remember them, it's even more critical that I pay homage to them here.) This upcoming trio of posts will be focused on the time the musical trio made their BIGGEST hits: the late '30s through mid-'40s. (Of course they kept performing for decades after, but their most beloved songs came from this particular era.) And, although the posts are for everyone to read, I will begin with this statement:

"Dedicated (with deepest affection) to Siena, whose tastes are sometimes even more eclectic than mine." 

Swingin' with the Andrews Sisters (part 1)

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

A bright beginning

You can't think of the Andrews Sisters today without remembering hits like "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," and "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)." Nor can you think of them without remembering WWII. In those dark and desperate years, "the Girls" - Patty, Maxene, and LaVerne - became symbols of hope. Their mellifluous melodies and infectious enthusiasm buoyed GIs and radio-listeners alike, encouraging them to continue their struggle against the Axis Powers. Thanks to their music, the Andrews Sisters became one of the best-loved "girl groups" in history.

But what made the Andrews Sisters so unique? After all, it's not like they were the only girl group of the swingin' thirties and forties - the Boswell SistersPickens Sisters, Barry Sisters, King Sisters and Dinning Sisters were also competing for fame. What did Patty, Maxene and LaVerne have to make them stand out from the rest?

One theory is their versatility. According to John Sforza, author of Swing It! The Andrews Sisters Story, the Andrews Sisters' success could easily be explained by how masterfully they managed different tunes:

...the trio had major hits with nearly all types of music, and they handled different rhythms with ease. They sang swing, boogie-woogie, eight-to-the-bar, country-western, folk, calypso, ragtime, blues, ballads, inspirational, gospel, seasonal favorites, and a host of songs derived from or based upon Yiddish, Italian, Irish, French, Czechoslovakian, Russian, Swedish, Spanish, Brazilian, and Mexican melodies. (Swing It! 11. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000. Print.)

Another theory is their "cohesive harmony and perfectly timed vocal syncopations" (29-30), as well as their "more modern and conventional style" (30). Still, I personally think that what set the Andrews Sisters apart was their cheeriness. 

Source: via Ariel on Pinterest

No matter what song they were singing, the Girls radiated cheeriness to the utmost. Every song they touched turned happy. As Sforza put it, "there was an innate desire instilled in all three sisters to please their audiences, to be happy and to inspire happiness through their music" (13). Not only did they try to sound optimistic all the time, they also did their best to make others feel optimistic too. Under the Andrews Sisters' magic touch, the saddest ballads became bright melodies. Under their influence, tragedy was resolved and hope restored. 

While humorist James Thurber mocked "Andrews' Ready Relief" for spreading unnecessary sunshine in intentionally tragic songs (see his chapter "Take Her Up Tenderly" from Thurber Country), the rest of the country didn't mind. With a Great Depression going on, Americans liked a girl group that could cheer them up. As it turned out, the new sound of "Andrews' Ready Relief" was just what America needed at the time. That cheeriness was what cast the trio into the spotlight and kept them there until America's entry into WWII. 

And now for the songs themselves! To begin with, here are several of the Andrews Sisters' first great hits, including the song that started it all: "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön."

(Although the songs in this set of posts are mostly from the Andrews Sisters' Top 30 Hits, I may not include all the hits that you might associate with the Girls. The following songs are just the ones I like best.)

1. "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" (Hits of '37)

Until 1937, the Girls had tried their talents in vaudeville shows with little success. Their former lack of success made the surprise even greater when "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" became an overnight smash hit. As Sforza observed, the song "took the girls from vaudeville obscurity and rocketed them to stardom" (29). The song is a translated Yiddish tune, meaning "To Me, You Are Beautiful." It's a great example of how versatile Patty, Maxene and LaVerne were.


2. "Oh Ma-Ma" (Hits of '38)

This is a fun little ditty - a bit catty, very like gossipy sisters (which is kind of fitting for this trio). Italian this time. 

3. "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar" (Hits of '40)

By 1940, the Andrews Sisters had tried many different music forms, from swing to boogie-woogie. Now, they introduced a new form to the public: eight-to-the-bar. Leonard Maltin described their landmark recording in these terms:

‘Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar’ was a reflection of the growing popularity in jazz circles of boogie-woogie music. But no one had yet turned this piano phenomenon […] into a vehicle for a popular song, or even thought about adding lyrics to the rolling rhythm of boogie. ‘Beat Me Daddy’ was such a hit that it launched a tidal wave of boogie songs, many of which the girls recorded. (qtd. in Sforza, 12)

More to come tomorrow! Next we'll get into the trio's wartime hits.


*Photos courtesy of John Sforza, unless otherwise cited.

No comments:

Post a Comment