Patty Andrews, the last of the legendary Andrews Sisters, died Jan. 30 at age 94.
Long before her death, she and her sisters Maxene and LaVerne were securely ensconced in Americana, their tight harmonies among the most recognizable musical sounds of the 20th Century. Their career began in the waning years of vaudeville, zenithed during the Golden Age of Hollywood and radio, and twilighted in the early years of television. Some of the greatest names in 20th century show business joined them on record, radio, stage and screen.
Initially their songs appealed to the youthful jitterbugs of the late 1930s, but they eventually won over other generations as they expanded their musical repertoire. They sang, danced, joked and mugged their way into the hearts of America.
I don't remember when I first heard the Andrews Sisters. My family frequently listened to the radio in the late 1930s and some of the sounds I absorbed from that radio were probably those of the Andrews Sisters. In 1938, the sisters recorded a song called "Billy Boy." It never made the charts, although it was a fairly popular song at the time, but "Billy Boy" played an important role in my life because it is the first song I remember singing as a child.
My family spent World War II on an army base in upstate in New York. Like much of America, I fell in love with the Andrews Sisters during the war years. The three singings sisters from Minneapolis had already caught the fancy of the nation before the war began, but the affair was consummated during the war. As Hollywood cranked out movies featuring the sisters singing the boys off to battle or camping it up in comedy escapist fare, the faces of the Andrews Sisters became increasingly familiar to the nation.
Their upbeat songs filled the jukeboxes and distanced their listeners from the tragedies of the war. Live performances at military bases and appearances on the Armed Forces Radio Service personalized them to thousands of enlisted men at home and overseas. Civilians flocked to their theater engagements and saw them at war bond rallies. The Andrews Sisters were part of the family everyone left somewhere during the unsettling times of the warthe sisters back home, the girls next door, the singers of happy songs. Their wide grins, sparkling eyes, unpretentious glamour, and self-deprecating humor threatened no one and endeared them to the country at war.
The songs of the Andrews Sisters were everywhere on that army base where I lived. Wherever GIs congregated, jukeboxes blared out their latest records, and the base theater showed their films to packed audiences. One Christmas, probably 1944, the base hospital hosted a party for us kids. I remember a padded Santa Claus with a beard of cotton, but most vividly I remember the program. Three GIs, one with an arm in a sling, wore kerchiefs, make-up and T-shirts stuffed with improbable breasts as they lip-synched "Shoo Shoo Baby" to the delight of the assembled audience. This drag impersonation of the Andrews Sisters was the first of many I would eventually see.
When I returned to small town Iowa after the war, I longed for my days on the army base and found escape in the records and radio shows of the still popular Andrews Sisters. In high school, I was beginning to move away from their music when they split as an act in 1953. When they reunited in 1956, I was in college and much too sophisticated for dated singers of another eraalthough I secretly listened to their old 78s when I returned home for vacations.
I discovered anthropology in the early 1960s and graduate studies consumed much of that decade but I didn't forget the Andrews Sisters. I noted the news items that occasionally featured them, and my ears always pricked up when I heard their old songs on the radio.
Then in 1972 along came Bette Midler's hit recording of the sisters' old song "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and two years later the Andrews Sisters' show Over Here! was packing the Shubert Theater on Broadway. Meanwhile CD collections of their hits began circulating as the revival of interest in the sisters continued during the 1980s and beyond. VCRs of their old movies became available. In 1991, choreographer Paul Taylor introduced Company B, the perennially popular dance piece based on the World War II songs of the Andrews Sisters. All this activity attracted old fans back to the singing sisters and ushered in a new generation of admirers. And then the Internet exploded onto the scene with dozens of sites featuring the sisters' songs, films and performances. A flood of happy memories returned as I joined all this activity, delighted that the favorite singers of my youth were back on the boards.
Throughout my life, the energetic, upbeat songs of the Andrews Sisters have helped me through some difficult times. Whenever I need a lift, I still play their songs, and before long a smile takes over my face, my feet start tapping, my fingers snapping and the world becomes a better, happier place. Thanks Patty, thanks Maxene, thanks LaVerne. We owe you big time.
H. Arlo Nimmo is author of The Andrews Sisters. A Biography and Career Record published by McFarland and Company in 2004. He is professor emeritus of anthropology at California State University East Bay and resides in San Francisco.