That the McGuire Sisters rose to fame in the early 1950s was little surprise to anyone at the time. The fact that they remained in the spotlight and carried the torch for traditional pop music for more than half a century continually amazed — and delighted — music historians.
To say that it was little surprise that they achieved fame does not imply that they didn’t work hard or that fame was in some way easy. What was “easy” was the way the trio made themselves so embraceable to the American public. Throughout the 1940s Americans could count on a steady stream of harmonious hits from the Andrews Sisters. As that sister act splintered in the 1950s, the McGuire girls stepped forward to fill their shoes. America wasn’t quite ready for rock and roll, so the traditional pop style hummed along.
Sisters Christine (born 1926), Dorothy (1928) and Phyllis (1931) began harmonizing at their Middletown, Ohio church in the mid-1930s. As time went on they began to perform at other churches and functions, and eventually began appearing at Army base dances. By the late 1940s, as the Andrews Sisters were waning, and the McGuires were looking for a break.
That break came in the form of Arthur Godfrey, who put the McGuire Sisters on his Talent Scouts program in 1952. Once they were introduced to America on the new mass media called television, the McGuires rocketed to fame — literally overnight. A record deal followed, and their first national release, the forgettable “Pine Tree, Pine Over Me” scored reasonably well on the pop charts in 1954.
The McGuire Sisters were perfectly suited for the Eisenhower years. Popular music had become more polished by the 1950s, as the big band sound gave way to sophisticated swing. The sisters had an equally polished stage act featuring perfectly coiffed hair and synchronized movements. It was also quite wholesome, unthreatening and about as “whitebread” as a group could possibly be. Godfrey recognized this, and signed the McGuires to appear on his programs for the balance of the decade.
With regular exposure on Godfrey’s various properties, it didn’t take the girls long to score a major hit. In fact, just their second national release, “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight” soared into the top ten, followed immediately by “Muskrat Ramble.” In 1955 they enjoyed their first chart topper — and first million-seller — with the now-classic “Sincerely.”
By then the McGuires were continuously on the pop charts. The next big hit came from none other than Johnny Mercer, when they recorded “Something’s Gotta Give” from the movie of the same name. As was the practice at the time, the song was covered by other artists, but it was the McGuires who scored highest.
1956 was the quintessential year for the sisters. Their recording of “Picnic” became another million-seller, and they managed to put an incredible 8 songs on the charts. Only Elvis had more that year, with at least 14 identifiable charting songs. Considering the frenzy that rock and roll was creating, the McGuire’s sales are all the more impressive.
Rock and roll would have its impact on the sisters, but not just yet. In 1957 “Sugartime” would put them back at the top of the charts — briefly. Following that hit, the tidal wave of rock and roll swept aside the traditional pop style, and the McGuire’s hold on the charts ended. Their last hit of any substantial impact on the charts and popular radio was “May You Always” from 1959. Minor hits followed for a few years, with “Just for Old Times’ Sake” in the early 1960s being a rather accurate statement on their sound. When the British invasion hit American shores in 1964, the McGuire Sisters were relegated to the adult contemporary charts.
The sisters’ popularity among the “over thirty” demographic continued through the 1960s, with appearances on the usual television variety fare. They continued to sell out smaller venues right through their “retirement” in 1968. At that point Christine and Dorothy retired, and Phyllis went to Las Vegas, where she continued to perform for aging members of America’s Greatest Generation.
In the late 1980s the McGuires felt the urge to perform again as a group, and returned to the stage. Their audience was astounded that — having aged themselves — the McGuires Sisters appeared just as gorgeous as ever. (There were, perhaps, a few “procedures” to assist with that appearance, but we’ll never tell.) The McGuires seemed to have stopped time, singing perfectly, looking incredible. The effect on the audience was electrifying, and the sisters were basking in the limelight once again.
Their tour schedule finally slowed in the new century, but for the final decades of the 20th, The McGuire Sisters carried the flame for traditional pop. Their contribution to the Great American Songbook is greatly underrated. And so we thank the McGuire Sisters, Christine, Dorothy and Phyllis….sincerely.