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Jukebox divas from Minnesota: The Andrews Sisters

The sisters weren’t just popular. They defined the sound of the 1940s, as much as Glenn Miller’s big band or Bing Crosby’s velvety crooning.

The Andrews Sisters in 1952
Wikimedia Commons
The Andrews Sisters in 1952

Even into her mid-70s, Patty Andrews was a natural performer. Through 1989, the former star of the Andrews Sisters sang on cruise ships to Hawaii, Venezuela and the Caribbean. Fans said she was the same irrepressible Patty: warm and buoyant, the kind of singer who plants her feet apart on a stage and belts out her repertoire with her whole being. On the cruise ships, she even did some of the herky-jerky dance moves that made the Andrews Sisters so unlike any other singing group in the 1940s.

But the era of the Andrews Sisters is now officially over: Patty Andrews, the last surviving member of the famed trio, the one who sang lead and in the middle, died in California on Jan. 30. She was 94.

Of all the Minnesota musical acts have made it big — Prince, Soul Asylum, the Replacements — the Andrews Sisters stand alone. The sisters weren’t just popular. They defined the sound of the 1940s, as much as Glenn Miller’s big band or Bing Crosby’s velvety crooning. During the course of their career, Patty, Maxene and LaVerne Andrews recorded 600 songs, sold 100 million records, and had 12 No. 1 hits. Forty-six of their tunes made it to the Billboard Top 10 — more than those by Elvis Presley or The Beatles. At the height of their popularity in 1947, the Andrews Sisters commanded $25,000 for a single performance, or more than $248,300 in 2013 dollars.

A powerhouse sound

The Andrews Sisters developed their formula early on: Patty Andrews (the outgoing blonde) sang lead, Maxene (the sweet brunette) sang higher, and LaVerne (the mysterious redhead) sang lower. In an era when women vocalists crooned gently and prettily, the Andrews Sisters had a powerhouse sound, like a trio of blasting trumpets, and a unique close harmony.

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“The first word on any of their records, and you immediately knew who they were,” said film historian and author Ray Hagen on the 2010 BBC documentary “The Andrews Sisters: Queen of the Music Machines.”

Before the Andrews Sisters, swing vocalists were called “canaries,” as in singers with a sweet touch, meant to highlight and complement a Big Band. The Andrews Sisters were never canaries — their sound was brassy and rambunctious. They were the first group to take the frantic, stylized sound of the Big Band and interpret it with a human voice.

“The Andrews Sisters were swing personified. They were the Benny Goodman and the Glenn Miller and the Artie Shaw bands combined into vocal harmony,” said music biographer Michael Freedland on a recent episode of BBC “Legends.”

The three sisters were born to an unlikely couple. Their father, Peter Andreos (changed to Andrews by the Immigration Bureau in 1907), traveled to Minneapolis after he landed in America because he heard there was a big Greek community. He never found his ex-pat neighborhood of Greeks, but he did find lots of Norwegians, and rented a room from a Norwegian family named Sollie.

In 1910, Peter married the daughter, Olga Sollie, and they bought a house at 1600 Lyndale Avenue North. Peter Andrews told his bride he wanted a giant family — 10 strapping boys. Instead, he got three singing girls: LaVerne (born 1911), Maxene (born 1916) and Patty (born 1918). From the time they were little, the three mimicked their favorite singing group, the Boswell Sisters. Peter and Ollie Andrews owned a pair of pool halls in Minneapolis, as well as the Peter Andrews Restaurant, specializing in Greek food.

Won contest at the Orpheum

In 1931, the sisters won first prize at a talent contest hosted at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, and got an invitation to join a vaudeville troupe. The sisters traveled the country with 25 other performers including dancers, skaters, comics and other singers. During their 10-month tour, they put on 1,000 performances, and were paid $1 per day (to be split amongst the three of them).

But vaudeville was already in its death throes. As the Great Depression continued its somber march through the ’30s, people had less and less disposable income for luxuries such as traveling shows. By the time the vaudeville troupe disbanded in 1932, Peter and Ollie Andrews had lost the family home in Minneapolis and given up the family businesses. From then on, the five of them lived a nomadic life in a 1929 Buick. Peter drove 100 miles or more each day trying to find small singing gigs for his daughters.

“It was a hard life, and they would live one entire week on one chicken. They could stretch that chicken until it was really squawking,” said Lynda Wells, Maxene Andrews’ manager, on the 2010 BBC documentary.

One more chance

In 1936, a fire at the May Fair Club in Kansas City burned all of the sisters’ stage costumes and musical arrangements. Papa Andrews said it was his last straw — no more of this migratory life. They went back to Minnesota, where relatives still lived in Mound.

The daughters pleaded for one more chance at show biz, and Peter Andrews caved. He told him they could have three months in New York City, and if they didn’t get a break, they were going back to Minneapolis — and straight to secretarial school.

In 1937, on the next-to-last night of their three-month probation, the Andrews Sisters got one final gig. They sang on the “Saturday Night Swing Club” radio show, broadcast from the Edison Hotel. They collected their $15 and that, they assumed, was that. The next night, the sisters were in the soda fountain of the Edison, drinking a final toast to their failed show-biz dreams.

“We were leaving New York,” wrote Maxene Andrews in her book, “Over Here, Over There.” “We’d had our one shot. You might say it was the low point of our career.”

But in walked a zoot-suiter with pointed-toe shoes and a wide, snap brim hat. In his gruff New York accent he said, “I’m looking for the Andrews Sisters.”

The sisters said: “Who’s asking?”

The zoot suiter said: “Jack Kapp from Decca Records. He wants them to come audition.”

The sisters said, in unison: “We’re the Andrews Sisters!”

Dave Kappa, vice president of Decca Records, had been in a taxi when the sisters sang on “Saturday Night Swing Club.”

Early success

The Andrews Sisters’ first monster hit was a song based on a Yiddish tune, “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon” (February 1938). Over New Year’s Eve weekend in 1937-1938, the song played 15 times on WNEW, the all-night record show in New York City. The next Monday, it sold 75,000 copies, and rocketed to the Billboard chart’s No. 1 slot, where it stayed for five weeks.

“It did have a kind of ethnic sound to it. And perhaps that’s what set it apart from the other material that was on the market at the time,” said Andrews Sisters expert and memorabilia collector Robert Boyer on the 2010 BBC documentary.

“Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” was classic Andrews Sisters — snappy, upbeat, and not necessarily from a white-Protestant heritage. So long as a tune had a great melody, these half-Greek-half-Norwegian sisters from Minnesota would sing just about anything. During their career, they recorded songs from Russia, Spain, Mexico, Brazil and other locales far outside their native scope. They also dallied in several musical sandboxes: swing, boogie woogie, jazz, ragtime, calypso, classical, folk, country, blues, dixieland, ballads and gospel.

Their second gold record was “Beer Barrel Polka” (May 1939) an English translation of the Czech tune, “Skoda Lasky.”

The sisters particularly went for danceable material such as “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (November 1937) and “Sha Sha” (July 1938). Such groove-able songs made them favorite artists on the half-a-million or so jukeboxes found in American restaurants and soda fountains.

“People would push back the tables and chairs and dance. Records got worn white and had to be replaced with fresh copies,” Andrews Sisters expert Robert Boyer told the BBC.

Paired with Glenn Miller, Bing Crosby

In just two years’ time, the Andrews Sisters were so big, their record label asked them to share a radio show with Glenn Miller, because the execs were worried Miller wasn’t popular enough to hold his own. Their label also paired them with mega-star Bing Crosby, a collaboration that would prove to be one of the most profitable recording partnerships of all time.

In 1940, they signed a contract with Universal Pictures, one of their worst professional mistakes. With the studio, they would make 14 films, mostly B-grade musicals with thin plots and amateur makeup and lighting. But there were a few (money-making) highlights. In 1941, they made “Buck Privates,” co-starring comic duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, that included two of the sisters’ most famous hits, “I’ll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time” (November 1941) and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” (January 1941).

“Buck Privates” was one of the first “war musicals,” meant to prepare the public — in lively song and dance — for what was creeping ever closer: another world war. “These are insanely patriotic movies,” explained film historian Hagen to the BBC. “There’s saluting all the time. It’s red, white and blue all the time. Lots of gung-ho patriotism.”

The Andrews Sisters’ sequel to “Buck Privates,” titled “In the Navy,” premiered at Loew’s Criterion in Manhattan in 1941. More than 49,000 people saw the film during its first week at the theater. Management keep the film rolling on repeat and the doors open till 5 a.m. to accommodate the massive crowds.

Performance at Fort Snelling

After the United States entered the war, the Andrews Sisters embarked on a home-front tour, visiting Army bases and military hospitals. During one such excursion, the trio performed at the Snelling Veterans Hospital in St. Paul. Some of the old-timers there, veterans of the Spanish-American War, remembered LaVerne and Maxene singing for them with their parents when they were just 7 and 4 years old. In her 1993 memoir, Maxene Andrews wrote that because of that trip to Fort Snelling, she believes she may be one of just a handful of performers who have sung for veterans of the Spanish-American War through Desert Storm.

The sisters also volunteered at the Hollywood Canteen, a famous servicemen-only club. In 1942, they went on an 18-city tour, setting attendance records at every venue, including New York’s Paramount and the Golden Gate Theater in San Francisco. Like many popular groups, the sisters also recorded a series of V-Discs, or Victory Discs, to be sent to overseas troops in need of fresh music.

In June 1944, they recorded “There’ll Be a Hot Time in the Town of Berlin (When the Yanks Go Marching In).” In October 1944, they laid down “Rum & Coca Cola” a lilting calypso-inspired ditty that achieved near-instant success. 

In June 1945, the sisters took an overseas trip with the United Services Organization (USO), a morale-boosting nonprofit that was formed during World War II and continues to this day. In matching shoulder-padded gowns and pompadour hair-dos, the sisters performed in Italy on the back of trucks, on makeshift stages, and with whatever instruments happened to be at their disposal: accordions, guitars, or nothing at all. (Like many singers of their day, Patty and Maxene could neither play instruments nor read sheet music. LaVerne could play piano and read music.)

Sisters to a nation

The Andrews sisters were never pinups such as Jane Russell or Rita Hayworth. In Italy as well as in the states, the Andrews Sisters played the role of “Wholesome Sweetheart from Your Hometown,” often dressed in fashionable-yet-modest suits with long skirts and full sleeves.

“I think we needed the pin-up girls like Betty Grable, and we needed girls like the Andrews Sisters who were like their sisters, literally,” said Lynda Wells, Maxene Andrews’ manager on the 2010 BBC documentary. “So they were more than each others’ sisters, they were sisters to the entire nation.”

For their last show in Naples in 1945, the sisters were set to perform before a crowd of 5,000 miserably unhappy GIs. This downtrodden crowd had been told they were headed home. Then their commanders reversed course and told them they were shipping out to the Pacific, to aid the cause against Japan.

Right before their show, Patty Andrews was handed a slip of paper from the commanding officer and told to read it to the troops. She looked it over, and glanced at the officer in the front row. He nodded ‘yes.’ Patty stepped to the microphone and announced: “Fellows, you don’t have to go to Japan. The war is over!”

Patty Andrews recounted the moment in a 1974 interview with the New York Times, later cited in “Swing It!” by John Sforza: “You could have heard a pin drop. There was no reaction; they thought it was part of the show. But my sisters, who were up on stage, began to cry. Then a fellow who was up on a rafter started to scream. He was caught by the guys underneath him and then all hell broke loose!”

Before World War II, the Andrews Sisters were still under the tight control of their parents, and lived with them first in a hotel suite, and then at a large Brentwood estate in California. Although they were each well into their 20s and exceedingly wealthy in their own right, the sisters were not allowed to date unless tightly chaperoned by Mama and Papa Andrews. In 1942, Maxene took the extreme step of getting secretly married (to her manager Lou Levy, the zoot suiter), but kept it a secret for two years and continued to live with her parents and sisters.

More marriages, more changes

When the sisters returned from the war, the reins eased up a bit. Maxene bought a home with her husband and adopted two children. LaVerne and Patty got married.  They recorded a flurry of hits, including “Along the Navajo Trail” (1945).

But a new rock-and-roll decade was on its way, and big changes were on the horizon. The sisters’ mother, Ollie, died in July 1948. Then Kapp, the president of Decca Records and now a close friend, died of a cerebral hemorrhage in March 1949. The same month, Maxene divorced Lou. Eight months later, the sisters’ father, Peter, died of a heart attack. Patty divorced her husband, Marty, in March 1950. A little more than a year later, in 1951, the group’s longtime music arranger and friend, Vic Schoen, quit to take a new job as the director of “The Dinah Shore Show.”

The sisters had long been squabblers. For 13 weeks in 1940, for instance, they were singing together but were not on speaking terms. But when the sisters lost many of their principal supporters — their arranger, their manager, their parents, their record label president, spouses — it was as if the glue between the trio finally gave out.

Patty remarried in 1951; she left the trio just before Christmas in 1953. In November 1954, Maxene and LaVerne appeared on Red Skelton’s comedy show and Skeleton sang in a blonde wig with Maxene and LaVerne as a gag. Patty didn’t think it was funny. She had her lawyers sent a cease-and-desist letter to Skelton and her sisters. A week later, LaVerne and Patty met in Superior Court in Long Beach because Patty had sued LaVerne for a bigger share of the furnishings at the Brentwood estate. LaVerne countersued. During the court proceedings, Patty and LaVerne didn’t look at each other.

‘Burying the hatchet’

In 1956, the sisters were coaxed into appearing together on an anniversary special called “Shower of Stars.” After the show, the sisters were flooded with fan mail, begging them to get back together. The public outpouring worked. Just a few months later, the Andrews Sisters officially reformed, and circulated a photo of the three of them in Maxene’s kitchen, literally “burying the hatchet” in a tree-stump-shaped cake.

The next decade launched a parade of novelty albums: “Great Country Hits” (1964), “Great Golden Hits” (1962), “The Andrews Sisters Go Hawaiian” (1965), and “Favorite Hymns” (1965). Plus, there were the requisite “Greatest Hits of the Andrews Sisters,” Volumes 1 (1962) and 2 (1964). The sisters did produce a few albums of fresh material that intrigued music critics: “Fresh and Fancy Free” (1957) and “The Dancing ’20s” (1958).

In 1967, LaVerne died of liver cancer. After grieving their sibling, the sisters decided to go on in show business. In 1974, the two starred in a 1940s nostalgia musical called “Over Here!” that earned terrific reviews and sparked the release of more Andrews Sisters’ album compilations. But the sisters were fighting again — with the show’s producers, and with each other. Plans for a national tour were scrapped, and the show closed for good after only 10 months. Maxene and Patty promptly hit the interview circuit, for a round of public finger-pointing.

During the next 20-some years, the sisters continued to sing and perform, separately, for nostalgic audiences. Patty was a judge on “The Gong Show.” Maxene toured in an off-Broadway production of “Call Me Madam” and “Pippin.” Patty took up singing on cruise ships and spent much of her time fundraising for the as-yet-unbuilt World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Maxene launched a nightclub revue to positive reviews.

In 1991, both Patty and Maxene were present at a performance of a 1940s-inspired dance called “Company B,” performed by the Houston Ballet. Maxene and Patty appeared on stage together, but were separated by a human shield of six dancers.

Four years later, Maxene died of a massive heart attack. Her ashes were scattered on the Pacific Ocean and Lake Minnetonka. Patty died at home on Jan. 30, 2013. She was buried at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif.