Obituary: Bobbe Brox

NINETY-EIGHT-year-old Bobbe Brox was the last surviving member of the singing trio of the Twenties the Brox Sisters, and the widow of the songwriter James Van Heusen.

The Brox Sisters became famous with their syncopated rendition of "Everybody Step", written especially for them by Irving Berlin, at the Music Box Theater in New York in 1921. On screen they introduced, with Cliff Edwards, the song "Singin' in the Rain", and they appeared on film with Bing Crosby and on stage with the Marx Brothers.

In 1927 they donned spangles and feathers to appear in The Ziegfeld Follies with Eddie Cantor and Ruth Etting, again singing songs by Irving Berlin, who was both a close friend and admirer of their style. Forerunners of such groups as the Boswell Sisters and the most famous of all girl groups, the Andrews Sisters, they had a sweetly girlish sound, their combination of soprano, mezzo-soprano and contralto adding appealing resonance to their close harmonies.

Born Josephine Brock in Memphis, Tennessee, Bobbe Brox (who was the middle sister both in the act and in age) was raised in Edmonton, Canada, with her sisters Kathlyn (who changed her name to Patricia) and Eunice (who became Lorayne). Josephine first changed her name to Dagmar before settling for Bobbe.

While in their teens, the girls put together an act, changed their surname from Brock when a producer told them that Brox looked better on a marquee, and headed for Broadway, where they achieved their first big success with their interpretation of "Everybody Step" in the Music Box Revue (1921).

This was one of a series of shows being produced by Irving Berlin at the Music Box Theater, which he owned, and he liked the Broxes so much that he also featured them in the Music Box Revue in 1923 and 1924, tailoring songs especially for their jazz-tinged delivery. The sisters also toured the US in similar productions and appeared in a London edition of the Music Box Revue in 1923.

In 1926 they joined the cast of The Cocoanuts with the Marx Brothers, singing Berlin's novelty hit "Monkey-Doodle-Doo", and the following year were featured performers in The Ziegfeld Follies.

Their success led to recording contracts with Brunswick and Victor - their first recording, coupling "Little Boy Blues" and "Down Among the Sleepy Hills of Ten-Ten-Tennessee" was issued in April 1923, and their records were best sellers alongside those by such luminaries as Helen Morgan, Ruth Etting and Gertrude Lawrence. One of their 1927 recordings was a selection from that year's Ziegfeld Follies including Berlin's "Maybe It's You" and "It's Up To The Band".

With the advent of talkies, the Brox Sisters were among the many Broadway and recording stars snapped up by Hollywood, and in 1928 they made their screen debut in a Vitaphone short Down South that showed them under one big picture hat singing "Back In Your Own Backyard" and Berlin's "The Call of the South", which they had introduced in the Music Box Revue of 1924. Wrote Photoplay magazine, "Low voices register most successfully on the Vitaphone, so the performance of the Brox sisters, with their mezzo- soprano and contralto, is flawless."

They starred in several more Vitaphone shorts, including Manhattan Serenade (1930), filmed largely in colour. The sisters made their feature film debut in the all-star Hollywood Revue of 1929, the cast of which included every star on the MGM lot with the exception of Greta Garbo, Ramon Novarro and Lon Chaney. It had begun production as a two-reel talkie called The Minstrel Man but when the studio's Broadway Melody proved a box-office sensation, MGM decided to add a cluster of stars and expand the short to feature length.

The result (initially titled Revue of Revues) was another box-office hit that received an Academy Award nomination (it lost to Broadway Melody). There were many songs in the film, but its enduring melody was Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown's "Singin' in the Rain". The song had been written for a short-lived Hollywood stage revue, but made no impression until introduced on screen.

Convinced they had a hit, MGM featured the song heavily in Hollywood Revue of 1929 - it was played over the credit titles, then two-thirds through the film is sung by Cliff Edwards, the Brox Sisters and a group of singing dancers whose figures are shown in silhouette through transparent raincoats.

The film historian Richard Barrios commented in his book A Song in the Dark (1995): "With the staging, the Brox Sisters' engaging close harmony, and Arthur Lange's musical arrangement, the immobility of the camera is completely side-stepped, and it remains an irresistible mix of period charm and history." The Broxes' rendition is parodied later in the film by Marie Dressler, Bessie Love and Polly Moran, then the song is repeated at the colour finale by the whole cast in rainwear.

Though Cliff Edwards made a recording of the song, the Broxes did not, but they did record the song they introduced in their next film King of Jazz (1930). In this all-Technicolor revue, one of the most inventive of early talkies, filmed by Universal and built around the personality of the band-leader Paul Whiteman, the Brox Sisters introduced the hit song "A Bench in the Park" with Whiteman's vocal group The Rhythm Boys - Bing Crosby, Harry Barris and Al Rinker.

They also sang with The Rhythm Boys on the Columbia recording made on 23 March 1930. The last film in which the Brox Sisters appeared was Spring Is Here (1930), based on the Rodgers and Hart stage hit. Hollywood had already started the practice of cutting many songs from stage productions and adding new ones, and in a party sequence the Brox Sisters introduced the best of the new songs, "Cryin' for the Carolines" by Harry Warren, Sam M. Lewis and Joe Young, which became a substantial hit.

The sisters had also become prolific stars on radio in Los Angeles, but in the early Thirties they disbanded. Bobbe had married William Perlberg, a William Morris agent who managed their act, in 1928 (he later became a notable film producer) and she retired to live the life of a Hollywood mogul's wife. The sisters reunited professionally just once - for a 1939 radio broadcast saluting their friend Irving Berlin and promoting his new film Alexander's Ragtime Band. The show was hosted by Al Jolson, who at its end said, "Thank you, Lorayne, Patricia and . . . Mrs Perlberg! I'm no fool!"

The Perlbergs were divorced in the 1960s and Bobbe subsequently married the composer Jimmy Van Heusen, who wrote many hits for both Crosby and Sinatra, including "Moonlight Becomes You" and "All The Way". Van Heusen, who took his name from a shirt label, had acquired a reputation as a playboy bachelor. "I dig chicks, booze, music and Sinatra - in that order", he once told a reporter, but in 1969 he married Bobbe Brox and the union lasted until his death in 1990. Patricia Brox, the youngest member of the trio, died in 1988 and Lorayne, the eldest, died in 1993.

Josephine Brock (Bobbe Brox), singer: born Memphis, Tennessee 1900; married 1928 William Perlberg (marriage dissolved; one son), 1969 James Van Heusen (died 1990; died Glen Falls, New York 2 May 1999.