Dorothy McGuire: Singer from the pre-rock'n'roll era


Click to follow
The Independent Online

Although the McGuire Sisters had their hit records during the uninhibited rock'*'roll era of the late 1950s, their sweet harmonies, innocent songs, identical clothes and smiling faces harked back to the Andrews Sisters and other vocal groups of the 1940s.

The three McGuire Sisters – Christine (born 1926), Dorothy (1928) and Phyllis (1931) – were raised in Middletown, Ohio. Their father, Asa, worked at the steel mill while their mother Lillie was a minister for the Miamisburg First Church of God. They sang in the choir and discovered they could harmonise naturally together, with Dorothy taking the top harmony. Dorothy learnt to play both the piano and the saxophone but her parents hoped she would become a nurse.

As the McGuire Sisters, they undertook many local appearances, coming to the attention of a wider public through the radio station WLM in Cincinnati. On a weekend in New York, they entered and won the weekly television show, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. Godfrey was so impressed that they became regulars on his morning show, Arthur Godfrey And Friends.

The sisters started recording for Coral in 1952 and established themselves as a US chart act with "Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight" (1954), a cover of a black R&B song from the Spaniels, a common practice at the time. They followed it with the Dixieland jazz of "Muskrat Ramble" and "Lonesome Polecat" from the musical Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. They might have had their first UK hit with "Christmas Alphabet", but the British crooner, Dickie Valentine, took it to No 1.

In 1955 they topped the US charts with "Sincerely", first recorded by the Moonglows. Both that and its B-side, "No More", did well in the UK. Further singles included "It May Sound Silly", "Picnic", "Delilah Jones" (based on the theme from The Man With The Golden Arm) and a religious ballad, "He", which was banned by the BBC. One song, "Summer Dreams", could not be released in the UK due to copyright restrictions.

When they had a hit with "Something's Gotta Give", the lyricist Johnny Mercer decided to catch their act at the Copacabana in New York. They were meant to acknowledge his presence before singing the song, but when they forgot to do so, he stormed out of the club, causing the McGuires to stop singing.

In 1957 a farmer Charlie Phillips recorded his original version of "Sugartime" for Norman Petty in Clovis, New Mexico. The Coral executive, Bob Thiele, heard the song while visiting Petty and brought it back to New York for the McGuire Sisters. The repetitive but highly infectious song topped the US charts in 1958 and in the UK, it was a hit for the McGuire Sisters (No 14), Alma Cogan (No 18) and Jim Dale (No 25). The following year they had another British hit with "May You Always", but Joan Regan's version was more successful. Ten per cent of their earnings were given to their mother's church.

Dorothy married an oilman, Lowell Williamson, in December 1958 and they had their first child in 1960. While Dorothy and Chris took time off for domestic matters, Phyllis came on a promotional visit to the UK. She told one newspaper that the McGuire Sisters' energy was the result of pep pills. Phyllis found that they were not as successful as in America because of the home-grown vocal groups, the Beverley Sisters and the Kaye Sisters.

In 1960 the McGuire Sisters played the Riviera in Las Vegas with the comedians Rowan and Martin. Dan Rowan had a relationship with Phyllis and the Mafia boss, Sam Giancana, had their room bugged to see what they were doing. This led to Phyllis becoming Giancana's partner and a sequence of well-chronicled events that led to Frank Sinatra being snubbed by President Kennedy. The McGuire Sisters played several gambling resorts and recorded show tunes for Frank Sinatra's Reprise label, but many outlets became wary of booking the group.

In 1968, the McGuire Sisters made their farewell appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, their final recording being "Vaya Con Dios". They returned in 1986 and undertook limited engagements through to 2004. During their act, Chris and Dorothy played "The Way We Were" on twin pianos. Dorothy and Lowell retired to the affluent Paradise Valley, Arizona where they undertook charitable work.

Dorothy McGuire, singer: born Middletown, Ohio 13 February 1928; married 1958 Lowell Williamson (two sons, one stepson, one stepdaughter); died Paradise Valley, Arizona 7 September 2012.