OBITUARY : Maxene Andrews

"We wanted to sing like trumpets," said Maxene, one third of the immortal Andrews Sisters. "Bugles" would have been a more appropriate analogy; during the Second World War millions of fighting men were cheered by their brassy vocals. The most popular, most durable singing group of all time, Patty, Maxene and LaVerne were later decorated by the US government for their wartime morale-building.

When people referred to the sisters, Maxene was usually called "the pretty one" or "the one on the left". Tall, red- headed LaVerne was the one on the right, with peppy, blonde Patty in the middle. "With a harmony group, the girl who sang lead had to be in the middle," Maxene explained. "That was where the mike was - and Patty could never sing harmony."

If Patty was the Middle Sister in the act, Maxene occupied that position chronologically; LaVerne was a year older and Patty four years younger. Born of a Greek father and a Norwegian mother in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the three showed early musical promise. LaVerne taught herself to play piano, Patty won tap-dancing prizes and Maxene was singing on local radio at the age of four. At six she was performing at luncheons held by the Daughters of the American Revolution and for war veterans at local hospitals.

The decision to form a sister act was prompted by the swinging close harmony of the New-Orleans-born Boswell Sisters. "LaVerne played by ear, and she'd remember their arrangements," Maxine recalled. "We got so good at copying the Boswells that we developed a southern accent."

They sang together at school dances and won a talent competition at a local cinema. In 1932 they were hired by the bandleader Larry Rich, who took them on a coast-to-coast vaudeville tour. Eventually vaudeville died and the sisters, who by now had developed their own distinctive vocal style, sang with various bands before the recording executive Dave Kapp heard them on the radio and proffered a Decca contract. Their first release got nowhere and they feared they'd be dropped. Then Lou Levy, their manager, brought them a tune he had sung as a boy. "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen (Means That You're Grand)", a modern adaptation of a Yiddish song, became the first million-seller by a female group and brought the sisters world-wide fame. Between 1937 and 1941 they had further record hits with "Hold Tight!", "Beer Barrel Polka", "Oh Johnny, Oh, Johnny, Oh!", "Apple Blossom Time" and the novelty trilogy "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar", "Scrub Me, Mamma with a Boogie Beat" and "Bounce Me Brother with a Solid Four".

After America entered the war came the time for which the Andrews Sisters were born: they sold bonds, made frequent overseas tours and recorded such hits as "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree", "Pistol Packin' Mama", "Rum and Coca Cola" and "Don't Fence Me In". They also starred in 14 films, only two of which were "A" features. It was Maxene who, realising that the "B" musicals were hurting their career, took their film contract to a lawyer. He found a loophole and, with one bound, the sisters were free.

After the war they sang "You Don't Have To Know the Language" with Bing Crosby in The Road To Rio, and recorded the best-selling "Civilisation" with Danny Kaye, but in 1953 internecine disputes caused the trio to break up for three years. They disbanded permanently and tragically in 1967 when LaVerne died of cancer. Maxene, who had begun studying speech and drama during the first break-up, joined the Lake Tahoe Paradise College of Fine Arts as Dean of Women, soon rising to vice-president.

In 1973 Bette Midler made a hit recording of the sisters' 1941 "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" singing all three parts. "I was flattered," declared Maxene. "She did a wonderful job and we're very indebted to Bette, because she recreated interest in the Andrews Sisters." Their early discs were re- released and Maxene and Patty co-starred in the musical Over Here! (1974). As the De Paul Sisters, veteran singers who volunteer to entertain servicemen during the Second World War, they appeared on Broadway for nearly a year.

In 1982, after a series of Chicago concerts, Maxene had a heart attack and a quadruple bypass operation followed. She was soon singing again, making Maxene (1985), a solo album consisting of standards, some undistinguished new songs and an overdubbed medley of the sisters' old hits. Bette Midler wrote the sleeve notes.

Dick Vosburgh

Maxene Andrews, singer: born Minneapolis 3 January 1916; married 1941 Lou Levy (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1950); died Boston, Massachusetts 21 October 1995.