Phyllis McGuire, the Moonglows, and That Beloved 1950s Innocence
It’s funny. We were just talking about the McGuire Sisters the other day and then came the sad news that Phyllis McGuire, the last surviving sister, died Tuesday in her Las Vegas home, age 89.
It brings the sun a little closer to setting on one of the most cherished symbols of innocence from the 1950s and the early 1960s: the sweet harmonies and chaste love songs of the “girl groups.”
“Sugartime,” the McGuires. “Mr. Sandman,” the Chordettes. “Born Too Late,” the Poni Tails. “Hearts of Stone,” the Fontane Sisters. “Maybe,” the Chantels. “Alone,” the Shepherd Sisters. “I Love How You Love Me,” the Paris Sisters. “Eddie My Love,” the Teen Queens.
It was a decade when the radio could play “Tonight You Belong To Me” by Patience and Prudence, who were 14 and 11 at the time, and it sounded cute. Perky Margie Rayburn could sing “I’m Available” and it sounded sweet. Put those titles on the radio now and let’s suggest the implications might have evolved.
In any case, one of the best girl group songs is the one that came up in conversation the other day: Phyllis McGuire with her sisters Christine and Dorothy singing “Sincerely,” which was the №1 record on the Billboard pop chart for 10 weeks starting in early January of 1955.
We were talking about it because the record has a prominent role in the charming new movie Sylvie’s Love, a coming-of-age story revolving around a black teenager in New York in the 1950s.
Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) and her cousin Mona (Aja Naomi King) hang around with each other, often spinning records as they talk about dreams and boys and the other stuff that matters in teenage life.
In one scene they’re lying on the floor, facing in opposite directions with their heads next to each other. Beside them a 1950s record player is spinning a 45 rpm disc as we hear the McGuires singing “Sincerely.”
What was intriguing to me, besides the fact the record on the turntable isn’t the orange Coral label on which “Sincerely” was released, is that these two girls would be playing the McGuire Sisters’s recording rather than the earlier original version by the Moonglows.
Sylvie works in her father’s Harlem record shop, which specializes in black music, so she certainly would have known the Moonglows’s rendition, which went to №1 on the R&B charts while the McGuires’s cover version was keeping it down to №20 on the pop charts.
It makes total sense that teenage girls would love “Sincerely,” a terrific love song that perfectly feeds teenage notions of romance.
It’s just interesting Sylvie would play the white cover version, when most of the other contemporary songs we hear in the movie’s 1950s scenes are R&B records by black artists, like “Fools Fall In Love” by the Drifters and “The ABC’s Of Love” by the Teenagers.
If I were listening to “Sincerely,” which I often do, I’d go with the Moonglows’s rendition, a gorgeous ballad that showcases all the elements of rhythm and blues vocal group harmony.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with the McGuire Sisters’s version. It’s more lush, more strings. The harmonies, while different, are just fine.
“We had The Sound,” Phyllis McGuire said in a 1989 interview. “It’s the sister sound. It’s God-given.”
The McGuire sisters, of whom Phyllis was the youngest, grew up in Miamisburg, Ohio. Their mother was a minister and they sang in church, a grounding Phyllis said later led them to record songs like “He.”
“Al Hibbler had a beautiful version of ‘He’,” she said. “We sang evangelistic and religious stuff as kids, so it was a natural for us.”
The sisters were “discovered” from Arthur Godfrey’s televised talent show, where they won first prize and parlayed it into a deal with Coral Records.
“Sincerely” was their first chart hit, not a bad way to start. It came about, Phyllis said, simply from the standard 1950s pop music practice of making a mainstream-friendly version of a song that was a hit in the smaller R&B market.
“We heard the Moonglows’s version,” she said. “Then we covered it.”
Cover records are a whole discussion unto themselves, but the McGuires, in contrast to some popular ’50s artists like Georgia Gibbs and Pat Boone, didn’t turn out a whole string of cover records. They had another top-10 hit with “Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight,” an R&B icon written and recorded by the Spaniels, but they soon turned more toward pure pop like “Sugartime,” their other №1 hit.
“We were given unbelievable material,” said Phyllis. “Johnny Mercer gave us ‘Something’s Gotta Give.’ ‘Picnic’ came from Steve Allen, with those phenomenal lyrics. Peggy Lee wrote for us.
“We turned down ‘No Place Like Home’ and ‘Moments to Remember.’ When we got back together in the ’80s, we put together a medley of songs we rejected.”
She added that the McGuires weren’t the only ones to occasionally misread the potential of a song.
“I talked to Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence about 10 days ago,” she said. “We were talking about songs and Eydie said, ‘Can you believe Jule Styne brought ‘People’ to us first? I told him it was the worst thing I’d ever heard.”
The McGuire Sisters broke up around 1967, pushed off the charts and the radio by rock ’n’ roll. Christine and Dorothy left the biz and devoted their time to their families. Phyllis kept performing as a solo act and occasionally making headlines for things like dating mobster Sam Giancana. That got her called to testify before a grand jury, where she said he was a classy guy who never discussed business with her.
Fast-forward to 1985. “We had all gotten together for Mom and Dad’s 53rd wedding anniversary,” Phyllis said, “and we talked about getting the group back together. Nothing was done, so I went back later and said, ‘Okay, let’s talk about this seriously.’ We finally all agreed.
“We rehearsed for six month, five days a week, eight hours a day. We worked out, we exercised. The harmonies were automatic, but at different times we did get cold feet. Like, ‘Okay, Girl, what are we doing?’ We didn’t want to take a date until we were sure we had The Sound back.”
Once they did, she said, “We never enjoyed ourselves as much as we’re enjoying ourselves now.
“Looking back, the ’50s were such wonderful times. But when you’re living in it, you take it for granted. It’s only now I realize how special it all was.”
McGuires 2.0 wasn’t bad, either. They had a longer second career than first career, singing for almost 20 years before they pretty much signed off with a PBS concert in 2004. They played clubs, they played Vegas, they played shows. First Lady Barbara Bush invited them to a salute at the Kennedy Center.
“When we got back together,” said Phyllis, “I kept saying, ‘This is my idea, I’m responsible. No one knows what the public wants and rejection is a horrible thing.
“But once people came to our shows, we helped others from that era come back as well. We got Peggy [Lee] and Patti Page back in Vegas, after they’d been working places you never heard of.”
Phyllis McGuire did well from all this. She settled in a Las Vegas mansion while keeping a place in New York, sometimes on Park Avenue apartment, sometimes at the Hotel Pierre.
At the same time, she said, she never became a prisoner of her celebrity.
“I put on jeans, straighten my hair, put on sunglasses and I can go anywhere,” she said. “When I open my mouth to sing, that’s when they recognize me.”
She would keep doing that, she said, as long as songs came out.
“My first love has always been and always will be harmony and the sisters,” she said. “Life is really a fabulous journey.
“It just goes so fast.”