RIP Christine McGuire, and Let’s Give a ’50s ‘Girl Group’ a Little Respect

Ever since before the Beatles, various rock ’n’ roll friends of mine have lamented that the problem with 1950s music was artists like the McGuire Sisters.

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Way too much of popular music then, my friends would explain, was syrupy, chirpy, superficial fluff whose only value was creating the musical vacuum into which rock ’n’ roll finally blasted its way.

They’re right to this extent. Post-war America felt a combination of restlessness and sheer exhilaration that demanded more than “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White” or “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.”

Chuck Berry, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis were necessary.

But where my friends went wrong is here: You don’t have to hate on “Sugartime” to love “Long Tall Sally.”

That truth comes back to mind with the report yesterday that Christine McGuire, one of the three McGuire sisters, died Dec. 28. She was 92 and she sang with her sisters into her late 70s.

If you remember the McGuires’s famously matching outfits, you remember another part of Christine’s legacy: She was the one in charge of wardrobe.

Her death leaves only one surviving sister, Phyllis, at 87 the youngest (and most flamboyant). Dorothy, the oldest, died in 2012.

The McGuire Sisters put 33 records on the Billboard charts between 1954 and 1964, with two going to number one: “Sincerely,” for 10 weeks in 1955, and “Sugartime,” for four weeks in early 1958.

In contrast to most pop tunes in today’s niched musical marketplace, top-10 hits in the ’50s permeated mainstream culture. When several prominent baseball players signed lucrative contracts in 1958, The Sporting News ran a cover cartoon of those players singing a “Sugartime” parody that began, “Sugar for the day games, sugar for the night games, sugar for the doubleheaders too.. . . “

The McGuire Sisters were as well known in American households as Elvis. They got their start on the Kate Smith and Arthur Godfrey television shows, and were regulars on the countless variety shows of the day.

They were also all over the radio at a time when there weren’t a thousand other platforms for popular music.

In keeping with the record industry’s standard practice, the McGuire Sisters recorded several songs that had first been recorded by black artists.

That meant the original recordings had been played mostly on black radio stations, or the few small general-market stations that were venturing into rock ’n’ roll.

If the song itself seemed promising, a bigger label would bring in a white artist to record what was called a cover record, a blander version that could be marketed to “mainstream,” that is, white, audiences.

Enter Pat Boone, Georgia Gibbs, the Crew-Cuts and dozens of other white artists.

Enter also the McGuire Sisters, whose monster recording of “Sincerely” was a smoother reworking of the original by the Moonglows, a black rhythm and blues quintet.

The Moonglows’ version is a transcendent piece of harmony singing, led by Bobby Lester and Harvey Fuqua. It’s a thing of beauty. Sixty-five years later, I could still listen to it all day.

That said, the McGuires’s version is also a fine record. It’s different, because three female harmony voices are different from five male voices. The arrangement is sweetened for pop audiences. It’s still sounds great on the radio and it’s still a pleasure to hear. There’s nothing wrong with it.

And yes, that whole practice does raise the issue of cultural racism — white folks cashing in on a black creation by taking advantage of a system where the playing field is so tilted that the black artist must settle for less.

It’s one of a million tiny slats in the racial cross America carries, the cross with which we’re still wrestling. It’s an important discussion, for another day.

It doesn’t tarnish the McGuire Sisters, who were one of many sister acts and “girl groups” of the 1950s, white and black. The black acts tended to be sassier and edgier, but as the decade wore on, even the white “pop” acts tiptoed toward material that was a little bouncier than the “girl singers” of a few years earlier, like Jo Stafford or Rosemary Clooney.

The McGuires tended to stick with traditional tunes — in the mold of “Sincerely,” which was one of the best implementations of the quintessential 1950s love song template (“Love you so / Never let you go”).

That is to say, the McGuires’s career didn’t depend on knocking off rhythm and blues songs. Their hits were more like the bouncy “Something’s Gotta Give” and the sentimental “Just For Old Time’s Sake” — songs that sounded as good on the radio as they did at live gigs.

They weren’t rock ’n’ roll. But you can hear some of what they were doing in groups like the Shirelles and their own music was an important and quality part of an era whose richness lay, sometimes more than we admit, in its diversity.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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