This week, I’m going to go in depth on a topic that has always intrigued me: sibling vocal harmony. The Andrews Sisters, The Mills Brothers, even The Jackson 5 and The Everly Brothers: so many of the best vocal groups were members of the same family. It’s really a question of nature vs. nurture. Is it in their DNA? Or does the simple fact of growing up singing together create their unique sound? Whatever the reason, the blend of sibling singers is absolutely unmatched. On this episode, I explore family vocal groups in the 1930s through the early 1970s, from the Boswell Sisters to the Beach Boys.
One of the earliest family vocal groups in the world of American Popular Song was also a pioneer in jazz: the Boswell Sisters. Connee, Vet, and Martha Boswell were three white sisters from New Orleans who got their start in the early 1930s. Not only did they have some of the tightest harmonies of any singing group, they were capable of executing nimble vocal acrobatics. The Boswell Sisters clearly laid the path for all jazz vocal ensembles that follwed, and even a lot of jazz singing in general. In fact, Ella Fitzgerald, arguably the finest jazz singer of all-time, says her biggest singing influence was Connee Boswell.
Another pioneering vocal group from the 1930s and 40s was the Mills Brothers. The four Ohio-born brothers Herbert, Donald, Harry, and John had their start with barbershop harmony–not gospel harmony. This may be why they became one of the first African-American vocal groups to have a large appeal among white audiences. They were a groundbreaking group, with over 70 hit singles and 50 million records sold.
The Second Generation
The close-harmony style popularized by the Boswell Sisters and the Mills Brothers paved the way for other family singing groups in the 1940s and 1950s. And no sibling vocal group had more success than the Andrews Sisters. Minnesota sisters LaVerne, Maxene, and Patty Andrews were attractive, wholesome, and immensely talented. More than any other group, the Andrews Sisters blended like they were one unit rather than three persons. They became musical icons during the war years, and sold over 75 million copies of their 113 hits.
One of the groups to follow in the footsteps of the Mills Brothers was the Ames Brothers, who recorded often with Les Brown and his Orchestra. Ames wasn’t their real last name: they were actually the Urick Brothers—Ed, Vick, Gene, and Joe Urick—from Maiden, Massachusetts. Like the Mills Brothers, their style was more in line with barbershop harmony rather than jazz or gospel harmony.
This swing/pop style of vocal harmony started with the Boswell sisters didn’t last far beyond the 1950s. Probably the last sibling harmony group of this style to have any success was the McGuire Sisters. Christine, Dorothy, and Phyllis McGuire from Ohio became popular in the mid 1950s. And interesting fact, Phyllis McGuire became notorious in 1968 when she was romantically linked to mob boss Sam Giancana, an affair that involved connections to Frank Sinatra, Robert Kennedy, and the CIA. One of their biggest hits came in 1955, the doo wop song “Sincerely,” originally performed by the Moonglows in 1954.
Pop and Rock from the 1950s and 60s
After about 1955, that swing/pop style of close harmony singing, like the Mills Brothers and the Andrews Sisters fell out of favor. In its place came an explosion of styles including doo wop, folk, rock and roll, soul, and more. Family vocal groups continued to thrive in all of these styles, especially pop and rock.
The Everly Brothers were innovators in the country rock style, along with other sibling groups like the Louvin Brothers. Don and Phil Everly were some of the most successful early rock artists, influencing Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles. They had dozens of hits in the late 50s and early 60s, and when they sang, it was hard to tell where Don’s baritone voice ended and Phil’s tenor voice began.
The Beach Boys followed in the Everly Brothers’s footsteps. Although Brian Wilson, the group’s leader, claims he was influenced more by the jazz vocal group the Four Freshmen, which can be heard in their vocal style. The Beach Boys consisted of brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, along with cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine. They had dozens and dozens of hits throughout the 1960s. While their songs began as simple surf songs, their style and harmonies became more complex, with songs like “Warmth Of The Sun” and “God Only Knows.”
The Dixie Cups from New Orleans consisted of sisters Barbara Ann and Rosa Lee Hawkins and their cousin Joan Marie Johnson. They were around 20 years old when they fell onto the radar of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller in 1964. Their style was similar to a number of pop-oriented R&B groups from the early 1960s like the Ronettes or the Crystals. Their first hit “Chapel of Love” came in 1964, and was written by the established all-start songwriting team of Phil Spector, Jeff Barry, and Ellie Greenwich.
Brothers Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb from Australia, better known as The Bee Gees, began their career as imitators of the Beatles in the 1960s. Their style evolved many times—they were known in the 1960s for writing R&B hits like “To Love Somebody” and sad ballads like “I Started A Joke,” before becoming kings of disco in the 1970s.
Soul from the 1960s
In the 1960s, several African-American family vocal groups grew out of the various musical traditions established in the 1950s. These include The Isley Brothers, The Staple Singers, and The Jackson 5. Like the Bee Gees, these family units transformed their style several times over the course of their careers.
The Isley Brothers–Ronald, Rudolph, and O’Kelly Isley from Cincinnati—started their career with raw R&B hits like “Shout” and “Twist and Shout” in the late 1950s. In the 1960s, they recorded more clean cut work with Motown, like the song “This Old Heart Of Mine.” Finally in the 1970s, they became masters of funk with songs like “It’s Your Thing.”
The Staple Singers–consisting of father “Pop Staples” and children Cleotha, Pervis, Mavis, and Yvonne Staples–began as a gospel group from Chicago in the late 1950s. After staying in the gospel vein throughout the 1960s, they became one of the biggest R&B acts from the 70s with songs like “Express Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.”
Likewise, Gary, Indiana’s Jackson 5—brothers Michael, Marlon, Jackie, Tito, and Jermaine Jackson–began their career as a pop boy band. They adopted the disco sound in the 1970s, before Michael broke off as a solo artist and became a transformative pop sensation in the 1980s and beyond.