The Chordettes (Contemporary Musicians)
No study of the popular music of the 1950s would be complete without including a female singing group called the Chordettes. Their harmonies on such memorable recordings as "Lollipop" and "Mr. Sandman" were indeed sounds of the times, a period of transition from simple-minded, romantic popular music to the driving beat of rock 'n' roll. In total, the group placed 13 songs in the top 100 during the 1950s and early 1960s. Most of the Chordettes' recordings fall into the pop category, although a few, particularly in the later years, carry at least a hint of the revolutionary changes that were coming in American music.
Founding Chordettes member Jinny Osborn listened to the dulcet harmonies of barbershop singing as a young girl in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. She came by her exposure to this uniquely American musical form through her father's association with the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America, Inc., a group formed during the late 1930s. It was Osborn who in 1946 got together with three college friends in Sheboygan to form the Chordettes. The original group consisted of Janet Ertel, Carol Bushman, Dorothy Schwartz, and Osborn. The most significant of their influences was barbershop quartet singing, but the group was also inspired by the success of a popular folk-singing troupe called the Weavers. The group's earliest appearances were in and around Sheboygan, and during its early years, the quartet sang a cappella. Some of the group's earliest songs were adaptations for women of classic barbershop arrangements.
The group's big break came in 1949 with an appearance on Arthur Godfrey's immensely popular talent show. Shortly after they won the on-air talent contest, they were persuaded to sign on as regulars on the Godfrey show. The group was also signed to a recording contract with Columbia Records. For Columbia, the Chordettes recorded a number of 10-inch EPs (extended-play 45 rpm records), none of which was particularly memorable. During the four years they appeared as regulars on the Godfrey television show, they became closely acquainted with Archie Bleyer, who served as musical director for Godfrey from 1949 until 1954. Their relationship with Bleyer was to play an important role in the group's development. The early 1950s saw changes in the makeup of the group. In 1952, Schwartz left and was replaced by Lynn Evans; the following year, Margie Needham replaced Osborn.
In December of 1952, Bleyer formed his own record label called Cadence Records. The first artist he signed was Julius LaRosa, a singer who also appeared as a regular on the Godfrey show. For the first ten months of Cadence's existence, LaRosa was its only recording artist. Bleyer began signing other artists to the Cadence label in October of 1953. These included the Chordettes, who gave Cadence its first number one record in 1954 with "Mr. Sandman," a song which more than any of the group's other hits reflected the influence of barbershop quartet singing on their sound. The song, in fact, uses the bell chordne of barbershop singing's favorite embellishmentss its central motif. Although the relationship between Bleyer and the Chordettes began as professional, it became personal before long. Bleyer and singer Janet Ertel were married in 1954. (In an interesting footnote, the Bleyers' daughter Janet later married another successful Cadence recording artist, Phil Everly, half of the Everly Brothers.)
Although the group would release a number of hit songs in the years to come, none matched the success of "Mr. Sandman." The song not only rocketed to number one on Your Hit Parade but managed to stay there for seven weeks. Interestingly, the male voice (representing Mr. Sandman) heard on the record was none other than Bleyer. The next big hit for the Chordettes came in 1956 with their recording of "Eddie My Love," which made it into the top 20. Recordings of the same song by the Teen Queens and Fontane Sisters also managed to work their way up the charts to the top 20 in 1956.
In the wake of the sensation they had created with "Mr. Sandman," the Chordettes found themselves in demand throughout the show business world. They performed for President Dwight Eisenhower and entertained on countless radio programs, including disc jockey Alan Freed's popular show. Booking agencies for the nation's top nightclubs were eager to sign the group, and they made innumerable appearances on television variety shows, including those hosted by Ed Sullivan, Gary Moore, and Robert Q. Lewis. They later became regulars on the Lewis show.
After the success of "Eddie My Love" earlier in 1956, the Chordettes enjoyed a major hit later that year with "Born to Be with You," which made it into the top ten. This was followed late in 1956 with "Lay Down Your Arms." The following year they hit the charts again with the playful ballad "Just Between You and Me." Perhaps the most memorable of all of the Chordettes' hits was "Lollipop," released in 1958. Although it never achieved the success the group had enjoyed with "Mr. Sandman," the unforgettable song climbed to number two on the popular music charts. It represented Bleyer's attempt to give the group the rock 'n' roll sound they had not previously had. The bubblegum lyrics of the song have lived on long beyond the life of the group itself: "Lollipop, lollipop, oooh lolli, lolli, lolli...." The Chordettes also enjoyed hits with two theme songs from other media. "Zorro," which climbed to number 17 in 1958, was a vocal version of the instrumental theme for the hit television show of the same name. In 1961, the group released "Never on Sunday," the title song of the hit movie starring Melina Mercouri. "Never on Sunday" made it to number 13 on the pop charts. Shortly after the release of "Never on Sunday" in 1961, the group disbanded. Original member Janet Ertel died of cancer in 1988, the same year the group re-formed and performed on the Royal New York Doo-Wop Show.
Although the songs of this immensely popular girl group may seem simple and even sappy to contemporary pop music fans, the Chordettes' sound was very much a part of the era in which the group lived and performed. It is impossible to imagine American music of the 1950s without the unique sounds of the Chordettes.
"Mr. Sandman," Cadence, 1954.
"The Wedding," Cadence, 1956.
"Eddie My Love," Cadence, 1956.
"Born to Be with You," Cadence, 1956.
"Lay Down Your Arms," Cadence, 1956.
"Just Between You and Me," Cadence, 1957.
"Lollipop," Cadence, 1958.
"Zorro," Cadence, 1958.
"Never on Sunday," Cadence, 1961.
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