SHARONChordettes struck a chord with fans of Godfrey show
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a continuing series of stories on some of the 2001 inductees into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and Museum, Sharon.
By Joe Pinchot
It's almost unthinkable today that a group singing barbershop harmonies could hit the top of the charts.
But the success of the Chordettes in the 1950s shows what can happen when the barbershop community sticks up for one if its own.
The Chordettes were formed in Sheboygan, Wis. Although the singers started with folk songs, they focused on barbershop harmonies under the influence of founder Jinny Osborn, now Jinny Janis.
Ms. Janis said she fell in love with barbershop singing through her father, O.H. King Cole, who was president of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Quartet Singing in America.
They sang a cappella in local engagements but the quartet's career took off when it appeared on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scout radio show in 1949.
"We won it and the prize for winning the show was to be on for a week," Ms. Janis said. "There was so much mail coming in from all our barbershop friends and everything that he said, 'We've decided that we want to keep you on as permanent.' "
When Godfrey hit television, the Chordettes -- which also featured Dorothy Schwartz, Janet Ertel and Carol Bushman -- went with him.
The quartet added backing instrumentation when it landed on the Godfrey show, the first of what became many breaks with barbershop convention.
At a time when groups generally needed chart success to make it to television or radio, the Chordettes didn't go into the recording studio until they already were television stars.
Godfrey's music director, Archie Bleyer, started his own label, Cadence Records, and signed the Chordettes.
"He's the one who arranged 'Mr. Sandman' and did all the successful records that we enjoyed doing," Ms. Janis said of Bleyer, who eventually married Ms. Ertel.
Ms. Schwartz had left the group and Lynn Evans replaced her before the recordings began.
"Mr. Sandman," which was based on the bell chord, a barbershop staple, was the group's second single and only No. 1 hit on the Billboard charts, sitting on the charts for 20 weeks in 1954.
Ms. Janis did not appear on "Mr. Sandman."
"Margie (Needham) came in to sing my part while I had my daughter (Kay) while recording 'Mr. Sandman,' " Ms. Janis said. "What a time to step out of a group. Dumb! My daughter's had to live this down for years."
Ms. Janis rejoined the group and shared in the success of its other Top 10 hits, "Born to be With You" from 1956, "Just Between You and Me" from 1957 and "Lollipop" in 1958.
Lesser hits included "Eddie My Love," "Lay Down Your Arms," "Zorro" and "Never on Sunday."
Ms. Janis said while the group was probably the first barbershop act to hit the pop charts -- 14 times between 1954 and 1961 -- the singers didn't contemplate their place in musical history at the time.
"It was just so thrilling for us," she said. "You can imagine, we were kids from Sheboygan, Wis. I mean, nothing like this happened. It was just unbelievable. It all happened so fast and furiously that it was hard to keep an even keel."
Ms. Janis named "Lollipop" as her favorite song.
"That was kind of raucous and I liked that," she said. "I always liked dancing. That was a very popular record for us also."
The group disbanded in 1963 and Ms. Janis has shied away from professional singing.
"I've just raised my kids, play a little golf, live in Palm Springs and retired very happy," she said.
But she still keeps her barbershop skills honed.
"I go out and sing barbershop things with fellas," she said. "We have a group called the Pioneers that meets in Chicago once a year. There are about 150 of us. We get there and we woodshed and do all that nifty stuff. It's a lot of fun."
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