LOS ANGELES — They were the swinging, sassy voice of the homefront for U.S. service personnel overseas during World War II, singing catchy hit tunes such as “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” and “Rum and Coca Cola” that delighted Americans and catapulted the Andrews Sisters to the very top of the pop charts.
One of the most successful female recording groups in pop history, the sisters — LaVerne, Maxene and Patty Andrews — became a beloved American institution, lifting the nation’s spirits during a conflict whose outcome seemed often in doubt.
When the war ended in 1945, it was even the Andrews Sisters who announced it, to 5,000 GIs during a USO concert in Italy as the men were heading for duty in the Pacific. The troops’ commanding officer had interrupted the show, handing the women a note that was read aloud by the youngest, Patty Andrews.
“At first there was dead silence,” her sister Maxene told the Los Angeles Times years later. “Then Patty repeated the message. ‘This is really true,’ she told them, and then she started to cry. Suddenly there was a roar. They knew they would be going home, and they did.”
Patty Andrews, the group’s lead singer and its last surviving member, died Wednesday of natural causes at her longtime home in the San Fernando Valley city of Northridge, according to her attorney, Richard Rosenthal. She was 94. Maxene, the middle Andrews sister, died in 1995 and LaVerne, the eldest, in 1967.
The Andrews Sisters began singing professionally in 1932, when Patty was just 14, and scored their first major success in 1938 with an English version of the Yiddish song “Bei Mir Bist du Schon” (or “To me, you’re grand,” as the sisters put it.) The song zoomed to No. 1 and made them overnight stars.
Known for their close, three-part harmonies, full-throated delivery and humor on stage, they churned out hit after hit, including “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” “Beer Barrel Polka,” “Hold Tight, Hold Tight,” “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar,” “Rhumboogie,” “Shoo-Shoo Baby,” “Strip Polka,” and “I Can Dream, Can’t I?”
Two of their biggest wartime singles were the Caribbean-influenced “Rum and Coca Cola” and “I’ll Be With You in Apple Blossom Time,” one of their rare ballads.
From 1938 to 1951, they had 19 gold records, dozens of top 10 singles and record sales of nearly 100 million. They performed and recorded with the biggest stars of their day, among them Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, Danny Kaye, Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman and Carmen Miranda.
They appeared as themselves in more than a dozen movies, including the Abbott and Costello comedies “Buck Privates” and “In the Navy,” both released in 1941, and the Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour film “Road to Rio” in 1947.
They appeared at war bond rallies at home and entertained the troops overseas, becoming synonymous with the war effort.
“Looking back nostalgically at the war years, three memories come immediately to mind: Eagles, flags and the Andrews Sisters,” journalist Rex Reed told the Toronto Star in 1992. “LaVerne sang low, Maxene sang high, and Patty was the bouncy blond in the middle, singing and swaying to the melody.”
In 1973, long after their music had faded from the scene, the Andrews Sisters enjoyed a remarkable resurgence with the release of Bette Midler’s version of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” which brought them to the attention of a new generation of fans.
The following year, the two surviving Andrews sisters were a hit all over again, starring on Broadway in the nostalgic World War II musical “Over Here.” It ran for a year.
Patricia Marie Andrews was born in Mound, Minn., near Minneapolis, on Feb. 16, 1918, to Olga, a Norwegian American, and Peter Andrews, a Greek immigrant. She and her sisters were junior high dropouts who went on the road in the early 1930s when their father’s business foundered, playing in the roadhouses and on the vaudeville stages of the Midwest to help support their family.
They eventually made their way to New York, where an executive at Decca Records offered them a contract to make four singles at $50 apiece. One of the four was “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” which went nowhere. But on the flip side was “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen,” which launched them to stardom.
But the sisters’ close musical harmonies belied a private relationship that was often troubled, culminating in a falling out between Patty and Maxene that lasted more than 20 years. Music industry insiders blamed it on a dispute between Maxene and Patty’s husband, Walter Weschler, the group’s conductor and arranger, who died in 2010.
Although the sisters lived near each other in the San Fernando Valley, according to published reports, they spoke rarely and saw each other just twice from 1974 to Maxene’s death in 1995: when Patty paid a bedside visit to her sister in 1982 after Maxene suffered a heart attack, and in 1987, when they were together at the public dedication of their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
That year, the two spoke of the feud in separate interviews with the Times.
Maxene Andrews said it may simply have been the result of too many years of working so closely together. “There was really no breathing room … ,” she said. “We ate together, slept together, went out socially together. If we were going someplace, we got in the car together. … You can see how glued we were. There had to be a breaking point.”
Patty Andrews was less willing to speak about the issue, but said her sister was just jealous. “Ever since I was born, Maxene has been a problem, and that problem hasn’t stopped,” she said, but declined to discuss the matter further.
“I’m not going to do anything or say anything to destroy that image that the people love,” she said. “I hear that from the people that they love the Andrews Sisters and it’s a joy to them. Who am I to take that away?”
Patty Andrews’ first marriage, to agent Martin Melcher, ended in divorce in 1950 after he left her for Doris Day. She married Weschler in 1951 and they remained married until his death. She had no immediate survivors.