What comes to mind when you think of the Andrews Sisters? Maybe holiday classics like the Bing Crosby collaborations “Jingle Bells” and “Mele Kalikimaka.” You might remember the Andrews Sisters’ appearance in the comedy Buck Privates or the WWII-era hit “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” You might even know that the Andrews Sisters spent their childhood in Minnesota, growing up on the northside of Minneapolis.
But did you know that the three sisters became symbols of hope and patriotism, that they were the daughters of Greek and Norwegian immigrants, or that their music reshaped the landscape of popular music in the ’30s and ’40s? The Andrews Sisters popularized new musical styles like the boogie-woogie beat and invented new harmonies at a time when audiences were growing tired of the worn sister-act trope.
The Current investigated the Andrews Sisters’ backstory in an episode of the The Current Rewind podcast, and in the process uncovered some unexpected details, including Maxene Andrews’s personal relationship with her manager, Lynda Wells, and the obstacles that the two faced because of it.
Despite the longevity of the Andrews Sisters’ music, it’s easy to lose sight of just how widespread their music was during their time. The Andrews Sisters had 46 Top 10 hits and a dozen number ones, and are Minnesota’s second-best-selling musicians — surpassed only by Prince.
Peter Andrews came to the United States from Greece; Olga Sollie left her home country of Norway with her family when she was an infant. Eventually, both found themselves in Minneapolis, where they had their daughters LaVerne, Maxene, and Patty, as well as Anglyn, who was born between LaVerne and Maxene but died at just over a year old.
LaVerne, Maxene, and Patty began singing together as children, huddled around the family piano in their Minneapolis home, or in their uncles’ house in the small town of Mound. LaVerne was the only one of the three who could read music and she would accompany her sisters on the piano. According to Maxene’s manager Lynda Wells, LaVerne was the “instigator” of the three sisters singing together. “She heard the Boswell Sisters and thought that she had two little sisters, and they can do that,” Wells told The Current’s Cecilia Johnson. “I don’t think she thought ahead, that there was going to be a career for them.”
The Andrews Sisters started their performance careers in the Twin Cities and in 1931 won first place in a talent show at Minneapolis’s Orpheum Theatre. Vaudeville variety shows were a common way for young singers to reach audiences, and the three sisters joined Larry Rich’s traveling road show.
By the time the Andrews Sisters joined the vaudeville scene, audiences were growing tired of the sister acts that had become a cliché, but jazz critic and Bing Crosby biographer Gary Giddins explained what made the Andrews Sisters unique.
“The Andrews Sisters sort of revived a tradition in American entertainment that was over the top in the ’20s,” Giddins told Michaelangelo Matos. “So many of these sister acts in the vaudeville era and afterwards were just pretty young things in pleated dresses and calico and that kind of thing. People got really sick and tired of that. And then the Andrews Sisters came along and they had a unique sound, a very bright harmonic sense.”
In 1937, the Andrews Sisters signed to the New York label Decca Records, and one of their first songs, a Yiddish tune called “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön,” immediately became a hit. The song was written for the musical I Could If I Would, and new lyrics from musician Sammy Cahn along with the Andrews’ Sisters tight vocal harmonies introduced the song to audiences across the country.
The Andrews Sisters also popularized the boogie-woogie beat with their 1940 song “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar.” Boogie-woogie was mostly practiced in black communities, but the Andrews Sisters’ use of the rhythm propelled it into the mainstream.
“After the Andrews Sisters did it, and other groups started doing pieces with boogie-woogie, it became a national fad and a kind of alternative rhythm to the 4/4 of swing,” said Giddins. “The Andrews Sisters played an enormous part in that popularity.”
The Andrews Sisters were on tour in December 1941 when President Roosevelt announced that the U.S. was entering WWII. They played a crucial role in the war effort, performing for troops at USO shows around the world and entertaining radio listeners across the U.S.
Tom Rockvam recalls hearing the Andrews Sisters sing on the radio as a child. “The radio was on 24 hours a day, and it was all news,” the Mound resident and Andrews Sisters historian told Cecilia Johnson and Andrea Swensson. “The only time it broke was news about WWII. And the only time that changed was the six or eight times a day that the Andrews Sisters sang. That was such a relief — to hear music.”
“That’s, to me, the irony of three girls from immigrant families who became iconic representations of one of the worst times in the history of America, in the history of the world — WWII — and who became a beacon, a light that all of these men and women who were fighting for freedom,” said Lynda Wells. “They are iconic.”
By the early ‘50s, the sisters were beginning to move apart. Their mother Olga died in 1948, and Peter passed in 1949. In 1952, Patty married the group’s pianist, Walter Weschler, who convinced Patty to leave the trio to pursue a solo career.
Until recently, many fans assumed that the Andrews Sisters’ story ends here, but there’s another aspect of Maxene’s history that surfaced in The Current’s research. In addition to being her manager, goddaughter, and later her adopted daughter, Lynda Wells was also Maxene’s partner. Maxene never publicly came out as gay — she married music publisher Lou Levy in 1941 and the pair adopted two children, but they were divorced in 1951.
“She had never had a female lover until one person [before me], and this was after her divorce, and they were together for 13 years,” said Wells. “When that finished, that was the end of Maxene thinking she was gay. It [was] a different era, and she really did not consider herself a lesbian.”
Maxene met Wells’ parents while the Andrews Sisters were performing at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, early on in their career. Wells’ parents were staying at the hotel, and after seeing the Andrews Sisters sing there each night, they quickly became friends with Maxene. After Wells’ father was killed in the Army Air Corps in the late ’30s, her mother kept in touch with Maxene and eventually asked her to be Wells’ godmother. Wells first met Maxene when she was 13, but the two didn’t meet again until years later at a party. “We were just never apart after that,” said Wells.
“Maxene and I were life partners, and the only legal course we had was for her to adopt me,” Wells said. “There was no such thing as being married at that time.”
The Andrews Sisters’ career as a group came to an end in 1966 when LaVerne was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away in 1967. Maxene passed in 1995, and Patty died in January 2013. The Andrews Sisters left behind more than just a catalog of music — they helped invent new musical styles and lifted Americans’ spirits during some of the country’s darkest years.
This article was produced as a part of a collaboration between The Current and The Growler, a monthly craft beer lifestyle magazine covering the best stories in beer, food, and culture. Find this article online and in print in the March edition of The Growler.