I’ve always imagined Wisconsin in the 1950s as an extraordinarily innocent place. What other conclusion can I draw after hearing the Chordettes?
The Chordettes were a female vocal quartet formed by college friends in Sheboygan. They wore matching party dresses, elbow-length white gloves, and shapely Donna Reed hairdos.
The friends chose their name back when musical groups were earnest rather than edgy. Female bachelors were bachelorettes, and female drum majors were majorettes. So why wouldn’t four women singing beautiful chords be the Chordettes?
The group performed around Sheboygan, inspired by cheerful female pop acts like the Andrews Sisters and Boswell Sisters. One member’s dad loved barbershop quartets, so that style became an influence, too.
The Chordettes’ breakthrough was a winning performance on Arthur Godfrey’s talent show in 1949. Godfrey made them regulars on his program, and that led to a contract with Cadence Records.
Then came their first bid for pop immortality: 1954’s “Mr. Sandman.” This two-minute gem stayed at number one for seven weeks, and it’s easy to see why. Nothing better represents the wholesome side of the 1950s. With sweet barbershop harmonies, the Chordettes pine for a cute guy to call their own. They want him to have wavy hair, and they think it would be “peachy” to meet him right away.
That’s right—they actually use the word “peachy.” Is it any wonder that the bobbysoxers down at the malt shop made “Mr. Sandman” their anthem?
Coincidentally, Elvis Presley cut his first record in 1954, and it wasn’t long before rowdy rock and roll transformed the music business. While many old-fashioned vocal groups fell out favor, the Chordettes tried to keep up with the times.
In 1958, they made their second bid for pop immortality with a more exuberant two-minute gem called “Lollipop.” The rhythms were bolder than “Mr. Sandman”’s, and the harmonies sharper. Still, no one would mistake the Chordettes for 1950s juvenile delinquents. Their version of “Lollipop” is about as clean-cut as the rock-and-roll genre ever got. In live performances of the new hit, they smiled graciously and threw candy to the audience.
The Chordettes continued to top the charts at the dawn of the 1960s, but their days were clearly numbered. Bob Dylan and the Beatles would soon change our view of Top 40 music, just as the feminist movement would soon change our view of women. After one last tribute to puppy love called “Never on Sunday,” Sheboygan’s pop sensation broke up in 1961.
I don’t think I’d want to live in the absurdly innocent Wisconsin conjured up by “Mr. Sandman,” “Lollipop,” and the Chordettes’ dozen other hits. But for two minutes at a time, it’s an irresistible place to visit.
(This story originally aired November 27, 2015)