Entertainment

Phyllis McGuire, Last of a Singing Sisters Act, Dies at 89

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Phyllis McGuire, the lead singer and last surviving member of the McGuire Sisters, who enchanted youthful America in the 1950s with the best depictions of “Kind regards” and “Sugartime” in a sweet, innocent harmony that turned into car fins, charm bracelets and duck tail haircuts, died Tuesday at her Las Vegas home. She was 89 years old.

The Palm Eastern Mortuary in Las Vegas confirmed the death but gave no cause.

Ms. McGuire with her older sisters Christine and Dorothy enjoyed overnight success after winning the 1952 televised Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts competition. For the next 15 years they were one of the most popular singing groups in the country, performing on television series by Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle, Andy Williams and Red Skelton, on nightclub racetracks across the country, and on records that have sold millions.

The sisters embodied a 1950s sensitivity that maintained a standard of unreal perfection. They wore identical hoods, dresses, and smiles, moved with synchronized precision, and mixed voices in healthy songs for easier times. Their music, like that of Perry Como, Patti Page and other stars, which appealed to a white, middle-class audience, was in stark contrast to the rock and roll craze that took the world by storm in the mid to late 1950s.

In 1965, as the trio’s popularity waned, Phyllis McGuire’s image as the honey-blonde girl next door was shaken by published reports romantically linking her to Sam Giancana, a Chicago gangster with alleged connections to the Kennedy Administration and a Central Intelligence conspiracy Agency to involve the Mafia in unsuccessful attempts to assassinate the Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

Mr. Giancana and Ms. McGuire, who have been followed by federal agents for several years, appeared before a grand jury in Chicago. He refused to answer questions and was detained for scorn. She testified that she met him in Las Vegas in 1961, traveled with him to Europe, the Caribbean and elsewhere, and accepted his gifts in a lasting relationship. She was aware that he was a well-known gangster, she said, but insisted that she knew nothing of his activities in the underworld.

“It makes me look awful,” she told reporters afterward. “It would be different if I was alone, but I’m not single – I’m part of a trio. My sisters and my parents – they are broken about it. “

The McGuire Sisters retired from public appearances in 1968, Christine and Dorothy to raise families, Phyllis to continue as a soloist. She performed regularly in Las Vegas, where she lived for the rest of her life in a mansion with a swan moat and a replica of the Eiffel Tower sticking through the roof.

After serving a year on contempt, Mr. Giancana was released and fled to Mexico, where he lived in exile until he was arrested by the Mexican authorities in 1974. He was deported to the United States and agreed to testify in an organized crime prosecution in Chicago, but was killed at his home by an unknown assailant in 1975.

Ms. McGuire did not apologize for her relationship with Mr. Giancana. “Sam was the greatest teacher I could ever have,” she told Vanity Fair’s Dominick Dunne in 1989. “He was so wise in so many things. Sam is always portrayed as unattractive. He was not. He was a very handsome man. He wasn’t conspicuous. He didn’t drive a pink Cadillac, as they always said. “

In 1985 The sisters made a comeback, performing in casinos and clubs in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and elsewhere for nearly two decades. They sang their own hits, 1950s pop hits, and Broadway show songs, and Phyllis posed as Peggy Lee, Judy Garland, Pearl Bailey, and Ethel Merman.

“They take me back to the old days, the good times,” Barbara Pattison, a Toronto fan, told People magazine as the comeback began. “They are not loud and not far away. They bring back the beauty of the music. “

Phyllis McGuire was born on February 14, 1931 in Middletown, Ohio, the youngest of three daughters of Asa and Lillie (Fultz) McGuire. Her mother was a pastor at the First Church of God in Miamisburg, Ohio, and her father was a steel worker. The sisters began singing in church when Phyllis was 4 years old. They performed at weddings and other church services, then in veterans hospitals and military bases.

Phyllis’ 1952 marriage to Neal Van Ells, a broadcaster, ended in divorce in 1956. They didn’t have any children. Dorothy McGuire died in 2012 and Christine died in 2019. She is survived by nieces and nephews. Her longtime companion, Mike Davis, an oil and gas tycoon, died in 2016.

While making Las Vegas her home, she kept a Park Avenue apartment for years and then a townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

After winning Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, the sisters were regulars on Mr. Godfrey’s morning radio and television shows for six years. They did the covers of Life and Look magazines and signed with Coral Records, a subsidiary of Decca. Her first top 10 hit was “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight” in 1954. “Kind regards” (1955) and “Sugartime” (1958) were the No. 1 hits. She and “Picnic” (1956) each sold over a million times.

The McGuire Sisters were one of the many white groups to cover R&B hits of the 1950s, many by black artists, in which critics cited milder versions as better-selling. They also sang for Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush, as well as for Queen Elizabeth II.

In 1995, an HBO film, “Sugartime,” focused on the Giancana-McGuire affair, with John Turturro as the gangster and Mary-Louise Parker as Phyllis. The sisters made their last major appearance on a 2004 PBS special, Magic Moments: The Best of ’50s Pop. They were inducted into the National Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 1994, the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001, and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame in 2009.

Long after the usual retirement years for a singer, Ms. McGuire remained enthusiastic about her career.

“I’m not afraid to live and I’m not afraid to die,” she told Vanity Fair in 1989. “You only live once and I’ll live it to the fullest until I’m gone. And I’ll keep singing for as long as anyone wants me “

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