A Spectropop Essay
Oldies radio stations rarely play the Paris Sisters, and even when they do, it is inevitably their biggest hit recording: the sultry, atmospheric Phil Spector-produced "I Love How You Love Me." But the Paris Sisters' trademark sound graced many other notable recordings, most often featuring Priscilla's whisper-like vocals in front of sisters Sherell and Albeth.
The Paris Sisters' story begins in San Francisco, California even before rock 'n' roll had a name. In the early fifties, their style was nothing like what it would become under the aegis of Phil Spector. In fact, in the beginning the Paris Sisters sounded quite a bit like the Andrews Sisters. It was little wonder - the sisters' mother, who had given up her career at San Francisco Milano Opera Company (where she was knows as Frances Rossi), trained the three girls to sing at home, and as children the girls studied dance extensively. She took the girls to see the Andrew Sisters during an engagement at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, all dressed up and sitting in front - the Andrew Sisters couldn't help but notice - and this is how the Paris Sisters got their first public exposure - singing the "Rum and Coca Cola onstage at the invitation of the Andrews Sisters' themselves!
They began their recording career in 1954 as one of the youngest acts signed to Decca Records. Their debut single, "Ooh La La" b/w "Whose Arms Are You Missing", bore striking resemblance to the Andrews Sisters. Subsequent releases such as "Huckleberry Pie" and "Daughter, Daughter" featured a similar sound. In all the Paris Sisters cut nine singles for Decca between '54 and '56, two of them with Bing Crosby's son, Gary Crosby. During this period the girls performed live in California at local festivals, USO shows and local radio. Soon thereafter the Paris Sisters went to Las Vegas to work as a lounge act. At the time, Priscilla was barely nine, Albeth ten, and Sherell only fifteen. Heavy makeup and padded clothes disguised their age, abetted by fake IDs provided by their father (who conveniently happened to work at the hospital where the girls were born). During their Vegas stint they worked at the Dunes and the Frontier. They even got to meet a very young Elvis Presley--who sang one song directly to Priscilla at one of his shows.
After leaving Decca, the girls met Jess Rand, an ex-employee of Irving Berlin Music-turned-personal manager. They signed with Imperial, a deal that unfortunately only lasted for two single releases during 1957. Rand unsuccessfully managed the trio for the three dry years, until in 1961, Lester Sill bought their contract from Rand. Sill searched around for producers, but there were no takers - after all, the Andrew Sisters sound was hardly contemporary by the early 60s. So when Lester Sill decided to called in an owed favor and asked Phil Spector to produce the act. Spector, who was living in New York and enjoying a productive period under the auspices of Leiber/Stoller, flew out to Los Angeles to produce the act with Stan Ross at Gold Star. When Spector arrived, he checked into the Players Motel. Phil then went to see his Spector's Three buddy Russ Titelman. Phil asked Titleman to play guitar on the Paris Sisters session, together with pianist Michael Spencer and drummer Johnny Clauder. The session was a very different one for the Paris Sisters.
By this time the Paris Sisters were in their mid-teens. Priscilla, the youngest, was a strikingly beautiful girl and a soft, delicate voice. Spector took a liking to her right away. In 1958, Spector, with his group the Teddy Bears, had a #1 hit in a whisper-voice style called "To Know Him Is To Love Him,. After that, he had been rivaled with his own sound by Seattle trio the Fleetwoods. Phil saw in Priscilla an opportunity to produce an updated Teddy Bears sound, and to accomplish this Phil pulled Priscilla out front as lead vocalist, a move that Sherell and Albeth did not welcome. The resulting sides were "Be My Boy" and "I'll Be Crying Tomorrow," the A-Side of which was a gender-switched cover of "Be My Girl," a song Spector had previously cut with Ray Peterson as the flip to his smash hit "Corinna, Corinna."
The recording was brilliant, and Lester Sill started shopping the master to labels. There were no takers, however. No matter how hard Sill tried, the Paris Sisters, even produced by boy genius Phil Spector, were still a hard act to sell. With nowhere else to turn, Sill, together with partner Lee Hazelwood, created a new label Gregmark. A distribution deal set up with Herb Newman's Era Records. The promotion man hired to work the record was Clancy Grass. The record peaked on Billboard charts at #56 in May 1961.
The Paris Sisters Story, Pt. 2