Bell Chords & Mr. Sandman: Maybe the Chordettes Made It Sound Too Easy
The first time Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt and Dolly Parton got together for a recording session, in 1978, they cut a version of the Chordettes’s 1954 hit “Mr. Sandman.”
That Harris/Ronstadt/Parton collaboration was scrapped, alas, and it would be nine years before they regrouped to cut their now-classic Trio album.
Meanwhile, Harris put the “Mr. Sandman” track on her 1981 solo album Evangeline. She also recorded her own version as a single, multi-tracking the vocals.
It became Harris’s only top-40 pop chart hit (fun fact), and she began performing it in concert.
I was interviewing Harris around that time and asked her about recording “Mr. Sandman” with Ronstadt and Parton.
“Oh,” she said, with an exaggerated roll of her eyes, “I’m so mad we couldn’t tour together, because now I have to sing it by myself. I love the song, but you know, it’s really hard to sing.”
Copy that. And thus a final tip of the sleeping cap to Lynn Evans Mand, the lead voice on its definitive version.
Chordettes, fall 1954, number one for seven weeks.
Carolyn Marie Hartgate, known professionally first as Lynn Evans and later Lynn Evans Mand, died Feb. 6 at a care facility in Elyria, Ohio. She was 95.
With more than a dozen chart hits that also included “Lollipop,” “Just Between You and Me,” “Born to Be With You” and “Never On Sunday,” the Chordettes were known for smooth harmonies and a catchy pop sound.
“Mr. Sandman” has its own niche in modern popular culture, often as a nostalgic touchstone for the comforting myth that the 1950s were all safe warm innocence. But the truth is that Lynn Evans Mand and her sister Chordettes, who now are all gone, deserve more credit than that.
The Chordettes didn’t just put on pretty dresses, giggle, blush and sing a cute little song that would make their fellas proud.
They were professional singers who had been honing their music for eight years before “Mr. Sandman,” and would keep working at it for another nine before they disbanded in 1963.
That’s a long time and a lot of successful singing. They were regulars on the Arthur Godfrey television show before “Mr. Sandman” and they toured the country with their continuing string of hits after that.
Six women sang in the Chordettes over the years, but only four at a time, which makes sense since they formed as a barbershop quartet in 1946 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
In 1946, it must be noted, the idea of women singing barbershop seemed as radical as the notion of a woman walking into an actual barbershop for a haircut.
But Janet Ertel, whose father was a barbershop singer, wanted to sing those songs herself and asked “Why not,” which for women as for all other excluded groups is the question that starts it all.
So the Chordettes were rooted in close harmony singing, and for years they performed acapella. The first time they performed with a band, Mand would later say, it took them a while to synchronize.
Acapella or accompanied, close harmony singing isn’t something any random karaoke fan can do.
The Chordettes’s signature sound, the effects like the “bum bum bum” passages in “Mr. Sandman,” were an intricate “bell chord” arrangement created by their producer, Archie Bleyer, and carefully worked into shape by the singers.
The late Carol Buschmann, another Chordette, explained it to Michael Callahan for the notes to a Varese-Sarabande greatest-hits CD.
“The bell chords come from barbershop,” she said, “where each of us did an individual note to make a chord. For barbershop, they would only use four notes, going up or down. In ‘Sandman,’ Archie had us go both up and down all throughout the chorus.”
When they did it live, she added, “The crowd would go, ‘Wow’.”
Sort of like Emmylou.
“Mr. Sandman” wasn’t a one-off vocal arrangement gimmick. For the liner notes to another greatest-hits CD on Rhino, Lynn Mand told Charles Wolfe, “Archie would find a song and work out in his head how he wanted it to sound. Then he would write out the voice arrangements, then he’d call us over to his house, or the studio, and show us the song. We’d go over it several times, fiddling with the voicing, then we’d take it and work on it.”
They’d spend days in the studio, getting the sound they heard at a time when producers didn’t have today’s splicing and tweaking tools. Sometimes Bleyer would take them to different studios to get the right feel. How hard it can be to make something sound easy.
Female harmony groups were a significant part of the sound in the early rock ’n’ roll years. The Chordettes, the McGuire Sisters, the Poni-Tails and others in a sense carried over from the pop vocals of the early 1950s, but they were also moving that sound toward what would become the “girl group” explosion of the 1960s.
The Chordettes’s version of “Eddie My Love,” which reached the top 20, sounds tame next to the Teen Queens record they were covering, but it was perfectly good harmony and for some listeners it may have served as a bridge to the Teen Queens.
The Chordettes weren’t defined, in any case, by their cover versions, because despite Bleyer’s valiant efforts, they just weren’t rock ’n’ roll singers. They were a high-class, high-quality vocal harmony group, and there’s always room for one of those in any era of pop music.
Arlene Smith of the Chantels, one of the female vocal groups that picked up the torch from ensembles like the Chordettes and carried it forward, has always said she doesn’t like the term “girl group.”
“I think it diminishes our music,” Smith said in an interview a couple of years ago. “It sounds like we were some sort of novelty. I think it’s one reason we’ve never been taken as seriously as male artists.”
She’s right, and that’s a subject of its own. For now, let’s just give the Chordettes a last salute of respect — because what they did, and did well, was hard.