Phyllis McGuire, lead singer and last surviving member of the McGuire Sisters, who bewitched teenage America in the 1950s with outstanding renditions of “Sincerely” and “Sugartime” in a sweet, innocent harmony that matched car fins , charm bracelets and ducktail hairstyles, died Tuesday at her Las Vegas home. She was 89 years old.
The Palm Eastern mortuary in Las Vegas confirmed the death without specifying the cause.
Ms McGuire, along with her older sisters Christine and Dorothy, rose to overnight success after winning the “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts” television competition in 1952. For the next 15 years, they were one of the vocal groups. the nation’s most popular, singing on the Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle, Andy Williams and Red Skelton TV variety shows, on nightclub tours across the country and on records that have sold millions.
The sisters embodied a 1950s sensibility that upheld a standard of unreal perfection, wearing identical headdresses, dresses, and smiles, moving with synchronized precision, and mixing vocals into sane songs for simpler times. Their music, like that of Perry Como, Patti Page, and other stars who wowed a white middle-class audience, contrasted sharply with the rock ‘n’ roll craze that was taking the middle world by storm. the end of the 1950s.
In 1965, as the trio’s popularity began to wane, Phyllis McGuire’s image as the honey blonde girl next door was shattered by published reports linking her romantically to Chicago gangster Sam Giancana. with reputed ties to the Kennedy administration and a Central Intelligence Agency plot to enlist the Mafia in what turned out to be unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.
Mr. Giancana and Ms. McGuire, who had been followed by federal agents for several years, appeared before a grand jury in Chicago. He refused to answer questions and was jailed for contempt. 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 an ongoing relationship. She knew he was a notorious gangster, she said, but insisted that she knew nothing about his activities in the underworld.
“It makes me sound terrible,” she told reporters afterwards. “It would be different if I was alone, but I’m not single – I’m part of a threesome. My sisters and parents – they are heartbroken about it.
The McGuire sisters retired from public appearances in 1968, Christine and Dorothy to raise families, Phyllis to continue as soloist. She has appeared regularly in Las Vegas, where she lived the rest of her life in a mansion with a swan ditch and a replica of the Eiffel Tower rising through the roof.
After serving a year for contempt of court, Mr. Giancana was released and fled to Mexico, where he lived in exile until his arrest by Mexican authorities in 1974. Deported to the United States, he agreed to testify in an organized crime prosecution in Chicago, but was killed by an unknown assailant at his home in 1975.
Ms McGuire has been left with no apology about 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 about so many things. Sam is always portrayed as unattractive. He wasn’t. He was a very pretty man. He was not flashy. He didn’t drive a pink Cadillac, as they said.
In 1985, the sisters reunited for a comeback and played for almost two decades at casinos and clubs in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and elsewhere. They sang their own hits, 1950s pop hits and Broadway show tunes, and Phyllis emulated Peggy Lee, Judy Garland, Pearl Bailey, and Ethel Merman.
“They’re taking me back to the olden days, the better days,” Toronto fan Barbara Pattison told People magazine at the start of the comeback. “They are not loud and they are not far away. They bring back the beauty of music.
Phyllis McGuire was born in Middletown, Ohio on February 14, 1931, the youngest of three daughters of Asa and Lillie (Fultz) McGuire. Her mother was a minister of the First Church of God in Miamisburg, Ohio, and her father was a steelworker. The sisters started singing in church when Phyllis was 4 years old. They happened at weddings and other services, then in veterans hospitals and military bases.
Phyllis’ marriage in 1952 to Neal Van Ells, a broadcaster, ended in divorce in 1956. They had no children. Dorothy McGuire passed away in 2012 and Christine passed away in 2019. She is survived by her nieces and nephews and longtime companion, Edward Michael Davis.
While making Las Vegas her home, she kept for years an apartment on Park Avenue, then a townhouse on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
After winning the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts, the sisters were regulars on Mr. Godfrey’s morning radio and television shows for six years. They made the covers of Life and Look magazines and signed with Coral Records, a subsidiary of Decca. Their first Top 10 hit was “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight” in 1954. “Sincerely” (1955) and “Sugartime” (1958) were # 1 hits; they and “Picnic” (1956) each sold over a million copies.
The McGuire Sisters were one of many white groups to cover 1950s R&B hits, many of them black artists, in what critics called duller, albeit top-selling, versions. They also sang for Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush and 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 gave their last big performance on a 2004 PBS special, “Magic Moments: The Best of 50’s 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.
Far beyond the usual retirement years for a singer, Ms. McGuire has remained passionate 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’m going to live it fully until ’till I leave. And I’ll keep singing for as long as anyone wants me to.