Phyllis McGuire, Last of a Singing Sisters Act, Dies at 89
Starting in the ’50s, the McGuire Sisters were one of America’s most popular vocal groups, their three-part harmonies a balm to audiences rattled by rock ’n’ roll.
Phyllis McGuire, the lead singer and last surviving member of the McGuire Sisters, who bewitched teenage America in the 1950s with chart-topping renditions of “Sincerely” and “Sugartime” in a sweet, innocent harmony that went with car fins, charm bracelets and duck-tail haircuts, died on Tuesday at her home in Las Vegas. She was 89.
The Palm Eastern Mortuary in Las Vegas confirmed the death but did not specify a cause.
Ms. McGuire, with her older sisters Christine and Dorothy, shot to success overnight after winning the televised “Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts” contest in 1952. Over the next 15 years, they were one of the nation’s most popular vocal groups, singing on the television variety shows of Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle, Andy Williams and Red Skelton, on nightclub circuits across the country and on records that sold millions.
The sisters epitomized a 1950s sensibility that held up a standard of unreal perfection, wearing identical coifs, dresses and smiles, moving with synchronized precision and blending voices in wholesome songs for simpler times. Their music, like that of Perry Como, Patti Page and other stars who appealed to white, middle-class audiences, contrasted starkly with the rock ’n’ roll craze that was taking the world by storm in the mid-to-late ’50s.
In 1965, as the trio’s popularity began to fade, Phyllis McGuire’s image as the honey-blonde girl next door was shattered by published reports linking her romantically with Sam Giancana, a Chicago mobster with reputed ties to the Kennedy administration and a Central Intelligence Agency plot to enlist the Mafia in what proved to be unsuccessful attempts to assassinate the 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 had met him in Las Vegas in 1961, traveled with him to Europe, the Caribbean and elsewhere and accepted his gifts in a continuing relationship. She was aware that he was a reputed gangster, she said, but insisted that she knew nothing of his underworld activities.
“It makes me look terrible,” she told reporters afterward. “It would be different if I were on my own, but I’m not a single — I’m part of a trio. My sisters and my parents — they’re brokenhearted about this.”
The McGuire Sisters retired from public appearances in 1968, Christine and Dorothy to raise families, Phyllis to continue as a soloist. She appeared 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 rising through the roof.
After serving a year for contempt, Mr. Giancana was released, and he fled to Mexico, where he lived in exile until arrested by the Mexican authorities in 1974. Deported to the United States, he agreed to testify in a prosecution of organized crime in Chicago but was killed by an unknown assailant at his home in 1975.
Ms. McGuire remained unapologetic about her relationship with Mr. Giancana. “Sam was the greatest teacher I ever could have had,” she told Dominick Dunne of Vanity Fair in 1989. “He was so wise about so many things. Sam is always depicted as unattractive. He wasn’t. He was a very nice-looking man. He wasn’t flashy. He didn’t drive a pink Cadillac, like they used to say.”
In 1985, the sisters reunited for a comeback and performed 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 did impersonations of Peggy Lee, Judy Garland, Pearl Bailey and Ethel Merman.
“They take me back to the olden times, the beautiful times,” Barbara Pattison, a fan in Toronto, told People magazine as the comeback began. “They are not loud and they are not distant. They bring back the beauty in music.”
Phyllis McGuire was born in Middletown, Ohio, on Feb. 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 began singing in church when Phyllis was 4. They performed at weddings and other services, then at veterans’ hospitals and military bases.
Phyllis’s 1952 marriage to Neal Van Ells, a broadcaster, ended in divorce in 1956. They had no 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 magnate, died in 2016.
While making Las Vegas her home, for years she kept a Park Avenue apartment 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 made the covers of Life and Look magazines and signed with Coral Records, a Decca subsidiary. Their first Top 10 hit was “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight” in 1954. “Sincerely” (1955) and “Sugartime” (1958) were No. 1 hits; they and “Picnic” (1956) each sold over a million copies.
The McGuire Sisters were one of the many white groups that covered 1950s R&B hits, many by Black artists, in what critics called blander versions though better-selling ones. They also sang for Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush and for Queen Elizabeth II.
In 1995, an HBO movie, “Sugartime,” focused on the Giancana-McGuire affair, with John Turturro as the mobster and Mary-Louise Parker as Phyllis. The sisters gave their last big performance 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 past the customary retirement years for a singer, Ms. McGuire remained passionate about her career.
“I don’t fear living, and I don’t fear dying,” she told Vanity Fair in 1989. “You only live once, and I’m going to live it to the fullest, until away I go. And I’m going to continue singing as long as somebody wants me.”
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Their two No. 1 hits — “Sincerely” and “Sugartime” — reflected the trio’s sweet, earnest image. The sisters, who began singing in church in Ohio during the 1930s, had an uncanny sense of timing and close harmony matched by a perky, ever-smiling stage manner.
They were so close that they sometimes held hands as they sang or took their bows. Yet the spotlight seemed to shine the brightest on Phyllis McGuire, the youngest sister, who always stood in the center and sang the lead.
Ms. McGuire, who was 89 and the last surviving McGuire sister, died Dec. 29 at her home in Las Vegas. Her death was announced in a paid notice in the Las Vegas Sun newspaper. The cause was not disclosed.
Even as musical tastes began to change, the McGuire Sisters kept going strong. By 1960, each of the sisters was earning more than $1 million a year.
After a final appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1968, they parted ways. Christine and Dorothy were married and raising families. Phyllis, who had been married once in the 1950s, was single and raising eyebrows.
Rumors began circulating, and then were confirmed without apology by Ms. McGuire, that she was the girlfriend of Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana.
They had met in 1959, when Ms. McGuire and her sisters were performing at the Desert Inn, one of the Las Vegas casinos run by Giancana. “Who’s the one in the middle?” he reportedly asked.
Ms. McGuire, who had a weakness for the blackjack tables, ran up a debt of tens of thousands of dollars at the Desert Inn. Giancana, watching from afar, told his casino boss to “eat it” — or forgive the debt.
Thus began one of the most unlikely romances in show business. Giancana, who got his start as Al Capone’s driver in Chicago, was widowed, bald and in his 50s. He had been arrested dozens of times, linked to crimes from illegal gambling to murder, and had served time in prison.
Ms. McGuire was still in her 20s and had a public image as benign and carefully arranged as one of the McGuire Sisters’ hit songs. Giancana sent her lavish gifts of jewelry and furs and often met her overseas, wherever the sisters were performing. Strange as it may seem, everyone who knew them agreed they were in love.
“It’s amazing that it ever took place,” William F. Roemer Jr., an FBI agent who tracked Giancana for years, told the Los Angeles Times in 1995. “She had everything. She had beauty. She had money. Yet, she fell in love with this gangster. I could never figure it out.”
In 1961, FBI agents wiretapped their room in a Phoenix motel. Later, after being questioned about Giancana’s activities, Ms. McGuire pleaded ignorance. Federal authorities asked her to cooperate, with the implicit threat that her career would be ruined if her affair with a mafia kingpin were exposed.
“She said she would, but she never did,” Roemer said. “She never cooperated with us. She double-crossed us really.”
In 1965, Ms. McGuire testified before a grand jury investigating Giancana for racketeering. She admitted that they had a relationship and that she was aware of his reputation but maintained she knew nothing about his life of crime.
The revelation “really hurt our career,” Ms. McGuire told the Chicago Tribune in 1989. “We were blacklisted for a while on TV. . . . We were America’s sweethearts, and for one of America’s sweethearts to be with that man . . . ”
Giancana went to prison for a year in 1965, then lived in Mexico and South America, where he was visited by Ms. McGuire. He later moved back to suburban Chicago and was cooking in his basement in 1975 when an assailant entered and shot him seven times in the head. The murder was never solved.
“I just knew that I liked the man,” Ms. McGuire told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “He was very nice to me. And if he had done all those things they said he did, I wondered why in God’s name he was on the street and not in jail.”
Phyllis Jean McGuire was born Feb. 14, 1931, in Middletown, Ohio, and grew up in the nearby town of Miamisburg.
Her father was a steelworker, and her mother was a minister. Phyllis was 4 when she and her sisters began singing in their mother’s church. (Christine was five years older than Phyllis, Dorothy three years older.) Before long, they were performing at weddings, revival meetings and the USO. They had a long engagement at a hotel in Dayton, Ohio, and appeared on radio and television.
In 1952, the McGuire Sisters moved to New York and landed an eight-week engagement on Kate Smith’s radio show. They later won a talent contest and were featured on Arthur Godfrey’s popular TV show. Their first Top 10 hits came in 1954, with “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight” and “Muskrat Ramble,” and “Sincerely” reached No. 1 in 1955.
Two years later, they recorded “Sugartime,” by Charlie Phillips and Odis Echols, which climbed to No. 1 in 1958 and became the sisters’ signature tune:
Sugar in the mornin’
Sugar in the evenin’
Sugar at suppertime
Be my little sugar
And love me all the time
Even before the sisters broke up in 1968, Phyllis McGuire began working on her own, including an acting role in the 1963 Frank Sinatra film “Come Blow Your Horn.”
By 1985, the McGuire Sisters were ready to launch a comeback, but they struggled to re-create the instinctive harmonies they had in their youth.
“We rehearsed eight hours a day, five days a week for six months,” Phyllis McGuire told the Tribune in 1989. “Then one day, after perspiring and toiling and worrying, we started rehearsing and all in the same instance we looked at each other and said, ‘My God, thank you, that’s it.’ We had it back.”
Wearing matching dresses and hairstyles, the sisters performed in nightclubs and concert venues until 2004. Dorothy McGuire died in 2012, Christine McGuire in 2018.
Phyllis McGuire’s early marriage to Neal Van Ells ended in divorce. After Giancana’s death, she was occasionally linked to wealthy men, but she never remarried and had no immediate survivors.
A 1995 HBO film, “Sugartime,” starring Mary-Louise Parker and John Turturro, portrayed Ms. McGuire’s life with Giancana. She denounced it as “riddled with blatant inaccuracies, exaggerations and distortions.”
In 1999, after Las Vegas police stopped her limousine and questioned her driver, the 68-year-old Ms. McGuire emerged from the car “screaming, waving and flailing her arms” and was arrested for head-butting and kicking a police officer. Charges were dropped after a plea deal.
Ms. McGuire was an astute investor, and it is widely believed that much of Giancana’s fortune came into her hands. She had a jewelry collection said to rival those of Elizabeth Taylor and Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos.
She lived on one of the grandest estates in Las Vegas, in a house that contained, under its roof, a 40-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower and another of the Arc de Triomphe. Steel shutters could cover the bulletproof windows with the touch of a button. She had five gardeners and a pond with black swans floating by.
“I’m not ashamed of my past,” she told Vanity Fair, describing everything from music to the mob. “I was doing what I honestly felt.”
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