She Bop

It Didn't Start with Babes in Toyland: A Short and Eccentric History of Women in Local Music, 1931-Present

It Didn't Start with Babes in Toyland: A Short and Eccentric History of Women in Local Music, 1931-Present

By Lindsey

Thomas

For most people, the phrase "women in Minneapolis music" conjures a very specific image: knee-high boots stomping out a beat, long hair whipping across a microphone, lyrics ranging from confident to catty—in other words, the riotous rock bands from 15 years ago, known as much for gumption as talent. Back then, the habit of noticing female musicians as if they were a recently discovered life form wasn't confined to the Twin Cities; music rags across the country went wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the thought of girls who—wait 'til you hear this—play guitar.

Even today, the early '90s are considered the defining era for women in Minnesota music. I know, because the first thing plenty of music-savvy people said when they heard about my quest to identify landmark promoters/contributors to the scene was, "You have to write about [insert band from the '90s]!" Is this what the history has been reduced to? Kat Bjelland struck a chord and legions of female artists sprung forth like Athena hacking an escape route through Zeus's forehead? That just doesn't seem fair. So I went looking for the others—the jazz singers, club owners, accordion players, booking agents, DJs—who deserved as much appreciation and notoriety as a few fleeting pages of newsprint can afford.

This is by no means a comprehensive history. The '90s boom alone would require a six-part series, heavy with footnotes, interviews, genealogical trees, and Venn diagrams. Instead, I looked for those who made a real impact on the Twin Cities, and maybe drew a little national attention while they were at it. The goal was to stick to the women who contributed to the local community, not those who skipped town at the age of four and slipped into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame on a birth certificate technicality (sorry, Ms. Gumm/Garland). In that spirit, it seemed appropriate to start out with one of the most successful female groups in music history. Patty Andrews, the sole remaining member of the famed sibling trio, recently turned 88—a mere 75 years after her big break on Hennepin Avenue.

1931: The Andrews Sisters perform in a children's revue at the Orpheum Theater, which leads to their first national tour. This marks the beginning of a career that includes the sale of more than 90 million records, and the first platinum record ever earned by an all-female group. They become a hit on the silver screen (performing alongside Abbott & Costello, Bing Crosby, and Bob Hope) and on USO tours where they sing their biggest hits: "Bei Mir Bist du Schön," "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," and "Rum and Coca-Cola."

City Pages:When did you start singing?

Patty Andrews: I started singing when I was five but we went on the road when I was about 13. All three of us sang individually and then Maxene and I sang duos. And one day LaVerne decided to sing with us because she was the low voice. We used to copy the Boswell Sisters. They were a very, very famous trio in the '30s. We did a couple of their songs. Everybody starts out mimicking somebody.

CP:I read somewhere that you were born in Mound but grew up in Minneapolis.

Andrews: No, no, no. Let's get this cleared up once and for all. We were born in Minneapolis, we lived in north Minneapolis, but we used to go to Mound because our uncles were there and our grandmother's house was there. We used to go there every summer as kids. When we were out on the road, whenever we had time open we'd come back to Mound and spend it there at our uncles' grocery store. That came in handy when you weren't working.... You're supposed to laugh there, okay?

CP:So when you weren't busy being world-famous singers, you bagged groceries?

Andrews: [Laughs] Right, that's a cute way of putting it.

CP:Tell me about your first big show at the Orpheum.

Andrews: We were working in a kiddie revue put on by a dancing school. They had a show on for one full week at the Orpheum Theater and we were part of that show. The dancing schools put those shows on quite a bit and ours was called the Knickerbocker Dancing School. The man who was headlining was Larry Rich. He was the big star performer. He heard us sing and got in touch with our mother and father and said he'd like to sign us up for his touring show, which we did the following winter. We joined him and were in the business ever since. We went on the RKO circuit—that was all the RKO theaters around the country.

CP:Were you nervous about getting up onstage in front of all those people?

Andrews: It never occurred to us. When you're young, you don't think of that most of the time. You're just so eager and so happy to get out there that I think the nervousness doesn't occur to young people.

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