Christine, Dorothy and Phyllis McGuire grew up singing in the First Church of God in their hometown of Miamisburg, Ohio. Their mother, a minister at the church, encouraged their interest in singing but would not allow the sisters to listen to secular music.
It wasn’t until the late 1940s, when the sisters were in their late teens and early 20s, that they added a few up-tempo pop tunes to their repertoire and began to appear as a vocal trio at veterans hospitals, benefits and other events. They were discovered by local bandleaders and radio stations in Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, and became known for their uncanny three-part harmony.
In 1952, the sisters pooled their savings and traveled to New York, hoping to audition for “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” a popular television show that was the “American Idol” of its time. Godfrey was out of town, but a chance encounter led to a two-month engagement on the national radio broadcast of singer Kate Smith.
When the sisters finally performed for Godfrey, singing “Mona Lisa,” they won the contest and immediately became regulars on Godfrey’s top-rated radio and television shows. They had their first Top 10 hit in 1953 with a version of “Goodnight, Sweetheart, Goodnight,” followed the next year by “Muskrat Ramble.”
The sisters’ biggest hit, “Sincerely” (originally performed by the Moonglows), was released in 1954 and spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart. Their 1954 recording of Johnny Mercer’s suavely swinging “Something’s Gotta Give” soared to No. 5 on the Billboard chart.
As rock-and-roll began to filter onto the radio, the McGuire Sisters remained holdovers from an earlier, smoother musical era, along with such singers as Patti Page, Perry Como and Frank Sinatra. The sisters toured constantly, recording a few minor hits, before striking gold again in 1958 with “Sugartime,” a fast-moving tune by Charlie Phillips and Odis Echols that begins, “Sugar in the morning, sugar in the evening, sugar at suppertime.”
The catchy number hit No. 1 and became the McGuire Sisters’ signature tune. At the height of their fame in the late 1950s, each sister was earning more than $1 million a year.
During the next decade, the sisters often performed on TV variety shows, always wearing identical gowns and hairstyles. But their brand of music increasingly sounded out of step with the times, and they stopped performing together after a 1968 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” In all, nine of their songs reached the Billboard Top 20.
The sisters’ public explanation for breaking up was to allow Christine and Dorothy to spend more time with their growing families. But matters were also complicated by Phyllis’s long affair with Chicago mob boss Sam Giancana.
They reportedly met in 1960, when Giancana forgave her gambling debt at one of his Las Vegas casinos.
“I just knew that I liked the man,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1986. “His wife had passed away and 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.”
She said he proposed marriage, but she turned him down. They remained close until he was killed in 1975.
For almost 20 years, the sisters sang together only when they gathered at family reunions. In 1985, all three were together at Phyllis McGuire’s New York apartment, and they began to plan a comeback.
“Our harmony was great,” Christine McGuire later said, “but it took four months to get that magic blend. We really had to work on it.”
After months of rehearsals, the sisters returned to the concert stage in Las Vegas in 1986. The performed at the 1989 presidential inauguration of George H.W. Bush and continued to make frequent appearances together until 2004.
“There was nothing like that applause,’’ Christine McGuire told United Press International in 1986. “We missed it and we missed each other.”
Ruby Christine McGuire was born July 30, 1926, in Middletown, Ohio, and grew up with her younger sisters in nearby Miamisburg. Their father was a steelworker.
Christine McGuire became a savvy investor in real estate, restaurants and other businesses and lived for many years in Las Vegas and Scottsdale, Ariz.
She was married five times and had two sons with her first husband, Harold Ashcraft. Survivors include a son, several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and her sister Phyllis, who lives in Las Vegas and New York. Dorothy McGuire died in 2012.
When the sisters reunited in the 1980s to restart their career, Christine McGuire said, “We sang together for 34 years, a lifetime. We weren’t just sisters, we were girl friends, confidantes.”