Bozzin’ With the Brian Sisters
After the Boswell Sisters made their national radio debut in 1930, harmony trios and sister acts spread across the nation like wildfire. Some of these groups, like the Andrews Sisters, began their careers by copying the Boswells note-for-note. Others took advantage of the demand the Boswells’ created for jazz harmony and formed trios that were similar in style, but with unique elements all their own. One such group, the Brian Sisters, sang hot, jazz harmonies and made their way to Hollywood in early 1934 at the very height of the Boswell Sisters’ popularity. They broke into motion pictures in 1936 and continued to make films throughout the 30s. But among the many things that made the Brian Sisters distinctive the most remarkable was their age. At the time they came to Hollywood they were 10, 8 and 6!
Doris Brian Rounds, the middle Brian sister, graciously shared the story of the trio’s relationship with Connie Boswell. The Brian Sisters’ tale is delightful and compelling and we are proud to feature it as part of our collection.
The Brian Sisters Early History
The Nichols family was of Mormon pioneer stock who settled in Idaho in the 1800s. In this large, farming family of 14 children was a somewhat rebellious daughter called Meda. Her daughters described the family unit as:
“The "Illustrious Fourteen" ... were bright, resourceful, independent, strong-willed, funny and musically talented people ... Their parents stressed education in their development, so they all stretched a great deal beyond farming.” 1
At nineteen, Meda became fascinated with a handsome, multi-talented man named Frank Leslie Brian and wedding bells soon followed. Five daughters were born to this union including the youngest three, Betty (b. 1923), Doris (b. 1926) and Gwen (b. 1928). From the very beginning all the girls showed natural musical ability. Doris and Betty later wrote:
“...the professional Brian Sisters trio was begun when Gwen, barely four years old, sang the melody while Doris, six years old, and Betty, eight years old, formed the harmony parts. Soon they were in demand singing the popular songs of the time, “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” and “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob, Bob, Bobbin’ Along”, among many others. They learned these tunes by listening carefully to the radio.” 2
The Boswell Sisters were one of the groups they loved to hear.
“In the early thirties, we did hear the Boswell Sisters on the radio in Salt Lake City, but infrequently,” Doris recounted. “We could not afford to buy their recordings. When we were lucky enough to catch one of their broadcasts, we all listened carefully and were thrilled.”
Frank Brian was multitalented, but his interest in providing for his family was overpowered by his love of sports and hunting. When the Depression hit, Frank became less and less a provider until Meda was left alone to fend for her children and herself.
Impoverished and in the midst of the Great Depression, Meda took in boarders to provide for the family. In desperate straits, Meda took Betty, Doris and Gwen to sing in a Salt Lake City speakeasy and they collected over $8 in change from an impressed audience.
“At that moment, a brighter (if more dangerous) future was defined for them and, young though they were, they knew it. Meda...soon figured that she had the dubious choice of leaving the girls alone to find work for herself or putting her talented youngsters to work and staying with them.” 3
Saying, "we can starve as easily there as here, and it will be a whole lot warmer," in 1934 Meda and her three youngest daughters packed up an old Model T and headed for Los Angeles.
“We knew from the very beginning that our talent was special,” Doris remembered. “And we felt blessed (not arrogant) with the surety of it. When it became clear that we would have to support ourselves and we had to move to Los Angeles to do it, we were grateful that we had the talent to accomplish that task. As we look back now, we have said, "Wow, we were good." We have never found another group so young who could do it.
“We were very poor and had to make our small salaries from radio, theater, or personal appearances last until the next job. The four of us lived in a "studio" apartment with one room, a small kitchen, and tiny bathroom near the intersection of Western Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. We had a Murphy pull-down bed on which Betty and Mother slept; I slept on the couch; little Gwen slept on two overstuffed chairs pulled together.
“We owned an old unreliable car, so we had to learn to change the oil and change tires ourselves. Our living quarters were always clean, and we hung together and protected one another. We didn't receive a dime from our father, so every expense was our own. We wore threadbare underwear and shabby dresses and shoes to school and saved our "good" clothes for auditions. Toys and other amusements were not expected and not received. Now and then, Mother would find a few extra dimes to buy a pint of vanilla ice cream and a quart of root beer to make floats for us - a real treat and much appreciated.
“Mother, who was an accomplished cook (she could make a meal of literally nothing) and seamstress (she sewed our costumes) but was not an agent, did her best to present us to prospective employers. Actually, all she did was try to locate someone who would listen and then say, "Sing, girls," and we would swing into our numbers - arranged by ourselves and without benefit of a pitch or any accompaniment. We were neither nervous nor reluctant to sing at any opportunity. Our own talent landed the jobs... Although both our parents were very talented, nobody "taught" us how to sing in harmony, we just knew.”
Their first movie job came in 1935 when Meda took the girls to the Hal Roach studios for an audition. They worked their way up the hierarchy of assistants, to directors, and finally Hal Roach himself called them into his office. He offered them $100 a day for two days work in a musical portion of one of his “Our Gang” comedies. The Brian Sisters had their Hollywood debut in Our Gang Follies of 1936. More film work followed, including New Faces of 1937 for RKO and Swing While You're Able produced by Melody Pictures. Late in 1937, they appeared in a Twentieth-Century Fox film entitled, Sally, Irene and Mary starring Alice Faye, Jimmy Durante, Fred Allen and Tony Martin.
“We arranged our songs, first, by learning the song from the radio,” Doris explained. “Then, we would simply talk and sing our way through interesting variations (and key changes) until we felt satisfied. We didn't know how to read music, so we would sing it over and over for a band arranger friend who would write band accompaniment.”
Although working, the Brian Sisters were far from flush and despite Meda’s frugal management of their finances they continued to waver on the edge of poverty.
Connie Boswell and the Brian Sisters
Connie Boswell continued as a solo artist after her sisters Martha and Vet retired in favor of marriage in early 1936. Late in 1936, Connie shifted her base of operations from New York to Hollywood. There she split her time between recording and making appearances on radio and film. Although the Boswell trio had disbanded, the demand for their jazz infused harmonies continued to be in demand. The big band sound was sweeping the country and sidemen who had backed up the Boswells, like the Dorsey Brothers, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller, were leading the pack.
Connie was at the top of her solo career, cutting hit records with Bing Crosby, appearing on MGM’s “Good News” series, singing the Oscar nominated “Whispers In the Dark” from the Paramount film Artists and Models, and creating the break-though recording of “Martha” when the Brian Sisters entered her life. Surprisingly, despite her fame and success, it was a modest introduction that brought her together with the Brians.
Doris Brian discussed how the Brian Sister’s sound incorporated the best of both worlds.
“The Boswell Sisters' music was essentially New Orleans jazz style, with the phrasing and enunciation of that area. Our style was much like theirs, but had a West Coast, California, influence... more from the newer Swing music, big-band manner.”
Still, the Brian Sisters act drew comparisons to the Boswells, enough to give a neighbor and friend a bright idea that would shine a new light on the three little girls from Idaho.
“The apartment building where we lived often housed vaudeville and circus performers, recalled Doris. “One such was a good-looking young ex-barker named Patrick (Mickey) McGeehan. (Later, Mickey became a radio announcer of some repute.) He thought we were good, so he found a Los Angeles address for Connie Boswell and simply wrote her a letter. Something in the letter must have intrigued her, because we got a phone call from her husband and manager, Harry Leedy. A meeting was arranged.”
Betty, Doris and Gwen accompanied their mother Meda to the Beverly Hills home of Connie Boswell and Harry Leedy.
Doris described the scene:
“Connie's and Harry's home, as I remember it, was a modest, pink stucco, California Hacienda ranch type. We, who lived in a one-room apartment, thought it quite luxurious. There were several bedrooms, a very large bathroom, and (impressive to us) a "den" which was two steps down from the living room. There was a carpeted ramp for her wheelchair. We were served light refreshments now and then, but we never saw the kitchen area. I think she had a maid (or) cook.
“We sang for her. She was, in her words, "knocked out" by what she heard, and offered to "mentor" us when she was in town.”
Connie and Harry also presented the Brian family another opportunity.
“Harry was busy with Connie's career, but he persuaded his brother, Sol, to be our personal manager,” Doris recalled. “After that, Sol took on the responsibility of finding jobs for us. We stayed with Sol Leedy for about six years.”
This was a breakthrough for the Brian Sisters, for it took the burden of finding work off Meda’s shoulders and allowed the young trio to officially enter the ranks of professional entertainers.
“(Sol) procured appearances for them at the famous Giro's nightclub, as well as The Mocambo and The Trocadero.
(Sol) also scheduled many benefit appearances - very important to a career - including the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studio Club and the Motion Picture Relief Fund. These benefits included such famous stars as Milton Berle, Fannie Brice, Mickey Rooney, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Bing Crosby and many others on their rosters.” 4
“We met with Connie in her home in Beverly Hills several times,” Doris remembered. “She had a beautiful grand piano in the dining area near a lovely bay window where we sat on the bench with her or stood around her while she played and talked music with us. There were no "lessons," but some minor suggestions. At first, she attempted to advise us on phrasing, harmony, arrangements and such, but soon left us to our own devices, saying, "They know instinctively, I don't want to influence them."
“We admired and respected Connie, and she seemed to care for us as well,” Doris continued. “We loved her gracious home and her little black and white bulldog. Of course, Gwen was tiny and the youngest, so Connie was especially drawn to her. We never met her sisters, but Connie told us about them and their earlier lives. The often near-miraculous musical understanding among close siblings was clear in both families. Betty and I had only to glance at one another to sense how the harmony should go. Connie realized that we had this same "understanding" that she and her sisters had.”
Connie’s obvious admiration of Betty, Doris and Gwen’s talent was proven when Connie arranged for the three youngsters (then 13, 11 and 9 years of age) to appear with her in a two-real MGM short titled Sunday Night at the Trocadero. In the movie, Connie Boswell plays herself and delivers a silky-smooth rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” in the famous Los Angeles night club. As the Brian Sisters listen in their dressing room, they are panicked by the notion that Connie Boswell is in the audience because their performance is patterned on the Boswell Sisters music. When they come on the stage to perform they are too anxious to sing, and rush off in tears. But before they get too far, Connie stops them and tells them that she, too, was so nervous the first time she went on stage that she couldn’t sing. Then she encourages them to begin their song by singing an introduction, and the Brian Sisters chime-in with a smart and sassy harmony tune, “There’s Always a Happy Ending” that swings to a triumphant end.
“My memories of the "Sunday Night at the Trocadero" film are of being uncertain about the speaking parts,” Doris recalled with some amusement. “We never pretended to be actresses, but were given instructions by the director. The music didn't scare us, but the dialogue did. The whole premise of the movie was that the "talent scouts" were being bombarded with folks trying to impress them, but the young kids Connie Boswell favored were the real talents. We were never told what the script was about, only our own parts. It wasn't until I saw the whole movie many years later that I knew the story line. A comparison of the original music of the song, "There's Always a Happy Ending" and our rendition of it shows our own unique arrangement, which Connie did not change.”
Working with Connie made a positive impression on Doris: “To us, Connie was a warm and genuine person. She held no delusions of grandeur and was herself at all times. She always expressed gratitude for the musicians who surrounded her, and appreciated her coworkers. She was funny, too.”
When asked how Connie’s disability affected her work, Doris replied, “Although she was handicapped, it did in no way identify her and she did not exploit it. I thought it was really glamorous that when she appeared on stage, the curtains opened to find her seated on a tall stool and beautifully dressed in a wide-skirted gown. Her manner was so relaxed and natural, I'm sure many in the audience did not even realize she was not walking. The lighting was always dramatic and she was truly lovely. She was a professional at all times and a real “lady.”
“Connie did not stay in the Los Angeles area for very long at any one time after that. We sort of lost track, but never lost interest in her. I cherish the photograph she autographed for me.“
More Big Breaks for the Brian Sisters
Twentieth Century Fox tapped the Brian Sisters to appear in a Shirley Temple movie. Shirley was the world’s top box-office draw at the time, making this a great career opportunity for the singing siblings. But there was a problem.
“In Little Miss Broadway with Shirley Temple, Mrs. Temple would not allow Gwen to appear,” Doris explained.
Apparently little Gwen, with her freckled face, tiny frame and natural sweetness, was too cute to share the stage with Shirley. So to avoid having Shirley upstaged, Mrs. Temple nixed the youngest Brian from the picture.
Mrs. Temple must have also been a little worried about Betty and Doris, for the producers had them wear large, round glasses in the film.
“I hated it that I was often put into large glasses,” Doris lamented. “I did wear glasses from a very early age, and directors must have thought it appealing. We didn't.”
“Betty and I had to sing with Shirley,” Doris continued. “She was a good actress and a great little dancer, but not much of a singer. At the recording session, Betty and I were singing as we usually did, but Shirley could not blend with us. The musical director cautioned us to ‘...sing it the way Shirley does.’
This didn’t sit well with Betty and Doris, who had balked when Mrs. Temple took Gwen off the picture. But when they learned that Gwen would be paid not to appear, and with the rent due, they bucked-up and produced one of the most memorable scenes from the film, singing the bright and peppy “Be Optimistic.”
More movies followed, including Kentucky Moonshine with Tony Martin and the Ritz Brothers, Second Fiddle with Sonya Henie, Tyrone Power and Rudy Vallee, the memorable Tin Pan Alley with Alice Faye, Betty Grable and John Payne, and Music in My Heart with Rita Hayworth and Tony Martin.
“In 1939, the Brian Sisters' final movie appearance was in Love Affair at RKO, starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. Often referred to as "the terrific weepy," the script was reworked in 1957 and released under the title An Affair to Remember, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr. It was rewritten loosely in 1993 and presented as Sleepless in Seattle starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, then again, written more faithfully to the original in 1994 as Love Affair with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. It seems as though movie goers never tire of a good cry. It is ironic that Betty and Doris were considered too old for the orphanage scene in which Miss Dunne teaches the song Wishing Will Make It So to the children residents there. Although all three Brian Sisters recorded that song for the sound track, only Gwen appeared on screen. It was clearly payback for her non-appearance in Little Miss Broadway. As a result of the success of this movie, the Brian Sisters adopted the song Wishing and used it as a theme song for their weekly coast-to-coast radio broadcasts on NBC, accompanied by pianist Skitch Henderson.”
“Our main work was on radio, with theater and nightclubs when we could,” Doris recalled. “The films have been restored, and I have them. They are impressive, but the real music is forever lost out on radio waves.”
As the 1940s rolled in and with the winds of war blew across the world, the Brian Sisters, now teenagers, became active on behalf of their country. They kept themselves busy with USO tours and engagements with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope as well as visiting camps all along the West Coast and flying to military installations around the country.
In 1943 they recorded the beloved “Swingin’ On A Star” with the great Johnny Mercer which stayed at number one on the hit parade for several weeks. Things were good for these three young ladies who had stared down starvation and leveraged their natural talents into a successful career. Even Meda found a niche for her talents and built a career with a fine linen company.
But like the Boswell Sisters, matrimony was about to intrude on the Brian Sisters career. Betty was the first to marry in 1945.
Doris expressed her sadness at the subsequent breakup.
“When the Brian Sisters disbanded (Betty married young, was pregnant, and was quite ill) we all felt the loss deeply. Our mother, especially, was disappointed. I had learned to read music, so I joined a four-part vocal group and traveled across the U.S. with the Jan Garber (The Idol of the Airlanes) Band... I thought the musical style quite corny, but it was a good job. When the trip ended in Los Angeles, Gwen joined the group, and we worked the Biltmore Hotel for over two years. Then Gwen married, and I joined a five-part vocal group. We did studio work, background recording vocals, and some very early TV. We opened at the Coconut Grove in the Ambassador Hotel with a show called "A Salute to George Gershwin" and played the big hotel rooms in LA and San Francisco, traveled, and finished with weeks at the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas. There were lots of other appearances along the way.
“In 1953, I moved to Utah, fully intending to give up the music business. However, I soon found myself involved with groups in Salt Lake City called "CustoMusic" and "Notable Ads," which produced radio and TV jingles. I married and have three wonderful sons and seven grandchildren. I finished college and became a teacher of English in a junior high school. I loved that work and retired after twenty-two years.”
Betty now lives in California where she cared for her mother Meda, who lived to the ripe old age of 102. Doris is the only other surviving sister and continues to live an active life. Their work is captured for future generations to enjoy, and to marvel at how three youngsters could sing so beautifully together.
A Final Word from the Author
Doris Brian Rounds was remarkably generous in sharing her memories of Connie Boswell. She returned my first email within a day and took significant time to answer my myriad questions, making this article a true joy to write.
I watched the Brian Sisters scenes with Connie Boswell many times before contacting Doris. I observed that Connie, who her good friend Marge Ryter once described as being “unable to read lines” pulled off the dialogue in her scenes with the Brian Sisters with aplomb. In the final scene she is hugging Gwen while Betty and Doris laugh next to her. It was as genuine as anything I have ever seen Connie do on screen.
In my never ending quest to understand what made Connie and the Boswell Sisters tick, it made me reflect on Connie’s love for her career with the Boswell Sisters. I began to consider that, throughout her solo career, Connie continued to look for the magic that happened when she shared the stage with Martha and Vet. Finding the Brian Sisters, with their incredible, natural talent and ability to harmonize through an almost telepathic connection, must have evoked strong feelings of empathy and, perhaps, much more.
Doris seemed to affirm that hunch when she wrote, “When we talked with Connie in her home, we felt that the Boswell Trio was the important part of her musical and personal life. She spoke lovingly of her sisters and expressed sincere regret that they were no longer performing together. I sensed that her meeting with our young trio was a cause of some sadness on her part that she and her sisters could and maybe should be singing together still.”
“Unfortunately, we did not cross paths with Connie in later years,” Doris told us. “Her career kept her largely in the east and south. Ours was confined to the west coast.”
But the Brian Sisters were touched professionally and personally by Connie. Doris, whose replies were so delightful and complete that I have tried to include most of them, expressed it best.
“I think the Boswell Sisters were ahead of their time. Their music was very new at that time (and remains timeless). There weren't many large scale venues for their performances except radio and the recordings that were played there. Although lively and rhythmic, their music was not really "commercial" (a dirty word in my vocabulary) as was the strident tones of the Andrews Sisters and the syrupy corn of the Lennon Sisters (Lawrence Welk was the personification of "commercial"). The Boswells were in the music business when it was built on the raw talent of the performers, not the hype-to-fame it is today. If they had stayed with it, the end might be different, but they were exhausted. The music business is a killer.
“They were absolutely terrific, ahead of their time, and way, way better than any other trio who ever performed anywhere.”
Amen, Sister Doris. Amen.