Spectropop remembers

PRISCILLA PARIS (1945 - 2004)

Few acts in music cut as wide a stylistic swath through show business as the Paris Sisters. Emerging in the early 1950s as a close harmony sister act, in 1961 the trio made an abrupt stylistic departure and began working in a much more contemporary vein, with Priscilla out front singing lead and the other sisters contributing background sounds. In essence, the Paris Sisters started as adolescents copying the popular 1940s group the Andrews Sisters and ended up a 1960s girl group.

It was, in fact, the Andrews Sisters who gave the Paris Sisters their first professional leg-up in show business. In 1954, their mother strategically placed her daughters in the audience of every matinee performance of an Andrews engagement at the Warfield Theater in their hometown of San Francisco. Dressed alike, they dutifully followed their mother's directive and sat there mouthing the words to the Andrews' songs. Finally, as Priscilla recalled in a 1990 interview, "At their closing matinee [the Andrews Sisters] finally said, 'Who are those girls always sitting in the front row?' and our mom, who really had a lot of courage, took us backstage to meet them." The Andrews Sisters invited Priscilla, Sherrell and Albeth on stage to sing. An MCA agent in the audience heard and signed them, and the Paris Sisters were on their way. They had been non-pros since the late 1940s; now, for the next seven years they performed a professional act in a style that mixed dancing, comedy and more - in other words, the whole vaudeville-style ver-sa-tile works. They played fairs, USO tours, Vegas, did radio, and signed a recording contract with Decca Records. Nearly all their singles for the label found the trio recording in a style very similar to the highly popular McGuire Sisters.

The stylistic turnabout for the trio came in 1961 when their mother - an ex-opera singer and "a very aggressive little lady," Sherrell recalled in a latter-day interview - put the girls in touch with record label owner Lester Sill. "His protégé was Phil Spector and they were looking for groups or an unusual sound. Phil came to our home one day and sat with us, and interviewed us and had each one of us sing separately. And that was it, we started recording with him." Spector completely revamped the group from top to bottom. Suddenly, instead of belting out a song, Priscilla was almost whispering the lyrics in a style described by columnist Walter Winchell as the sexiest he had ever heard; with Albeth and Sherrell relegated to - somewhat reluctantly, according to various interviews with them - playing a more supporting role in the group. A 1990 magazine interview with the sisters was subtitled "They Had the World's Greatest Record Producer and America's Hottest Single! The Experience Almost Destroyed Them." The producer, of course, was Spector; and the single was one of his earliest hits, 'I Love How You Love Me'. However, the recording was - in typical Spectorian fashion - so costly that the Sisters made little or no money off of it, nor from the other three hits they cut with Spector at Gregmark Records. At the time Spector was also recording a Paris Sisters album for the label, and involved in a feud with Sill over the escalating cost of the project. Sill's version of what happened next was that an assistant accidentally discarded the master tapes of the album. However, other accounts of the episode, told by informed bystanders over the years, hint at events somewhat less than accidental. Whatever the cause of the tapes' destruction, shortly thereafter Spector split with Sill and Gregmark, and the Sisters were soon cut loose from the label.

Pluck ensued, though, and the threesome were able to land on their feet. They continued performing and recorded three albums, culminating, in 1967, in what some might call the finest-ever Phil Spector LP not produced by Spector, 'The Paris Sisters Sing Everything Under The Sun!'. The pluperfect Wall-Of-Soundalike recording was overseen by Jimmy Bowen and arranged by Spector standby Jack Nitzsche, but was not a hit.

Shortly after 'Sing Everything', due to tensions arising from twenty years of subordinating their individual personalities and talents to the good of the group, the Paris Sisters didn't so much split up as drift apart. Priscilla went out on her own and recorded three solo LPs, 'Priscilla Sings Herself', 'Priscilla Loves Billy' (both 1967) and 'Love Is ...' (1978), the first and last of which contained all self-penned material. Albeth and Sherrell continued to perform, but none of the three ever again achieved the high profile of the Paris Sisters act.

In the late 1970s Priscilla Paris had an accident resulting in facial paralysis. She stopped singing for a while and went through a period of serious depression. During that time she "accidentally" (her word) ended up in Paris, France. She fell in love with the city, continued her education there and eventually ran her own business, Telamerique, which specialized in educating French hotel workers how to interact with English-speaking tourists. "I'm at the right place at the right time. Everything I ever did that was disjointed has fallen into place. Plus. . .I love it!" she told an interviewer in 1990. She also occasionally sang in small Parisian clubs.

On Friday, March 5, Priscilla, the youngest of the Paris Sisters, died in France, the result of a fall. She was 59. Immediately prior to her unexpected passing, plans were brewing for a professional reunion of the Sisters. Now most likely Albeth and Sherrell Paris would agree that Priscilla, with one of the most unmistakable voices in all of pop music, is quite simply ... irreplaceable. She is survived by two sons.

Bill Reed for Spectropop

Priscilla Paris, singer-songwriter: born in San Francisco, California, c. 1945 - died in Paris, France on March 5, 2004