Sister Act: The Yiddish Song Stylings of the Marvelous Barry Sisters
Source: World of Wonder
As a gay kid in the 1960s, I loved to take my money earned from lawn mowing to J.J. Newberry’s and F. W. Woolworth’s to search the cut-out bins for LPs of Original Broadway Cast albums, soundtracks, and peculiar pop musicians, the more obscure the greater the thrill.
For you kids, Newberry’s and Woolworth’s were 20th century variety stores, referred to as ”Five and Dimes”, that sold a bunch of assorted inexpensive household goods. They had lunch counters, so in one stop you could purchase a parakeet, personal hygiene products, tools, office supplies, decorations, radios, plants, toys, pet supplies, remaindered books, and discontinued recordings, and then have a grilled cheese and a milkshake. In my hometown of Spokane, Woolworth’s closed in the 1980s, and Newberry’s closed in 1995. The final Newberry’s closed in Portland, Oregon in 2001.
It was in a cut-out bin that I discovered the marvelous Barry Sisters. Not to be confused with Barry Manilow or Scissor Sisters, although they are a little bit of both, the Barry Sisters are little bit camp and a whole lot schmaltz.
They were in showbiz for over 40 years, and not just the toast of the Catskills resorts, but also Miami Beach and other Jewish entertainment outposts, even crossing over to Las Vegas and television variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jack Paar Program and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. They were one of the few American acts to tour the Soviet Union in the early 1950s.
In the 1950s and 1960s, their recordings of Yiddish songs such as Papirosen, about a street urchin begging passers-by to buy his cigarettes; Mein Shtetele Belz, an immigrant’s lament for the village they left behind; and Roumania, an immigrant’s even bigger lament for a forsaken country, would be played in thousands of Jewish homes, often at family events. Those Barry Sisters embraced the schmaltz, but they also drew tears. Anywhere that Yiddish was spoken, they were icons. Holocaust survivors and Jews from Russia thought they were all that. And somehow, so did a little gay goy boy.
The Barry Sisters were beautiful, bodacious brunettes who gave off glamour, right down to their matching tightfitting sequin gowns by a couturier, Madame Étoile.
Backed by swing or Klezmer bands, Clara Barry, a soprano, and husky voiced Minnie Barryproduced a distinctive harmony not just for Yiddish songs but also for covers of standards and Broadway tunes. Trying to entice young people to the language, they added popular American songs I sung in Yiddish. Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head was done as Trop’ns Fin Regen Oif Mein Kop.
They were the daughters of a linoleum layer, Herman Bagelman, who had emigrated from Kiev. In the family’s apartment in the Bronx, the radio was the source of their entertainment, especially a show featuring talented Yiddish-singing children.
10-year-old Clara’s mother, Esther Bagelman, told Clara: ”I want you to audition for this show. Do it for me.”
They bought the sheet music to Papirosen and rehearsed, and Clara aced her audition. The show needed more girls. That was the beginning of the Bagelman Sisters.
The duo played the small Jewish summer resorts of the Catskills, became regulars on the radio show Yiddish Melodies In Swing and packed the Loew’s State Theater on Sundays. When the Andrews Sisters had a huge national hit with Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen in 1937, Clara decided that they should Americanize their first and last names to broaden their appeal. Clara became Claire, Minnie became Merna, and the name Barry was picked out of the phone book.
They recorded albums for RCA included Side By Side (1960), At Home With The Barry Sisters(1959) and The Barry Sisters Sing Fiddler On The Roof (1969).
The Barry Sisters were big draws in Miami Beach and the Catskills, and often toured with the comic singer Mickey Katz, the father of actor Joel Grey. The Ed Sullivan Show was the pinnacle of showbiz success back then, and Sunday-night variety show featured the Barry Sisters a dozen times. It was Sullivan who got the Barry Sisters a gig performing in Gorky Park in Moscow. They were embraced by Russian fans, who smuggled their records into the country.
Merna Barry died in 1976, taken by a brain tumor. She was 53-years-old. Claire Barry took her final bow in 2014, at 94, having survived her younger sister by 38 years. The Barry Sisters’ 11th and final album is Our Way (1973).
The Barry Sisters’ harmony is impeccable, and their voices are very pretty. I kind of think of them as a Jewish version of Beyoncé and Solange.
They neglected to record a Christmas album. Not so crazy; the greatest Christmas songs were written by Jews: Winter Wonderland – Felix Bernard; Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas– Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin; Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow – Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne; and the bestselling Christmas song of all time White Christmas by Irving Berlin.
- Listen to the Marvelous Barry Sisters, click here.