The “Girl Groups” sound initially popularized by singing duos like the Boswell Sisters and the Andrews Sisters in the 1930s and ’40s enjoyed a mini-revival in November when Bette Midler’s cover of the Yiddish standard Bei Mir Bist du Schoen proved a highlight of her new Girl Groups tribute album, It’s the Girls!
But decades before the Divine Miss M crooned the harmonious tune, which translates as To Me, You are Beautiful, the Barry Sisters sang it to thousands of listeners on the old radio show, Yiddish Melodies in Swing, after the Andrews Sisters had a hit with the song in 1937.
Soon, the Barrys, born Clara and Minnie Bagelman in New York City, would become regulars on the CBS Sunday television landmark, The Ed Sullivan Show, and, with Sullivan’s invitation in 1959, became one of the first American acts to sing to Russian audiences in Moscow’s Gorky Park. The Barrys, by then with Americanized names Claire and Merna, pulled off this feat in cultural border crossing 20 years before Elton John garnered credit as the first Western superstar pop music act to entertain behind the Iron Curtain.
To audiences, from the Catskills to Miami Beach, where the Barrys were regulars on the hotel touring circuit of the 1950s, they were beautiful in their matching, form-fitting sequin gowns and melodic harmonies.
Claire Barry, the eldest sister, died Nov. 22 in Hollywood at 94. She was an “extraordinary woman,” her daughter Joy Pargman said. “She started life in a tenement and wound up at Carnegie Hall.”
That Barry managed to do so, at age 84 in 2004, on a bill with pop star Neil Sedaka at a concert honoring the National Yiddish Theater-Folksbiene, speaks to her pluck and perseverance. Macular degeneration took much of her sight by that point, but not her voice or determination.
After Merna died in 1976, Claire was uncertain about her future. But she knew two words “that she used all the time,” her daughter said: “Go forward.”
Barry took singing lessons to learn how to sing alone and sang her first solo performance before an appreciative audience at the Lehrman Community Day School in Miami Beach in the 1980s, Pargman recalled. “When she walked out on that stage by herself there was that beautiful face, that poise and posture, such grace,” she said, repeating a poem she delivered at her mother’s recent service:
“That face, that face, that beautiful face/A walk with such grace, and a voice that time could not erase.”
The Barrys’ career endured for four decades, and in the 1950s and ’60s their songs Papirosen, Mein Shtetele Belz and Roumania, with their tales of immigrants longing for home and hearth, were staples in many Jewish immigrant homes.
The Israeli government invited the Barry Sisters to sing to soldiers after the Six Day War in 1967. “They shook hands and sat beside [David] Ben-Gurion [Israel’s prime minister] who complimented them on their career and contribution to Jewish life and Jewish music,” Pargman said.
Much credit belongs to Barry’s mother, Esther, who gathered her husband and four daughters around their Bronx kitchen table to listen to a show that broadcast the voices of Yiddish children. Esther Bagelman thought Clara was as good as any of those children and belonged on that program. Clara balked.
“Do it for me,” Bagelman cajoled. “That was the essence of the Bagelman sisters,” Pargman said.
Barry taught herself to play piano and found out that a friend was moving and had to leave behind a piano, an instrument far out of reach of the Bagelman’s budget. “One magical day” Barry came home from school to find that piano in the living room. Her parents told her that they borrowed money from a candy store proprietor to pay for the piano.
Barry applied the same pressure to her younger sister, who initially refused to sing publicly. “My mother said, ‘Do it for Mama,’” Pargman said. The duo’s records, on RCA, and videos exist on YouTube, reaching new generations, including her own two grandchildren and three great-grandchildren who have her music on their iPods and smartphones.
“At the end of all of these travels and all of these world performances, in the eyes of her grandchildren, great grandmother Claire is cool,” Pargman said. “What could be better than that?”
Services were held.
Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.