The Paris Sisters — Albeth, Sherrell and Priscilla — were born in San Francisco, daughters of an opera singer whose career ended with the birth of her first child. This is a familiar setup for the story of a pushy stage mom, and sure enough, the Paris girls were on stage from a very young age, dancing and singing in a sister act with their mother Faye at the piano. The girls were big fans of The Andrews Sisters, listening to their records and rehearsing pitch-perfect renditions of their most popular songs. When The Andrews Sisters came to San Francisco for a limited engagement, Faye kept her daughters out of school so they could attend every performance. Eventually the sisters were invited backstage, where they impressed the Andrews with their poise and impressive vocal harmonies.
They were signed to MCA in short order, thus beginning a long stretch of years in which the girls were experimented upon by various labels and producers, all of whom failed to find a niche for their unique talents. It wasn’t until Phil Spector got hold of the sisters in 1961 that they blossomed into a fully-realized girl group. Spector gave the girls two of his best early songs (“Be My Boy” and “I’ll Be Crying Tomorrow”), and created wistful pop-symphonic arrangements that emphasized their innocence and femininity. Most importantly, Spector encouraged them to abandon the outmoded close-singing style of The Andrews Sisters, to instead sing softly and sweetly, with youngest sister Priscilla taking the lead.
Another Spector production, “I Love How You Love Me” was released that same year and quickly became a massive hit, selling more than a million copies. Though they would never again experience success at that level, The Paris Sisters were a popular act, and continued to record and perform throughout the 60s, with subsequent producers following the same basic formula Spector had created for the group. In 1967, Priscilla struck out on her own as a solo artist, leaving Albeth and Sherrell behind. For years she had been writing songs on her guitar, and had a passion for songwriting and performing that her older sisters did not share. Priscilla’s solo career consists of two obscure albums: Priscilla Loves Billy, a strange little collection of Billie Holiday covers, and Priscilla Sings Herself, the culmination of her long-gestating desire to become a singer-songwriter. The latter album, released in 1967 on York Records, failed to ignite much interest on the part of the public, now in the throes of The Summer of Love. Priscilla eventually left the country and moved to her namesake city where she spent the rest of her days painting, playing guitar, and raising two sons. She died in 2004 at the age of 59.
Today, a mint condition copy of Priscilla Sings Herself can cost as much as $300. Many copies of the album were destroyed due to poor sales, increasing the rarity of the LP. The resurgence of interest in 1960s girl groups and Phil Spector productions has resulted in a steadily growing reputation for Priscilla and The Paris Sisters over the past few years. For proof, consider this: when I started researching this piece, the album was not available in any form, having never been reissued; even torrent sites and music blogs were no help. By the time I finished, Ace Records announced a CD reissue of Priscilla’s solo albums complete with outtakes, due next month. This reissue will be my first opportunity to hear Priscilla Sings Herself in its entirety. For years I’ve had to reconstruct the album in my imagination from fragments scattered across various bootlegs. The melancholic “My Window” appeared on Boyd Rice’s Music For Pussycats compilation, duped directly from his scratched-up LP. The haunting “Help Me” and “He Noticed Me” appeared on The Paris Sisters Story, an expensive bootleg CD. And my favorite, “Stone Is Very, Very Cold,” was uploaded to YouTube by a generous user who has consistently failed to answer my messages begging for a rip of the vinyl.
Perhaps it is the scarcity of the album — even in an age when we like to imagine that the entire history of recorded music is just a few clicks away — that lends it such a mysterious and enchanting aura. Maybe, but probably not. More likely it is Priscilla herself who is responsible for the fetish-object status of the record. At a time when soul phrasing was the fashion, Priscilla sang softly, mutely, strangely, unafraid to project a palpable sense of melancholy. Her songs were haunting and subtle, never sacrificing an essential fragility and sadness. This may be the reason many listeners today are uncomfortable with this brand of vintage girl pop; in the wake of feminism, how can we be nostalgic for a time when women were encouraged to play up their own lovelorn frailty?
Among girl groups The Paris Sisters stood out, possessing the restrained sensibility of an older generation, never adopting the forthright sexuality of groups like The Shirelles or The Shangri-Las. Although late 60s publicity shots played up her resemblance to French “sex kitten” pop stars like Brigitte Bardot, Priscilla never traded on her sexuality in her music. In hindsight, this chasteness is both admirable and estranging, perhaps accounting for the diminished reception her solo albums received. Part of the work of contemporary feminism is the critical reassessment of texts produced by women of past generations, especially those that were initially dismissed as the product of patriarchy. Listening to Priscilla Sings Herself in that charitable critical spirit may yield some interesting surprises.