Monday, February 07, 2005

The Girls From Glenwood Avenue


(Top: Kaye (McCool) Krebs; Bottom left to right: Midge (Bollinger) Neel and Bonnie (Long) Walker)

What do Pennsylvania, pretzels, and pixies have in common aside from the obvious nod to alliteration? Just ask residents of Hanover, Pennsylvania and they will undoubtedly cite the founding of Snyder's of Hanover, America's premiere pretzel producers since 1909, and the Pixies Three, a trio of high school girlfriends who became one of Mercury Records' top recording acts in 1963 with the songs Birthday Party and Cold, Cold Winter.

Kaye McCool, and Debby Swisher, who began performing as amateur street vocalists while still in grade school, enlisted the talent of schoolmate Midge Bollinger to round out their crisp harmonies. They dubbed themselves the Pixies after a popular hairstyle of the era and began working venues throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In 1961, with the full support of their parents, the Pixies appeared on television's Ted Mack Amateur Hour in New York City, where they covered singer Annette Funicello's pop hit Tall Paul. With Debby on lead vocals, the girls flashed pert smiles, accompanied themselves on ukuleles, and became America's sweethearts as they effortlessly swept the viewer voting and won the competition.

In the tradition of homespun groups such as the Ronettes, who wore heavy makeup and dressed in a style which suggested they were older than their junior high school ages, the Pixies worked up a repertoire of cover versions of the female pop hits of the day, such as Kathy Young's A Thousand Stars, and appeared in various venues, including Tony Grant's Steel Pier, and selected Philadelphia nightclubs. Eventually they were approached by Mercury Records producers John Madara and David White who often scouted for new talent in area clubs. Madara and White gave them their business cards and promised they would call, but when the Pixies failed to hear from them, the determined group drove to Philadelphia where they sat in the Mercury Records office until they were granted an audience. "We sang a dance tune of the day, Pop-Pop-Pop-Pie, which had been a hit for a girl group named the Sherrys, " explained Pixie Kaye Krebs (the former Kaye McCool). "Even though we got the words wrong, and Madara and White had written the tune, they liked what they heard and we were signed to the Mercury label."

When the Madara and White-penned Birthday Party was released as Mercury #71230, the Pixies' name appeared as the Pixies Three to avoid legal conflict with an already existent Baltimore teen girl group called the Pixies, who had rights to the name. The record soon blasted its way into the Billboard Top 40 with the 45's B-side, Our Love, a loving tribute written by Pixies Three member Kaye Krebs for her boyfriend and future husband, fellow Hanoverian Gary Krebs. The more commonly remembered 442 Glenwood Avenue, a boppy ode to teen house parties, did not fare as well on the charts, peaking just outside the Billboard Top 40 due to the fact that the disc was a two-sided charter, sharing ranking with the A-Side tune Cold, Cold Winter, a Spectorian-styled mover designed for competition with Darlene Love's Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). Such were the naive days of pop music in 1963 that a 45 record could not easily place both of its sides as hits without causing confusion amongst dee-jays and the record-buying public!

Although it was Debby Swisher's lead vocals which had championed the group's status as winners on The Ted Mack Amatuer Hour , it was the voice of Pixie Midge Bollinger which became the signature lead, even prior to the group's pop success. Thus when Birthday Party, Cold, Cold Winter, and 442 Glenwood Avenue became hits it was Bollinger's warm, pleasing tones heard on lead vocals. When Bollinger left the group to pursue her own civilian aspirations in 1964, Swisher assumed the lead vocal reigns of the Pixies Three, scoring successes with a cover version of the 1954 Crows' tune Gee,and the California surf-inspired Summertime U.S.A. Alternate Pixie, Bonnie Long, a talented high school comrade from Hanover with considerable experience as lead vocalist for several Hanover-area bands, became a full-time member of the group and enjoyed the limelight as the Pixies Three toured with pop/rock icons such as the Four Seasons, Dionne Warwick, the Dave Clark Five, and the Rolling Stones (on their first American tour!).

As pop music yielded to the influences of the British Invasion of the Beatles, the Kinks, the Who, and countless other bands, the Pixies Three, like many of their girl group contemporaries, tried valiantly to produce hits, with little success. Despite a prolific and highly creative recording output, the listening public had turned away from the girl group wave of the early '60s, and groups such as the Murmaids, the Secrets, the Ronettes, the Exciters, and the Pixies Three, were not as sought after. The Pixies Three disbanded in 1965 after an all too short run in the spotlight, but little did they realize it would not be the last the lovers of their sound would hear from them...
(GLENWOOD GIRLS PT. 2, coming soon)


(From left: Debby Swisher, Kaye McCool, and Bonnie Long circa 1964)