Gary James' Interview With Kathy Lennon Daris Of
The Lennon Sisters
They were called "America's Sweethearts Of Song". For thirteen years they graced the stage of The Lawrence Welk Show. After that they had their own TV show on ABC presenting the biggest stars of the day, Glen Campbell, Andy Williams, Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Samy Davis Jr., Bob Hope and George Burns. They sang for seven U.S. Presidents: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan. In 1987 they received their own star on The Hollywood Walk Of Fame. In 1994 they became the featured performers at The Welk Resort Theatre in Branson, Missouri. In 2001, they were formally inducted into the National Vocal Group Hall Of Fame in Sharon, Pennsylvania. And now, in 2014, they are presenting their 21st Annual Christmas Show with the Osmond Brothers at Andy Williams' Moon River Theatre in Branson, Missouri. We are talking of course about The Lennon Sisters. Kathy Lennon Daris spoke to us about The Lennon Sisters past, present and future.
Q - Back in the early 1990s it seemed everyone was performing in Branson and talking about Branson. These days we don't hear much about Branson. Is Branson still the draw that it once was?
A - It really is. Between nine and eleven million people go through every year and there are only six thousand people in the city, the community. It is such a draw. What happened is, Andy brought it to light. It's always been huge as a Country destination, to hear Country music. Roy Clark kind of brought it in. When Andy came in, in '93 I believe it was, it became much better known. They did a special on a morning show and that brought a lot of people in to see and there were a lot of different stars at the time. There was Wayne Newton and Tony Orlando and Bobby Vinton. A lot of people performing here. And they still come in and out. They just aren't here for nine months. The very first twelve years we were here, we worked nine months a year. We worked two shows a day, six days a week for nine months. That's how much we performed. That was at The Welk Resort Theatre. When Andy Williams came here he ended up calling us and saying, "The Lennons have to come here. You guys belong here." Then we talked to The Osmonds and they said, "Yes, it's fabulous," and John Davidson and everybody was telling us how special. We decided to come for one year and this will be our twenty-first Christmas season in Branson as The Lennon Sisters. It is our second year with The Osmond Brothers at the Andy Williams' Moon River Theatre. That was one of Andy's last wishes before he died, was that The Lennon Sisters and The Osmond Brothers continue his legacy at his world famous Moon River Theatre and we do an incredible Christmas show, very traditional, like you used to see on the variety shows, all the great Christmas shows; Perry Como, Andy Williams. That's what we do. People just love it. We pack houses. We're there for five weeks, six shows a week, every night but Sunday and they're packed every night. It's incredible what it brings in. You still have Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett. People come in for a weekend. Tony Orlando has been there for years. This year he won't be here for Christmas. It's a fun place. It still has so much for families, and Christmas time is absolutely gorgeous.
Q - What were The Lennon Sisters doing before The Lawrence Welk Show?
A - Well, let's see: Janet was in second grade. We were in school, just being little kids from around the corner in Venice, California. What happened was we all went to St. Mark's Church, which was down the street from us in Venice and the church decided to put on a musical to help raise money for the school, parochial school. And everyone in the perish did something. Our Dad and his brothers sang in the '40s as kind of a Big Band quartet and our Dad was a singer from the time he was a child. He had his own concerts at the Hollywood Bowl when he was fifteen. He was a beautiful Irish tenor singer. So, we used to love to listen and copy, but none of us read music and the church put on this musical and they said, "Why don't you sing as a little quartet?" So, we were the four oldest at the time of eight children. So, Dad and his brothers sang and then we walked on and sang with them and sang in harmony. The play was kind of a musical around the world. So, we ended up doing a little Scottish number from Scotland. And we were little, seven, nine, twelve and fifteen. Something like that. We did a couple of those and Daddy was a milkman at the time for a dairy. His boss was in the audience and was president of The Lions Club. He heard us sing and said, "Oh, my gosh. Bill, I would love to have your girls come sing at The Lion's Club. We'll pay 'em like ten dollars." At the time, we were in a two bedroom house with our Mom and our Grandmother and Dad with eight children. Dad said, "If we can do a few of these we can add a dormer onto the house." And so we did the Lion's Club and the Rotary Club and we did a few of those. At the time, my sister Dianne, or Dee Dee we called her, went to school with Lawrence Welk Jr. He asked her to a Halloween party at his house. She said, "I really can't go. I have to sing." And he said, "Well, let me pick you up there." So, he came to pick her up and he was running late so he waited and then we sang. He said to Dee Dee, "I had no idea that you sang with your sisters." And again, he and Dee Dee were only fifteen years old. They were sophomores in high school. He said, "I didn't know you were singing with your sisters. I'm going to tell my Dad about you." Well, at the time Lawrence Welk had a television show on ABC. This was after his KTCA local show. About a month went by and Larry called one day and said, "My Dad is home sick with a cold. He can't get out of the house. Get yours sisters and get over here and sing." So, we went over. Daddy picked us all up and we drove up to Mr. Welk's house. He walked out of his bedroom in a maroon, satin smoking jacket, velvet slippers. I mean, it was just right out of the movies. (He) sat down and said, "My son told me all about you. Now sing." So, we hit a note on the piano and sang the spiritual "He", which was popular by The McGuire Sisters. He asked us to be on his Christmas show of 1955. That was the only audition we've ever been on in our life and we're now in our 59th year.
Q - How many people do you think would've been watching you on The Lawrence Welk Show on Christmas Eve of 1955?
A - Millions were watching. At the time it was early television. You watched The Lawrence Welk Show on Saturday as a family. On Sunday you watched Ed Sullivan as a family. On Monday you watched Milton Berle. You could sit as a family with the grandma and nobody is going to be offended by a commercial. You don't have a clicker that you can change 672 channels or stations or whatever you want to call them. This is something that was so across America. People watched The Lawrence Welk Show with their parents and their grand parents. It was literally millions. I think the first night was three to five million people. And we have those loyal fans that still remember those days because they were little. They watched it with their parents or they danced in the living room with their grand parents. After the show, after every show we've every done Gary, we sign autographs afterwards and take pictures. Always. We visit with the people. They always come up and they're very emotional. They get all choked up and even men get choked up and say, "I don't know why I'm so emotional about this, but you bring up so many wonderful memories of my Mom and Dad and my Grandma." Girls will say, "My mom set my hair for church the next day on Saturday night. Every night, and it was the only night we got to get hot chocolate and marshmallows or we got hot dogs on Saturday and watched The Lawrence Welk Show together!" Or, "It reminded me of my granny." It's amazing all the memories that it does bring. So, there were millions watching us and they literally watched us grow up because we were children into being young married. So, they watched us every week for fourteen years, every Saturday night and watched us grow up. So, they really felt like they knew us because we were real people. It wasn't like we were playing a part. Through the years we'd graduate from high school and get a graduation gift. We got wedding gifts. We got baby gifts. We were just part of everybody's family. And we still have those loyal, loyal fans. We just worked Vegas. We haven't been to Vegas in twenty-five years. Once we moved to Branson, we only did Branson. We all bought homes here and we'd perform here. But we're doing now only a Christmas show in Branson. So, even though we have our homes here, we're doing concerts all over the United States. We went back to Vegas last weekend and we sold out both shows. It was amazing. It is such an honor and to have those loyal fans. We are still amazed that they're there and they want to have our CDs and our autographs and our pictures. We have had an incredibly blessed career.
Q - Where did you perform in Las Vegas?
A - We were at the Sun Coast Hotel And Casino. A fabulous place. Tony Orlando told us about it. He said, "You girls gotta go there." And we did. They called us and they want us back and they even had to add chairs. It was pretty nice. We haven't done that in a long time.
Q - Are you the business woman of the group?
A - When Dianne and Peggy retired and our younger sister Mimi, who had filled in through the years when the girls would have their babies, we would call Mimi up from the bullpen and she'd fill in 'cause she has the exact same sound and harmony. She worked Vegas with us with Andy Williams. We've always called Mimi up, one of our younger sisters. So, when Dee Dee and Peggy retired, Mimi joined us. She's been with us now seventeen years and she is incredible. So, the three of us do just about everything together. We make decisions together. When it comes to the business, like the contracts coming in finally from different agents to look 'em over, I'll do the business part of it first and then get an okay from the girls. I always have. It's just one of my skills or one of the things I always wanted to do. All I wanted to do when I was growing up was to be a secretary for somebody and take care of filing. That's all I wanted to do and I still think one day I'll be able to do that, (laughs) but at this point I take care of most of The Lennon Sisters' business. Many times all three of us do interviews, but sometimes it's easier to do it with one person.
Q - Why do you think there's this continuing interest in The Lennon Sisters?
A - People remember the late '50s, early '60s and Annette and Shelly Fabares and The Lennon Sisters. The wonderful television shows that people could kind of indentify with in those days. What's interesting Gary, and you might not know this, we are the only singing sisters and singing group that became popular because of television, not from recordings. We only had two hit records that were, oh gosh, so long ago. We did "Tonight You Belong To Me" (#15 in 1956) after Patience And Prudence did it. Mr. Welk had us put it out. It was a pretty good hit for us and then in the mid '60s we did "Sad Movies Make Me Cry". That was a pretty good hit in the mid '60s, but other than that we had very good selling albums, but we don't have that big hit record where if we went on stage and sang it, somebody would say, "Oh yeah. Oh yeah." We made it on television. And there aren't any other groups that can really say that.
Q - From late 1959 through the early 1960s, what was life like for The Lennon Sisters? Was it a constant blur of recording studios, TV studios, hotel rooms, airports? Or were you all still in school?
A - All the years that we were with Mr. Welk, and that was through '68, we would go to regular school. We all went to parochial grammar schools and high school. We never went to a Hollywood professional high (school). So, we went to regular schools so we could be with all the friends that we went to kindergarten with. Mom and Dad thought it was really important that we didn't go to a Hollywood professional school. And so it kept us very grounded. So, we were in school. We would also come home and do the dishes and change diapers on our little brothers and sisters. We were a big family and we took care of our family and our brothers and sisters. Then on weekends, we would do rehearsal on Thursday after school, Friday after school. We'd tape the show on Saturday. Very often Sunday we'd fly to New York and maybe stay there and do a couple of television shows and come back. We'd have to get our assignments from school and it was a hectic time, especially I would say more in '62 through '66. That was the most traveling we ever did. For four years we were really gone a lot. I was just getting out of high school and Janet was still in high school It was rough on us. Even though we all got A's and B's, and mostly A's, it was still very hard because we wanted to be normal kids from around the corner and we were still performing on every television show and performing concerts around the United States.
Q - But Kathy, you weren't a normal kid. You were on TV! What did the other kids and teachers say to you? How were you treated?
A - What was great about it is, that's why Mom and Dad made a very smart decision and us course wanting that. We stayed in the same school as before we were singers. The only time someone would say, "Oh my gosh, that's a Lennon Sister!" is if somebody came from out of town and went to our school. I had two girl friends that moved from Syracuse and one from Boston. Carol and Paula came to St. Monica's and my girl friends in my class, they would go to 'em and say, "You've got a Lennon sister in your school!" They'd go, "You mean Kathy or you mean Janet?" It just didn't matter to them. We were never, ever treated differently. That's the only time we ever realized it. We took not a school bus, but the local bus to school. We'd just get on the local Santa Monica bus. We'd go from Venice to Santa Monica and get off with everybody else. And yet we'd go back and do Ed Sullivan, Perry Como and Andy Williams Show and come back.
Q - Today you'd have paparazzi waiting for you.
A - And we did at the places we were performing. We didn't have 'em at our schools. There were not allowed on campus and that was it. Mostly nuns taught us. They respected that and we weren't treated any differently. We were at times even treated a little tougher because we had to get our assignments and made sure we did our tests right. We'd come back and that was a little difficult. It was like 'cause you missed so much in class. But they worked with us. We led as normal a life as someone could being in showbiz but not being in the showbiz scene. Mom and Dad would not allow it. We didn't go to Hollywood parties. We hung with the family 'cause they were the most fun thing. We used to cry every time we'd leave our little brothers and sisters and our Mom and what our family was. Let's all go to the beach. We didn't do any of the other things. Yes, we went into recording studios and couldn't wait to come home. Everything we did we would bring one of our little brothers and sisters with us. It was all around family. And I really believe that's why we're still performing in our 59th year and get along and enjoy each other. We're always visiting. Talk, talk, talk. People go, "Don't you see each other?" We go, "About every day." We always have something to talk about. It's not about our career.
Q - Did you meet other recording stars of the day? Did you meet Sinatra and Elvis?
A - Oh, my gosh, we have incredible friends. When we were in Las Vegas for ten years with Andy Williams at Caesar's Palace, now that's all through the '70s and '80s; after we left The Lawrence Welk Show we had our own television show with Jimmy Durante and then on that show and then through all the incredible variety shows it was Sammy Davis, George Burns, Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Elvis and Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Carol Burnett, Sonny And Cher, Glen Campbell, The Bee Gees. I could go on forever. We did everybody's show. We did write our autobiography Same Song, Separate Voices and you can get that book on www.LennonSisters.com. We talk about all the incredible stars we have worked with through the years and to this day we're friends with. Johnny Crawford of The Rifleman, and we were really close with Ricky Nelson. Very close with Annette Funicello. Sammy Davis knew each of us by name. He'd come into our dressing room at Caesar's Palace and surprise us and he'd be sitting in our dressing room when we'd get off stage. We were with all those "name" stars and spent time with them. There were certain openings we would go to. We used to do a special thing for Rosemary Clooney with a salute to the song writers and it was put on by Rosie Clooney and done by the professional singers. So, we worked with all the greats, Barry Manilow, Ella Fitzgerald, Neil Diamond and of course Andy Williams many, many times. Debby Boone, Stevie Wonder, Michael McDonald. Every year we would do this show for Rosie Clooney and all of us singers would come to it and sing for the song writers. We had such a great relationship with everyone. It was kind of a mutual admiration society. And when we'd have Ella Fitzgerald say, "Oh, darlings, you're just like my grand daughters. I love seeing you," we were thrilled. We were just blown away. Or if Fred Astaire would say, "I watch you every week. I love your show with Jimmy Durante," or Gene Kelly would come up and say, "I saw you at Caesar's Palace with Andy. I can't wait to come back!" We've done I don't know how many shows with Johnny Mathis and had a wonderful time with him. He is a dear, dear man. So the truth is, we have been very blessed with meeting all of those stars, but we weren't in the circuit of going to all of the Hollywood parties. It just wasn't our thing.
Q - Let's say you had gone to the Hollywood parties, would that have helped your career in any way?
A - I don't think so. Our career has been phenomenal. We've done every television show that ever was when it came to variety shows. We've probably made 120 albums. We have our star on the Walk Of Fame. We've been inducted into the Vocal Group Hall Of Fame. We've sung for seven Presidents. Now maybe if we had been in the Hollywood jet set, we would have gone to more Emmy Awards or Academy Award shows, but we went to many of the music awards, the American Music Awards. We were even host of the American Music Awards and gave many awards there. We performed on the Emmys with Andy Williams. So, it's hard to say. The only thing we didn't do that we probably could've done, but we put family first, was we had a Command Performance for the Queen that we turned down, and King Hussein. We were to sing with Andy Williams at his birthday party and we didn't go to Europe. We didn't go to England. This was because one of our children was receiving his first Holy Communion, one of 'em was graduating from high school and our answer was always, "Who's going to remember? Is the Queen of England going to remember we were there or is our son going to remember we weren't at his first Holy Communion?" Or, we weren't at his graduation and we were singing for King Hussein. Our family came first. In our group, and why we possibly have still lasted, is in our group minority rules. If one person was really strong about not doing something, we knew for them to say that it had to mean that much. That was the answer. If all four didn't agree or now all three don't agree, we don't do it. And I think that's why we've been able to last so long.
Q - After February 9th, 1964, did your phone ever ring with people asking "Is John There?"
A - No. It did not. We've been asked many times about, "Are you related?" We say somewhere back there, but he's England and we're Ireland is where our Lennon name comes from. Galway Bay (Ireland). He's from England. But it's the U.K. and obviously somewhere we're related.
Q - Did you ever meet John Lennon or any of The Beatles?
A - No. That's a sad thing. That's one that got past us and is still something we would've loved to have done. I'd still love to meet Paul McCartney. We do many of his songs. We did a fabulous medley called "Lennons sing Lennon." We do it at concerts and I'd love to meet Paul McCartney. I think that would be fabulous.
Q - Did you ever meet Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison?
A - We met Jim Morrison. He did an Ed Sullivan Show with us.
Q - What do you remember about Jim Morrison?
A - He was kind of a fan. It was really funny. He said, "Oh my gosh, I used to watch you with my mother and father." Even though we came from totally different spectrums of music, we respected each other. He was very nice.
Q - And Elvis?
A - He was backstage when we were working with Andy Williams. He came to our dressing room and invited us to come back to his room after both of our midnight shows. He just wanted to jam. Sit and sing. We had other things that we had already promised to do and we couldn't do it that night. So, he never went back and we never sat and sang with him and his background singers. It just made us sick. We thought we'd have another opportunity and that just didn't happen. We were also asked to do a movie with Elvis. Shelley Fabares was in the movie with him. It wasn't G.I. Blues. I can't think it was now. But anyway, they asked The Lennon Sisters to be in that movie. And at the time we were on The Lawrence Welk Show and Mr. Welk thought it was bad for our image, that we had a different image than Elvis Presley. If it was in the '70s or '80s when we were still singing, we would have done it in a second, but this was in the late '60s. They turned it down. Our hearts were like, "Are you kidding me?"
Q - Who was the "they" you're talking about?
A - The Lawrence Welk group, the agents and the manager who kind of took care of us as children. They kind of ran our career.
Q - What was Frank Sinatra like?
A - We did a special to raise money for children in Los Angeles with Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. He was the star of all stars. He came in with a million people around him, just walked through and basically said, "Thank-you for coming to do the show," and walked on through. Bob Hope was really, really warm and Sammy Davis was incredibly warm and Dean Martin. He had so many people around him that that was all there was to do basically.
Q - How is it that you got to perform for all these presidents?
A - Starting with Eisenhower, he was a huge fan. He invited us to come sing for his birthday party. Kennedy was a huge Lennon fan. His family and Pat Kennedy Lawford, we were performing in Indiana at the State Fair and the Corn Palace in South Dakota. He was there speaking also. He just couldn't believe The Lennon Sisters were there and couldn't wait to see us again. We took pictures with him, met him. We were in love with him. He was so handsome and we were all in high school and here was this gorgeous, handsome President that we all loved and he was a real huge fan. He asked us and invited us to his inauguration. The different Presidents for different reasons met us in different areas. Ronald Reagan was because we were from Los Angeles. He was from Los Angeles. We sang for him before he left to go to The White House. Gerald Ford, when he moved to Los Angeles, he moved to the desert and we were out in the desert doing a fund raiser for children in Palm Desert and President and Mrs. Ford came to that and we took great pictures and got to sing for him and talk with him. It was actually the person we were singing for and the honor of being with our President of the United States. It wasn't political.