How Andrews Sisters arranger Vic Schoen learned to break the rules

The Andrews Sisters: Maxene, Patty and LaVerne, circa 1940.
The Andrews Sisters posing for a photograph; Maxene, Patty and LaVerne, circa 1940. (Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone/Getty Images)

This story is a bonus feature of The Current Rewind, the podcast putting music's unsung stories on the map.

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In the late 1930s, the Andrews Sisters rose to fame for their distinctive voices and tight vocal harmonies. But another key factor that separated them from the other singers of their time was their arranger, Vic Schoen. Schoen worked with the Andrews Sisters for much of their career, helping to shape their unique, swinging sound.

Vic Schoen was born in Brooklyn in 1916. He found his way into music at an early age, playing trumpet in New York nightclubs while still in high school. Schoen quickly built his reputation as an arranger and composer, and he went on to work with artists like Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, Harry James, the Weavers and Dinah Shore. Schoen also wrote and arranged music for films, including The Road to Morocco and The Road to Rio, both of which starred another of Schoen's long-time collaborators, Bing Crosby.

In an interview with The Current Rewind writer Michaelangelo Matos, jazz critic and author Gary Giddins explains, "One of the things that distinguished the Andrews Sisters was that they had a brilliant young arranger who really helped them to create their sound, and arranged all their important recordings. His name was Vic Schoen."

Some of the hallmarks of Schoen's arrangements include jazz-inspired grooves mixed with inventive harmonies and sometimes jarring instrumental additions, like the syncopated horn accents of "Jingle Bells." The Andrews Sisters sing the tune with Bing Crosby, accompanied by Vic Schoen's orchestra. The song begins with a steady beat laid down by the iconic jingle bells, which is soon interrupted by blaring, syncopated hits from the horn section.

According to Giddins, Schoen's idol was the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, another musician known for taking risks in his compositions. Giddins recalls one of Schoen's favorite stories — when he crossed paths with Stravinsky during a recording session. Schoen noticed the older gentleman sitting in the studio, realizing that it was in fact the distinguished composer.

Excited by the music, Stravinsky turned to Schoen and said, "You must know all the rules." "Why would you say that?" Schoen asked. "Because you broke every one of them," Stravinsky said.

"Schoen took that as a compliment, because he figured Stravinsky was the greatest rule-breaker of them all," Giddins says. Stravinsky's music could hardly be described as tame — the 1913 premiere of his ballet The Rite of Spring allegedly sparked a riot inside Paris's Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, due to its abrasive music and so-called "primitive" storyline. Stravinsky's music favored dissonance and jarring rhythms, eventually turning to atonalism late in the composer's career.

Like Stravinsky, Schoen often broke musical conventions in his arrangements, while also pulling from the swinging style of jazz to create the Andrews Sisters' unique sound.

"He did a lot of very witty things in their arrangements - counterpoints and strange little melodic quotations he would throw in," said Giddins. "He had enough of a jazz background that he could really give them a swinging feeling even though, unlike the Boswells, the Andrews Sisters really weren't jazz-oriented. They were very much a part of the swing era, but they weren't jazz singers.

"They have this tremendous energy and they have this great sound," Giddins continues. "You hear that particular harmony they bring to things like 'Bei Mir Bist Du Schon' or 'Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar' or "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" or any of those tunes. You hear them and you instantly know what decade we're talking about and what the country was like."

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