Music took The Shepherd Sisters a long way from home

Middletown has produced some outstanding musically talented people. Some have gone on to worldwide fame as singers, dancers, conductors and instrumentalists. Growing up during the rock ‘n’ roll era and the heyday of TV’s “American Bandstand,” I am aware of a musical group - a vocal quartet - from Middletown who were part of that time.

On Nov. 11, 1957, their biggest hit - “Alone (Why Must I Be Alone)” - went to No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 list. I am referring to The Shepherd Sisters.

And, yes, that was their biggest hit, but they were well known for their rock ‘n’ roll and their stage and cabaret act.

Their parents, Doug and Pearl Shepherd, had come from Kentucky to settle in Middletown, where Doug worked at the steel mill - Armco. The family grew to include eight children - Maybel, Dorsey, Mildred “Mid,” Paul, Martha, MaryLou, Gayle and Judith. All were born in Middletown. Music was important to the family. Three of them - Maybel, Dorsey and Mid - performed as the Shepherd Trio, playing instruments on WPFB radio.

At an Armco Park Talent Show, three of the girls - MaryLou, Gayle and Martha - calling themselves the Shepherd Sisters, were heard by Herb Spade, whose orchestra was playing for the event. They were hired to sing with the orchestra. At an appearance with the orchestra, they were heard by Inez and Carl Taylor. The Taylors were agents from Dayton who had worked with the McGuire Sisters in their early career. The Taylors were the first of several people who became important in the girls’ success.

They were booked for local programs, including the band Carl Taylor and His Taylor-Made Music. Their first big break came when they appeared on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts” television show where they sang “Melody of Love.” Next came a three month tour of Europe with The Downhomers, which turned into an extended tour for The Shepherd Sisters. In all they spent six months on this tour. Returning to Ohio, they continued to perform with Carl Taylor until deciding to go to New York City, a center of the big-time music business.

While in New York, record label owner, arranger, producer and songwriter, Morty Craft found them and came up with a unique rendition of “Gone With the Wind.” The Shepherd Sisters version became a regional hit, going to No. 1 on the pop charts in Philadelphia, Cleveland, St. Louis and New York.

“Gone With the Wind” was the record that brought The Shepherd Sisters to the attention of Alan Freed, who it is claimed was the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and Dick Clark, the host of “Bandstand.” The Shepherd Sisters performed on the Alan Freed Stage Shows. They also got the opportunity to sing on Dick Clark’s original “Bandstand” show out of Philadelphia, where they sang “Gone With the Wind.” Dick Clark’s “Bandstand” became the very popular “American Bandstand.” The Shepherd Sisters appeared on “American Bandstand” dozens of times, including Judith’s first appearance with them on television.

The song The Shepherd Sisters are best known for - “Alone (Why Must I Be Alone)” - was written by Morty Craft and his wife, Zelma. Things happened at the right time for The Shepherd Sisters. Judith, who was still in high school, traveled to New York to visit her sisters at the same time that the recording session for the new song was to be held. She was invited to sing on the record with them, and The Shepherd Sisters as a foursome was created. “Alone” got a lot of play, spending weeks on the pop charts.

Morty Craft produced many of their records on his record labels.

After the success of “Alone,” The Shepherd Sisters signed on with Mercury Records. With the addition of Judith came the need for new arrangements. Clark McClellan became their vocal coach, arranger and conductor. He is also given credit for the girl’s success.

They recorded something like 50 songs, performed as part of Alan Freed’s shows, Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” Irving Feld’s “Biggest Show of Stars,” and they had a nightclub/stage act. They performed in hotel ballrooms, supper clubs, night clubs, theaters and casinos. Music took them a long way from Ohio. They sang in the Philippines, Canada, South America and Europe.

Martha retired in 1959, while MaryLou, Gayle and Judith continued to perform until 1965. In 1976, they got back together for a short time, recording three songs.

The music of The Shepherd Sisters won’t be forgotten by many of us who grew up during that time.

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