I don’t know why this story fascinates me so much. Maybe it is because this is one of the first “hit” songs I remember from when I was a little kid; my classmate Johnny Frankiel sang it once during recess in the schoolyard when the two of us were huddled in some deep discussion. (This is, in fact, the only thing I remember about Johnny Frankel; we were friendly but not close.)
Maybe it is because the song illustrates for me how the passage of time changes so much—that much in life depends on those events that can only be described as “accidental” for both ourselves and others.
The song in question is a little ditty called “Tonight You Belong to Me.” It is best known for being featured in a beach scene in the 1979 film, The Jerk, in a scene between Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters. Martin plays a ukulele and Peters accompanies him on a flugelhorn. The song is downright nostalgic.
“Tonight You Belong To Me” (words and music by Billy Rose & Lee David) was first performed as a waltz in 1927 by Gene Austin, but it sounds very unlike the version I know that has survived. The song I know (and that was performed by Martin and Peters) is the 1956 top 4 hit by the two-hit-wonder group, Patience and Prudence. Although their follow-up single, “Gonna Get Along Without You Now,” charted at Number 12, their subsequent singles failed to chart and the singing duo quickly disappeared into the realm of obscurity.
Patience & Prudence were actually sisters and the daughters of orchestra leader Mack McIntyre, who was associated with Frank Sinatra from 1942 to 1948 on Sinatra’s West Coast appearances and recorded about 136 sides with him. The idea of doing a recording came from their mother, who thought it would make a nice gift for McIntyre’s parents in Texas. Patience (11 years old) and Prudence (14 years old) were thus brought into the Gold Star recording studios in Los Angeles in the summer of 1956 to do a demo recording. One of the pieces they recorded was a song the girls had learned at summer camp, “Tonight You Belong to Me.”
Almost as an afterthought, McIntyre gave a copy of the recording to one of his collaborators, Ross Bagdasarian, who in turn presented it to Si Waronker at Liberty Records. “It’s a certain infectious little sound they get,” Waronker said after hearing the song. “Whenever I hear them sing, I smile.”
As a result of Waronker’s interest, McIntyre and his daughters returned to the Gold Star Studios to recut “Tonight You Belong to Me” with a rhythm section that was performed by jazz guitarist Barney Kessel. “Dad wrote an arrangement that added melodic interest to both the chorus and the bridge, and expanded the counterpoint,” Patience explained. To compensate for the relatively thin sound of the girls’ voices, they each added a unison vocal track. After the session, Waronker and his Liberty record label took possession of the master tapes, and the McIntyres left town for a two-week summer vacation to Yosemite.
They were completely unprepared for the surprise that greeted them upon their return home. Thanks to a Boston disc jockey who had played the record 14 times in one day, “Tonight You Belong to Me” had broken wide open and generated orders from local retailers amounting to 4,000 copies. By September it was on Billboard magazine’s national pop record chart, peaking at Number 4 on October 6, and generating a sales figure of 2,000,000 copies.
Lawrence Welk’s Lennon Sisters jumped on the band wagon and recorded a cover which reached Number 14 in early November.
Nevertheless, the Patience and Prudence version proved to be Liberty’s first Top 10 Hit, earning a gold record and saving the record label from impending bankruptcy.
Ready or not, Patience and Prudence McIntyre had become overnight stars through a series of events the family still characterizes as “the accident.” Patience remembers: “We were extremely surprised, but it didn’t throw us off too much because my folks were pretty square, middle-of-the-road people, and we lived in a part of LA where all the studio people are. We went to Girl Scout meetings, we went to the Sunday-school choir things, we went to the Y, we went to summer camp, and if somebody down the block wanted a babysitter, I would do the babysitting. The whole time, I think we missed three days of school.”
The record company wanted them to tour, but they didn’t. Offers poured in from TV variety shows (including Ed Sullivan’s), movie studios, and ad agencies—and all the while the McIntyres carefully screened them to preserve the stability of family life and protect their daughters from exploitation. “The stuff we turned down was probably more interesting than the stuff we did,” said Patience. “We turned down An Affair to Remember—the kids singing in the hospital to Deborah Kerr. We turned down a bunch of commercials, too, because my folks didn’t want us to be commercialized.”
The one television offer the McIntyres accepted was The Perry Como Show. “Right before we went on,” Patience recalls, “I looked at my dad and I said, ‘Dad, what are we doing here?’ We knew we were just a passing thing.”
Liberty, of course, was eager to produce a follow-up record, and on October 5, 1956, the girls went into a recoding studio to put a new song on tape. It was a well-arranged and richly orchestrated rewrite of an earlier Theresa Brewer hit, “Gonna Get Along Without You Now.” By December the new release had climbed to Number 12 on the charts. But despite many attempts, it was the last song that met with much success. Thereafter, they dropped off the radar.
Their father was very strict and wanted them to get an education. In the 1960s they appear to have attended the University of Arizona in Tucson. When they came of age, they reportedly had little to do with their father. In the late ’70s, Patience worked in the advertising business in Chicago at an agency named Arthur Meyerhoff, where she worked on the Wrigley’s chewing gum account among others.
In 1978, they appeared on a reunion show hosted by Dick Clark:
In 2009 Patience was apparently living in Toluca Lake CA with her aged mother. Prudence married the drummer Don Conka, who performed briefly with the band “Love” in 1965. However, both were junkies and were on Methadone. She apparently had bouts of homelessness. Prudence had an on-again/off-again relationship with Don until he died of an overdose in 2004. Don and Prudence had a daughter named Paige.
Both sisters are now reported to reside in River Oaks WI. Patience is an invalid, and Prudence waits on her hand-and-foot, believing she is responsible for her sister’s misfortune.
I am not alone with my fascination. Every year, one of their staunchest fans reportedly pays them $500 to sing “Tonight You Belong to Me” on the phone on his birthday. You, on the other hand, can listen to them here for free.
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