One day they were three students singing at their high school talent assembly. Then, seemingly overnight, they had the No. 1 song in the country and were being introduced on primetime television by Dick Clark. It was an amazing ride for the vocal group known as the Fleetwoods, who first claimed the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 exactly 60 years ago (April 13, 1959) with “Come Softly to Me.” Seven months later, the trio was back in pole position with “Mr. Blue,” making chart history as the first group to have two No. 1 hits in the same calendar year.
The Fleetwoods went on to have 11 entries on the Hot 100 before calling it a day, though reunions happened from time to time. Billboard caught up with founding member Gretchen Christopher to talk about 60 years of Fleetwoods history.
The Fleetwoods were you, Barbara Ellis and Gary Troxel. You and Barbara were born nine days apart in the same hospital in Olympia, Wash., and were in the maternity ward at the same time. When did you actually meet?
When we were five years old, we lived about five blocks apart. Barbara and I were preschool playmates and we both went to Lincoln Elementary School. I remember visiting her family’s home. I tried on her pink satin toe shoes and afterward I begged my mother to allow me to have dance lessons.
Your family moved away and so you and Barbara no longer went to the same school. Did you stay in touch?
Barbara and I reunited as freshmen. We were both chosen as cheerleaders at Washington Junior High School. We sang together as pep staff and song leaders and in glee club. I also composed little jingles and sang solo, over the P.A. from the principal’s office, some special announcements of such things as the noon sock hops, cleverly rewording popular songs of the day.
Through 1954, there had been only one high school, serving the greater Olympia area: William Winlock Miller, known as “Olympia High School” or “OHS.” That changed when the rural North Thurston High School was built, and our class was the first to have a choice of which high school to attend. I chose OHS, and Barbara chose NTHS. But in her senior year, she transferred to my school, contacted me, and said, “I want to sing with you again. Let’s form a group.” We invited several other girls to audition. At the piano, I played those wonderful R&B chords on which so many 1950s songs were based, and we sang the hit, “In the Still of the Nite.” Problem was, the other girls kept singing louder and louder, so I had to admonish them, in hushed tones, “It’s in the still of the night.” The audition ended fruitlessly. One girl was too busy with cheerleading and another admitted she “couldn’t carry a tune in a basket.” I was alone, sitting at the upright piano. I began playing the chords again, but elongating the pattern to accommodate my softly melodic pleading, “Come softly, darling, come to me, stay, you’re my obsession, forever and a day.” When I saw Barbara on Tuesday in the chorus room, her contribution was a lovely high harmony, following whatever I sang. She instinctively knew to blend softly and follow my dynamics.
Instead of adding a third female, you found a male singer, Gary Troxel. How did that happen?
Later that week, Barbara and I had a rehearsal in the auditorium. I was singing lead and suggested that she follow me in harmony as I performed a glissando or slide on the last word of the phrase “Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky, stormy weather.” Barb suggested, “Wouldn’t it be neat if we had a blues trumpet on this?” Later I dropped in on the rehearsal of the Blue Comets, a high school quartet that included drummer Greg Hawkins and guitarist/fiddler Donny Ulrich (who would later become the indispensable right-hand man of Buck Owens on TV’s Hee Haw). Greg sent us Gary Troxel, but Gary couldn’t play in our key, and we couldn’t sing in his, so we dropped the idea of “Stormy Weather.” Gary walked me downtown for my dance class after school. He was humming something. I asked what it was. “Oh, just some jazz trumpet riff I have in my head,” he replied. “Well, keep it up, but slow it down,” I said, recognizing that it was based on the same chord progression as the song I was writing. Arranging it mentally, on the spot, I sang my “Come Softly” in counterpoint against the nonsense syllable Gary was humming, and it worked. I said, “Let’s sing it for Barbara, too, and if she likes it as much as I do, we’ll incorporate that into the song and you into the group.” He did; she did; and we did.
George Yantis, who recorded school concerts, offered to record the three of us singing “Come Softly” in his home, and he wrote it out so we could register the copyrights.
How did you meet Bob Reisdorff, the man who created a record label just so he could sign you?
After making my professional debut, dancing and singing solo on KING-TV in Seattle, I was dancing solo at Norm Bobrow’s the Colony, a supper club that was getting national attention because of the songstress in residence, Pat Suzuki. When she was too ill to perform her first show one night, I was asked to replace her with my solo dancing. The audience response and review by columnist Emmet Watson were so great that I was held over to split shows with Pat Suzuki. I told Norm that I’d written and performed an original song with a couple of fellow students at Olympia High School – and then at a teen dance at the Community Center, the kids in the audience were so enthusiastic about it, they said, “Gretchen, why don’t you record it, so we can buy it?”
I asked Norm what I should do, and he introduced me to Bob Reisdorff, who promoted national records (including Pat Suzuki’s debut LP) for the largest music distributor in the Northwest. Bob suggested I make a recording of my song, bring it to him and, if he thought it had hit potential, he’d mail it to different labels and see if anyone wanted to sign us. If he wasn’t that impressed, we could send it out ourselves, without a note of recommendation, and pay our own postage. I invited Barbara and Gary to my family’s home on the bay, to record us singing “Come Softly” a cappella, on my dad’s tape recorder. I had no idea I was recording a future No. 1 hit. I did my homework in advance so I could take a day off school and travel 120 miles round trip to Seattle to deliver the tape. In his office, Bob and a top Seattle DJ listened to the tape, looked at each other, and Bob said, “It’ll sell a million!”
Bob started his own company, Dolphin Records, for he’d finally found the potential hit maker of which he had dreamed. Reisdorff played the tape for Bonnie Guitar to see if she, too, thought it would be a hit. Bonnie Guitar was brought into the company as a vice president and co-producer. As an artist, she had achieved a hit with “Dark Moon.” She knew the ropes and some fine studio musicians in L.A.
When did you record the version of “Come Softly to Me” that was released on the Dolphin label?
The three of us were still seniors at Olympia High School. Bob wanted us to come to Seattle the day after our graduation and prepare for recording. We rehearsed in a rented houseboat on Lake Union. The actual recording took place in Joe Boles’ home studio over a period of five months, as Reisdorff learned his craft as a record producer, with the help of Bonnie Guitar. Our last recording session was when I came home from Whitman College for Thanksgiving vacation. Originally, I was the lead singer, Barbara sang harmony and Gary the background. At some point, Reisdorff said to Gary, “That’s such a catchy background, why don’t you add some lyrics to it.” Gary did, and then it became a shared male/female lead, our alternating verses.
How did you get the name the Fleetwoods?
For the senior class talent assembly at OHS, I had performed a dance solo, and then Barbara, Gary and I were up as a trio, to sing “Come Softly.” Just before the curtain opened, the announcer suddenly asked me, “How shall I introduce you?” I quickly responded, “Two Girls ‘n’ a Guy,” which was simply what we were. Later, when Reisdorff phoned me to say we needed a name for the group, I said “What’s wrong with Two Girls ‘n’ a Guy?” He said, “We need something more distinctive, like Fleetwood,” the name of Olympia’s only telephone exchange, which he’d just given the operator to place the long distance call from Seattle to Olympia. It was the prefix to each of our telephone numbers, so I said, “How about the Fleetwoods?” We agreed and ran it by Barbara and Gary, who had no objection.
Why did Bob change the title to “Come Softly to Me” and what did you think of the change?
When the record was about to be released, Reisdorff informed us he’d changed the title to “Come Softly to Me,” thinking “Come Softly” was too suggestive. It was an unfortunate choice, in that the lyrics never say “Come Softly to Me,” so when that title is mentioned, most people think they don’t know the song. But sing a bit of “Come softly, darling” or, better yet, Gary’s “Dom-dom,” and they immediately know the song.
After high school, you enrolled in college. And then your first single is released. How did that affect your education?
Barbara phoned me to say that “Come Softly to Me” was released in the Northwest and was becoming a hit, and I would have to leave college to tour. I was only beginning to sink my teeth into academics, and I wanted to persevere in my commitment to education. I begged Reisdorff not to pull me out of college after I had made such a sacrifice to remain there. He said, “On one condition: if ‘Come Softly to Me’ hits nationally, you’ll leave college immediately, without any argument, and go on tour to promote it.” I agreed.
Fellow students told me they heard our record and that it was climbing the charts. The higher it rose, the lower my heart fell, for fear of having to leave college. Four days into my second semester, it happened, Reisdorff called and said our single was hitting nationally, and I left to go on tour without an argument. We went to Hollywood, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Boston, Chicago and Washington, D.C. The highlight was when we hit New York. We were to do Dick Clark’s Saturday night prime time show, sponsored by Beech-Nut gum. As we arrived for rehearsal at the Little Theater on 44th Street, Frankie Avalon stepped out of the shadows, extended his hand and said, “Congratulations, ‘Come Softly to Me’ just knocked ‘Venus’ out of the No. 1 spot.” That’s how we learned that the first song we’d written and recorded was the No. 1 song in the nation. And so it remained, for an astonishing four weeks in April and May, 1959.
Gary was in the Naval Reserves. How did that affect the group?
Gary told me he saw stacks of telegrams on Reisdorff’s desk, telegrams asking to book the Fleetwoods in Europe, but Bob didn’t bother telling us, because these concerts were booked five months in advance, and Gary was always due to go into active duty before that. Bob finally decided to quit begging for deferments and let Gary get his service over with. Barbara and I took an apartment to stay in Hollywood long enough to audition possible replacements for Gary. We chose Vic Dana, who would be awarded his own solo contract with Dolton [the new name for the Dolphin label].
You wrote some of your own singles but most were written by others. How did you feel about that?
We were rather naive about the benefit of writing our own material; however, to Reisdorff’s credit, he did try to encourage us to write our own songs, saying that even if they were just on the albums, we’d get great royalties as writers. Money was not a motivator for me, though I did write most of “My Sister’s Love” for an album. I think Gary started the scat part and I wrote the lyrics (portraying an actual situation in my life). Barbara harmonized and we shared writing credits equally, as Bob had suggested, early on, when Barbara and I had written a couple of things (just the two of us) and Reisdorff suggested we include Gary as a writer, equally. We did that, until I wrote “Blues Go Away” completely alone, and said to myself, “I’ve written a standard.” I simply could not see giving writer’s credit to people who had nothing to do with the writing, had not invested their blood, sweat and tears into the experience, as I had.
How did you find the song “Mr. Blue”?
We were touring in San Francisco, and someone named DeWayne Blackwell phoned and asked to meet with us (including Bob Reisdorff) at our hotel room, to play a song for us. I said, “I think it’s a fine song, but why don’t you and your group record it yourselves?” DeWayne said, “Because if we (the Blackwells) record it, no one will ever hear it. But if the Fleetwoods record it, every disc jockey in the country will play it.” He was right, and it sold a million records.
How did it feel to be No. 1 again with “Mr. Blue”?
Great, of course. Reisdorff told us, “It’s hard to have a No. 1 record, but even harder to have two No. 1 records.” Gary didn’t like the song “Mr. Blue” but Reisdorff said if it went to No. 1, Gary could have the use of Bob’s Corvette for several weeks. Sort of betting against each other. We all won.
What did it mean to you to be so successful?
I don’t think we really understood how successful we were. We were kids. I turned 19 in Cleveland, just four days out on our first tour. I truly understand in retrospect how extraordinary our success was as the first group in the world to have two No. 1 singles top the Billboard Hot 100 in a single year.
How did the Fleetwoods eventually come to an end and what turns has your own musical career taken since then?
All of our 11 hits on the Hot 100 (plus several “Bubbling Under”) were produced by Bob Reisdorff, who’d created Dolphin Records to record us on “Come Softly.” With our phenomenal success, other labels tried to buy the Fleetwoods’ recording contract, but Dolton would not sell it, for then they’d be an empty shell. However, Liberty Records (who distributed our records nationally) offered to buy the whole label, so Reisdorff (and partners Lou Lavinthal and Bonnie Guitar) agreed, presumably making themselves very rich, indeed, but not extending that benefit to the Fleetwoods. As part of the sale, Reisdorff was contracted to run Dolton for five more years, in Hollywood, and then he went to New York to handle other business for Liberty. When new producers worked with the Fleetwoods, they did not necessarily understand how to treat our sound, which had originally been equal balance between the male and female voices, with the lead and the answer lyrics alternately coming to the fore, by our own dynamics, the three of us telling a story, most effectively, in song. New producers did not understand this and began treating us not as a trio but as a lead singer with two back-ups. The hits ended. It was no longer fun. We even had some foul-mouthed producer take us into the studio, creating an environment we didn’t want to be a part of.
When our second contract was up and Liberty had the option of signing us again, they wanted to, but without continuing the monthly payments we’d been guaranteed when we signed last time. I suggested we turn down the next recording contract, for it was no longer bringing us happiness, and each of us was married, some with children to raise. Happily, that last contract expired in February of 1966, and, in February of 1967, my husband Rich and I gave birth to our first child: our son Christopher Gray Matzen; and in November 1978, our daughter Kimari Anne Matzen. Having found that external success of No. 1 hits, gold records and Ed Sullivan and Dick Clark shows did not bring me internal happiness, I set my sights on living my vision of the perfect wife and mother, eventually augmented by decades of teaching dance, writing and selling stories for publication and doing occasional performances, both as the Fleetwoods trio and as Gretchen Christopher, solo. Eventually, with the encouragement of my children as adults, I embarked on a project I’d put off since the age of 25: an album of songs I’d written and would record solo: Gretchen’s Sweet Sixteen (Suite 16) is a story-telling suite of 16 autobiographical songs, including “Come Softly” (a cappella) and “Come Softly To Me” (the hit arrangement with me singing all three parts). What I thought I could complete in a month took three and a half years. That included writing and arranging the songs, hiring the musicians to accompany me, performing them in studios, designing the album cover and layout of the accompanying booklet, writing 16-pages of liner notes, selecting photos and founding a brand new label (GoldCupMusic.com) on which to release the CD.
When you first heard about Fleetwood Mac, what were your thoughts about their name being so close to yours?
There was much confusion. I’m sure that, initially, when people said, “Fleetwood Mac,” others would say, “You mean the Fleetwoods.” But eventually their success prevailed, and when someone said, “the Fleetwoods,” folks might say, “You mean Fleetwood Mac?”
In 2011 I went to a screening of the Green Lantern movie and was surprised that “Come Softly to Me” was included in the soundtrack. What was your reaction?
It’s great to be in something current and have a whole new generation of movie fans exposed to our song. Years later, I happened onto a website that asked for feedback about the film. Many people commented that the best thing about the movie was the Fleetwoods’ “Come Softly To Me.” It is not a movie I’d have chosen to see, if not for “Come Softly to Me,” but I enjoyed the scene where Ryan Reynolds, who starred as Green Lantern, tried to win his girl back by singing along with us on a jukebox.
Finally, on a completely different note, your older sister Sonja made her own mark on pop culture. What did you think of her competing on season one of Survivor and being the first person voted off the island?
Survivor was all very secretive, but once Sonja told me it would be airing, I gathered the family and said we should have a viewing party to support her. When she was voted off the island, I reassured her that “being first” (as I had been, a number of times with the Fleetwoods) is not a bad thing. No one can take that distinction away from you. The show had a psychiatrist there to help the non-survivors survive the rejection of being voted off, but I hoped a little personal insight and sisterly love would be supportive. Sonja is a very talented actress and sing-along life of the party, and I’m glad that she has this Survivor fame to balance the success I’ve had, for there is, I suppose, some natural sibling rivalry. She sings old standards at retirement homes and for Alzheimer’s patients, and it is very rewarding and appreciated. I have joined her twice, adding the song “Sisters” to the act, and it’s been such a loving high and great memory. And both “Sonja Christopher” and “the Fleetwoods” have been answers in The New York Times‘ crossword puzzle. It’s been great fun.