LOS ANGELES — On Christmas Eve 1955, “champagne music” bandleader Lawrence Welk introduced the Lennon Sisters — Dianne, Peggy, Kathy and Janet — on his popular ABC musical variety series, “The Lawrence Welk Show.” And before you could say “a-one-and-a-two,” the girls, ages 9 to 16, were an overnight phenomenon.
Their harmonies were pure, with Peggy singing the high notes, Kathy the low, and Dianne —known as Dee Dee — and Janet, in the middle. They scored their first hit “Tonight, You Belong to Me” in 1956. They were a mainstay on the series until 1968, then in 1969 got their own ABC musical variety series “Jimmy Durante Presents the Lennon Sisters.”
They also appeared on “The Andy Williams Show,” “The Ed Sullivan Show” and performed for years in Las Vegas.
Dee Dee, 72, and Peggy, 71, are retired, but the Lennon Sisters are still harmonizing. Since 1994, Kathy, Janet and, for the last 13 years, younger sister Mimi, have been performing primarily at the Welk Resort Champagne Theatre in Branson, Mo.
“There are so many performers in our family, we had to do a cut-off age,” said Janet, 66, in a conference call with Dee Dee, Kathy, 68, and Mimi, 56, from her home in Branson. “They are all so talented, it is hard to put on a two-hour show.”
The sisters point out that family has always meant more to them than their career.
“We enjoyed being together and singing together, but if someone would have said ‘OK, it’s ending tomorrow,’ we would have said ‘OK,’ ” said Dee Dee. “This was an occupation and it fell into our laps and we did the best we could. We were proud of it.”
Their parents kept them grounded. “We got to go to our same Catholic school and we had all of our brothers and sisters and our cousins,” said Janet.
“It didn’t identify us,” said Kathy. “Our girlfriends worked at Walgreens; we worked at ABC. We would change our little brothers’ and sisters’ diapers, do dishes and help our brothers and sisters with their homework and do our homework. If we would go on the road and do ‘The Andy Williams Show’ and ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ we couldn’t wait to just get home.”
They penned their autobiography, “Same Song, Separate Voices,” in 1985 and last year, a documentary of the same name aired on PBS and is available on the lennonsisters.com website. In the documentary, they discuss their experiences on the Welk series as well as the killing of their father, William Lennon, by a stalker who was infatuated with Peggy.
The Lennons are surprised when they realize it’s been almost 57 years since the Welk premiere. “We have made all of our friends promise that if they see us up there and are thinking, ‘Uh-oh,’ they will get a hook and pull us off,” said Kathy, laughing.
“The voices are still there, just like when we were tiny little kids, that hasn’t changed at all,” added Peggy.
Two Lennon brothers recently called Peggy after they saw a Smithsonian exhibition on music through the ages. “From the 1950s and ’60s, they had records and movie magazines with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Elvis Presley and the Lennon Sisters (on the covers),” Peggy said.
“We were in Photoplay and Radio Mirror and every movie magazine you can image. When my brothers said we were in the Smithsonian, I said I feel old enough to be in the Smithsonian!”
“We have huge fan clubs all over the United States and the United Kingdom and Australia,” said Kathy. “They follow us. It is so amazing how many clips of us are on YouTube.”
Adding to their popularity is the “Saturday Night Live” spoof with Fred Armisen as Welk, who seems to enjoy his Champagne a bit too much, introducing a Lennon Sisters-like group — Judice & the Merrell Sisters from the Finger Lakes.
Last season’s finale of “SNL” found them singing with a bad Italian crooner played by Jon Hamm.
The Lennons have enjoyed those spoofs. “It just cracks everybody up,” said Janet. “It’s hard for us to believe we’re kind of an American institution.”