Anyone who’s ever said that big-band music is lost forever to the Forties and Fifties should listen to the Moon-maids.
You remember: They were the quartet that sang backup for band leader Vaughn Monroe when songs like Chattanooga Choo-Choo and Ghost Riders in the Sky were all the rage. Well, they’re alive and well and still singing in Dallas as the Moonmaids Plus One.
The Moonmaids got their start in Denton back in 1946, when friends Mary Jo Thomas and Tinker Cunningham decided to form a quartet while attending North Texas State University. The Swingtet, as they called themselves, sang on a weekly radio show in Dallas, and they also did a nine-week USO tour.
It was that initial exposure that soon found the Swingtet working with Monroe as the Moonmaids. (Trivia buffs might remember Monroe’s theme song. Racing With the Moon.) Monroe’s lead singer, Maree Lee, turned the quartet into a quintet. Soon after, two of the original Moonmaids left the group, and it became a quartet again, with Lee filling the third spot and June Hiett of Arlington filling the fourth. Hiett had founded another quartet. The Blue Notes, a few years earlier and had enrolled in NTSU in hopes that she could meet the Moonmaids.
The harmonious foursome performed together for five years. Thomas, Cunningham and Hiett remember that time as being almost like a dream. They recall the long road trips (and one in particular, when their bus exploded and burned all their belongings), washing their identical organza dresses in hotel bathtubs and meeting such personalities as Ed Sullivan, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como and Jimmy Durante.
The women eventually went their separate ways because of marriage, school and other interests. Thomas married Har-rold Grogan, who now sings with the reunited quartet. Grogan. a former Marine pilot and singer, returned after World War II to study business at NTSU and was the original vocalist for the NTSU Lab Band. He also sang with Hiett’s group when it joined the Sonny Dunham band and was renamed the Sonny Siders. It was when these two bands crossed paths that Thomas met Grogan and Hiett joined the Moonmaids.
Cunningham married Bill Rautenberg, a Dr Pepper executive (now retired), who acts as the group’s part-time business manager. Hiett married Ed Bratone, a violinist with Monroe’s band who died three years ago.
All of the former Moon-maids returned to the Dallas area and continued singing for the radio and television jingle industry during the Fifties and Sixties. Lee left the group, and Carol Collierfilled her position in 1967. Collier had sung with acts in New York City and had teamed with her husband, pianist Bob Piper,as a duo in Los Angeles. Piper now plays piano for the Moonmaids Plus One and helps arrange the group’s music.
The bookings don’t come as often as they used to, but the Moonmaids and Grogan have begun making special appearances at parties and local night-clubs. The women usually hum a note to harmonize their voices before launching into an old favorite such as Sunny Side of the Street. They say they love what they do, and they’re not about to let the big-band sound fade away.