A native of Fairfield, Connecticut, Betty Norton began her career at a young age as part of a trio with her sisters Grace and Dorothy. The Norton Sisters are best remembered today for their time with Vaughn Monroe in the mid-1940s. They had a relatively successful career, working in four different orchestras during the big band era. In addition to their band work, the sisters also kept busy with radio and television until the late 1940s when marriage and domestic life claimed the careers of Grace and Dorothy. Betty, the youngest and always the more ambitious and talented of the three, continued on as a solo artist.
Born with the surname Lane, the sisters used their mother’s maiden name, Norton, on stage due to the existence of the more famous Lane Sisters, former singers for Fred Waring who had since graduated to Hollywood. The Nortons’ early years are unknown. Their big break came in December 1940 when they caught the attention of the McFarland Twins, whose orchestra performed in nearby Bridgeport, Connecticut, that month. The saxophone playing twins, Art and George, were themselves graduates from Waring and maintained a similar style outfit which relied heavily on vocals, novelty tunes, and comedy. The three Nortons became part of the act, which included several other singers and a glee club. Everyone in the band sang or spoke during numbers. Aside from singing with her sisters, Betty also handled jump solos and harmonized with the band’s male vocalists.
In February 1941, an unfortunate incident almost occurred at the Chatterbox club in Moutainside, New Jersey, when an electrical spark from a microphone wire set Betty’s dress on fire. While everyone else stood there stunned, her mother leapt onto the stage and pulled her off to the side, beating out the flames with her hand. Grace and Dorothy carried on singing to keep the audience calm. Betty was unharmed, though her mother received serious burns to her hand.
The sisters left the McFarlands at the first of March 1942, returning to Fairfield, where they played the local theater. By April, they had joined Carl Hoff’s orchestra, replacing the Murphy Sisters. Hoff, a well-known radio conductor, had recently formed a dance band. Betty sang solo as well as harmonized with her sisters. The Nortons remained with Hoff through at least November. In December, they were on the radio with their own program, but by March they had joined Tony Pastor’s band, where Betty again also served as the solo female vocalist.
Leaving Pastor in July or early August, the sisters returned to radio on the Mutual network, broadcasting out of New York station WOR. That summer, the radio station experimented with television, putting several of their stars, including the sisters, on a weekly show called WOR’s Television College, which aired on the DuMont network. In January 1944, the sisters were touring on the theater circuit. In June, they were expected to join NBC radio.
In December 1944, the Norton Sisters became part of Vaughn Monroe’s orchestra, again replacing the Murphy Sisters. In order to meet Monroe’s need of having a quartet, the sisters brought in Marie LeAhn, also known as Mary Lee, who previously had sang with Monroe as part of her own sister act, the Lee Sisters. The combo was reportedly to be called “The Norton Sisters and Marie” but was instead billed as “The Norton Sisters and Mary Lee” until mid-January when Lee’s name was dropped from the billing.
Unlike with the sisters’ earlier band work, Betty did not serve as Monroe’s solo female vocalist. That job was handled by, first, Rosemary Calvin, then Janie Reid, followed by Sally Stuart. Things changed in March 1946, however, when Stuart left Monroe and Betty took over as the orchestra’s girl singer. Grace and Dorothy left the band at that time, both retiring from singing.
To replace the sisters, Monroe decided not to hire another act but instead create his own female vocal group, the Moon Maidens. Betty was announced initially to be part of the Moon Maidens, but in the end she did not become one of the five girls who comprised the group.
Betty remained as Monroe’s girl vocalist until May 1947, when she left for George Paxton. She stayed only briefly with Paxton, leaving in July to join Skitch Henderson’s orchestra. She stayed even more briefly with Henderson. The following month, Henderson and Hal McIntrye traded vocalists, with Nancy Reed going to Henderson and Betty becoming McIntyre’s female singer. During 1947, she made two solo recordings for the Manor label. Betty remained with McIntyre through at least March 1949. Beyond that, she disappears from the record.
Lane was not the real last name of the Lane Sisters. It was Mullican. ↩︎
Betty was the baby of the family, only 13 years old when the sisters joined the McFarland Twins. Grace was 19, having been born on July 6, 1921, with Dorothy being the eldest at almost 21, born on January 14, 1920, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The three girls had an older brother as well. Betty’s exact birth date is unknown. ↩︎