McFarland Twins

Not well remembered today, the McFarland Twins, Art and George, led an orchestra from the late 1930s into the mid-1940s. The twins’ musical style focused on humor, novelty tunes, and group vocals, taking a cue from Fred Waring, for whom they worked as vocalists and saxophone players prior to forming their own band. The McFarlands had a brief period of popularity in the early 1940s before losing their best singers in early 1942, beyond which their band went into quick decline. Despite an attempt to revive the orchestra after the war, the McFarlands quietly disappeared in 1946.

The McFarland Twins spent much of the late 1930s as popular members of Waring’s band, where they were known for their clowning and for their heckling of Waring during shows. Near the end of 1938, the blond brothers broke out on their own, forming an eight-piece band which featured a singing trio and a glee club. Both McFarlands directed the orchestra, one on either side of the stage, with Art handling swing tunes and George taking sweet numbers. Musicians out of the band provided male vocals, with Judy Abbott added in January 1939 as female vocalist.

Popular Years

The brothers’ first band failed to catch on, and in late 1939 the McFarlands formed a new twelve-piece orchestra. The updated outfit received good reviews and soon earned a contract with Okeh Records. Using the tagline “Music That Wins by the McFarland Twins,” the band relied heavily on novelty tunes and featured multiple vocalists, a glee club, and a trio known as the Twinsters Three. On comedy numbers, everyone in the band often participated by either singing or speaking. Trumpet player Bill Roberts was a vocal soloist through at least mid-1941. Burt Ennis handled ballads until March 1941, with singer Jimmy Foster taking his place. Additional vocalist Carl Denny joined by February but left by April.

The McFarland’s greatest assets, however, came in the form of the Norton Sisters, three young girls from Fairfield, Connecticut, whom the twins discovered during the band’s visit to nearby Bridgeport in December 1940. The youngest sister, Betty, only thirteen years old at the time, quickly became a featured soloist in addition to singing with her siblings. Betty handled jump tunes and also sang duets with the male vocalists. Older sisters Grace and Dorothy were 18 years old and almost 21, respectively, when they joined.

In October 1941, Foster received his draft notice, with guitarist and singer Don Cornell joining the band to replace him as male balladeer. Jack Holmes also sang in December. The band left Okeh and signed with Bluebird at the beginning of 1942, recording several sides for that label in January. Those would be their only recordings for Bluebird. In March, both Cornell and the Norton Sisters left the band, with Cornell joining Sammy Kaye and the sisters going to Carl Hoff. With the loss of the four singers, the band’s strongest vocalists, the orchestra would never be the same again.


Critics complained about the quality of the band’s singers from late 1942 onward. By August 1942, Betty Engels had become female vocalist, remaining through at least December.[1] Dick Shelby sang ballads in August, and trumpet player Jack Palmer sang in December. Vocalist Dick Merrick joined in November, remaining until May 1943. Jeff Clarkson and Anne Vincent also sang at some point. The band made a Paramount short in September 1942.

Aside from their vocalist problem, as the war went on the McFarlands had a hard time keeping quality musicians, especially those were also capable singers and comedians. During one week in April 1943, they lost seven men, more than half the orchestra, to the draft. The band struggled on until late 1944 when it broke up, though it’s unclear if that was by choice or simply because they couldn’t secure bookings. The twins went to work in a war plant until January 1945 when they secured their release from booking agency MCA by proving that they had been inactive for six weeks. This was a common tactic for bandleaders who were unhappy with their agency and wanted to change.

Free of MCA, they signed with Frederick Brothers and organized a new band. The new McFarland orchestra seemed as if it might get off the ground, making a Columbia musical short in January 1946 and recording on the Melrose label in February. It failed to make a name for itself however. The band was still active in May, but beyond that it and the twins disappear into the mists of history.

The McFarlands experienced a brief moment of nostalgic popularity in 1949 when Norfolk, Virginia, disc jockey Ed Lambert, of WCAV radio, dusted off a recording of their theme song, “Darkness,” and played it on his show. According to Billboard magazine, it “stirred audience reaction to the point where Columbia [who owned Okeh] reissued it.”


  1. By mid-1943, Engels was working under the name Roberta Hollywood. In mid-1942, she had married GAC booking agent Danny Hollywood. ↩︎


  1. “Review of Units: Waring's Pennsylvanians.” Billboard 5 Mar. 1938: 72.
  2. “Orchestra Routes.” Billboard 31 Dec. 1938: 80.
  3. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 7 Jan. 1939: 12.
  4. “The Reviewing Stand: McFarland Twins.” Billboard 28 Jan. 1939: 15.
  5. “What Goes On?...” Down Beat Jul. 1939: 35.
  6. “On the Air: McFarland Twins.” Billboard 9 Nov. 1940: 12.
  7. “McFarlands 2d Top Draw in Bridgeport.” Billboard 14 Dec. 1940: 13.
  8. Advertisement. “The McFarland Twins.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1940: 28.
  9. “Club Talent: Cincinnati.” Billboard 21 Dec. 1940: 19.
  10. “Vaudeville Reviews: Ace, Wilmington, Del.” Billboard 11 Jan. 1941: 22.
  11. “Vocalist Uninjured When Dress Catches On Fire During Song.” Billboard 15 Feb. 1941: 9.
  12. “Fire.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1941: 22.
  13. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 22 Mar. 1941: 10.
  14. “On the Air: McFarland Twins.” Billboard 16 Aug. 1941: 13.
  15. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 11 Oct. 1941: 11.
  16. “On the Boardwalk.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1941: 17.
  17. “On the Stand: McFarland Twins.” Billboard 29 Nov. 1941: 10.
  18. “Why the McFarland Twins Click.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1941: 3.
  19. Advertisement. “Merry Xmas, The McFarland Twins.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1941: 24.
  20. “Orchestra Notes.” Billboard 7 Mar. 1942: 25.
  21. “Norton Sisters' Squawk.” Billboard 9 May 1942: 27.
  22. “Tied Notes.” Down Beat 1 Aug. 1942: 11.
  23. “On the Air: McFarland Twins.” Billboard 15 Aug. 1942: 22.
  24. “Twins Short Due.” Down Beat 15 Sep. 1942: 11.
  25. “Bands Dug by the Beat: McFarland Twins and Their Orchestra.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1942: 17.
  26. “Vaudeville Reviews: State, New York.” Billboard 2 Jan. 1943: 74.
  27. “Ork Leaders Up In Arms.” Billboard 17 Apr. 1943: 19.
  28. “Roberta Now!” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1943: 2.
  29. “Where Is?” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1943: 10.
  30. “Batoneers Seek 'Mug' Time On Air.” Down Beat 15 May 1944: 14.
  31. “Music Grapevine.” Billboard 23 Sep. 1944: 28.
  32. “McFarland Twins, Georgie Auld Go To Frederick Bros.” Billboard 3 Feb. 1945: 13.
  33. “Rogers, Castle Trying to End GAC Contracts.” Billboard 10 Feb. 1945: 13.
  34. “Plenty New Bands Forming.” Billboard 17 Mar. 1945: 11.
  35. “Music As Written.” Billboard 14 Apr. 1945: 16.
  36. “Where the Bands are Playing.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1945: 14.
  37. “With New Ork.” Down Beat 1 Dec. 1945: 16.
  38. “On the Stand: McFarland Twins.” Billboard 15 Dec. 1945: 21.
  39. “In Short.” Billboard 5 Jan. 1946: 33.
  40. “In Short.” Billboard 12 Jan. 1946: 36.
  41. “Music As Written.” Billboard 16 Feb. 1946: 27.
  42. “Where the Bands are Playing.” Down Beat 8 May 1946: 22.
  43. “Vox Jox: Strictly from Dixie.” Billboard 5 Feb. 1949: 42.
  44. “Unsung Thrush Sells 36 Million Kidisks.” Billboard 12 Sep. 1953: 16.