In a recent piece about Sixties pop star Vic Dana, I mentioned that he’d performed for a while as a fill-in for Gary Troxel of the Fleetwoods, but the group itself deserves a little more attention. Long before Vic Dana came along, the Fleetwoods had some hugely popular hits that not only topped pop charts, but crossed over to the R&B side too.
It all started in the late Fifties, when Olympia, Washington, high-school friends Gretchen Christopher and Barbara Ellis formed a singing duo, and then decided to add fellow student and trumpeter Gary Troxel to the mix. Troxel soon started singing too and the smooth-sounding threesome began to find some success performing in local spots.
They also put their heads together and came up with a song that combined parts of earlier efforts, and began performing it in their act. “Come Softly to Me” was something special, and it didn’t take long for a record company to sign the group to a contract. It also didn’t take long for the song to catch fire after its 1959 debut. It soon shot to the top spot on the pop charts and very near the top of the R&B charts — rare for an all-white group.
The Fleetwoods didn’t stop with “Come Softly To Me.” Later the same year they again hit the top of the charts with “Mr. Blue,” another silky-sounding song — and one that would later provide the background for a classic scene in the 1983 movie, Vacation. (See video below.)
Unfortunately trouble was on the horizon. Troxel was drafted and for a while was replaced in live shows by Vic Dana, and the group did continue to hit the recording studio from time to time. But even though the Fleetwoods did sell some records in the early Sixties, the handwriting was on the wall and the group finally dissolved.
In the decades since then, the original members of the group reunited occasionally for oldies tours, but Barbara Ellis eventually retired from music. Both Gary Troxel and Gretchen Christopher maintain websites celebrating the Fleetwoods, while keeping fans advised of what they’re doing these days.