By the time Texas native Barbara Mandrell was a teenager, she was proficient on banjo, steel guitar, accordion and several other instruments, all of which had become an integral part of her stage act. Having initially struggled to achieve chart success, Mandrell finally had her first chart-topper in 1978 with “Sleeping Single in a Double Bed” and, in 1981, became the first person to ever win the CMA Entertainer of the Year award twice.
In spite of the waning popularity of the once-mighty TV variety series, in 1980 Mandrell was — reluctantly — tapped to host her own show on NBC, sharing the bill with her younger sisters Louise and Irlene. The shows — which premiered 35 years ago today — were a mixture of Hollywood flash and Nashville sizzle, with the sisters all demonstrating their skills on numerous instruments each week, but also attempting to inject humor into the show by casting themselves in specific roles: Barbara was the pushy boss, Louise the put-upon middle child and Irlene the empty-headed ditz who played drums. The series also featured the puppet creations of Sid and Marty Krofft, the brains behind the trippy Seventies kiddie shows H.R. Pufnstuf and Lidsville.
Sure, the dance routines were cringe-worthy and the “comedy” groan-inducing, but the sisters had a undeniable gift for entertaining fans. Music, thankfully, was at the heart of the Mandrells’ weekly series, and like all memorable variety shows, each episode featured special guests from across the entertainment spectrum. Gospel legend Andrae Crouch and R&B singer Teddy Pendergrass were among those who appeared during the series, along with some of country music’s biggest acts of the era, from Dolly Parton to Alabama.
In an early 1981 episode, which also featured country comedienne Minnie Pearl, the Mandrells welcomed one of the biggest teen idols of the late Seventies, Andy Gibb, as musical guest. Born in England, Gibb spent his childhood in Australia, and was known for straight-ahead pop songs such as “I Just Want to Be Your Everything” and “Shadow Dancing,” so it’s a little unexpected to hear him singing a Buck Owens country standard. “Under Your Spell Again” was a Top Five smash for Owens (who also wrote it) in 1959, not long after Gibb was born. The sweet, lively performance ends with Mandrell no doubt raising the ire of millions of teenaged girls as she plants a kiss square on the lips of her singing partner. Sadly, after years of drug abuse and a weak heart, Andy Gibb died in March 1988, just five days after his 30th birthday.
After two successful seasons, Mandrell pulled the plug on her TV series due to the strain it was putting on her voice. In 1984, the singer and two of her children were involved in a traffic accident that proved fatal for the driver of the other vehicle. Mandrell underwent rehabilitation from her injuries for more than a year. In 1997, she retired from performing and was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009. Early in 2015, the Mandrell sisters reunited for the first time in 32 years to co-host a benefit for the Nashville Humane Association.