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The Mitchell Sisters were not actually sisters by birth, but next door neighbors who found they had a common interest in music in their early teen age years when Patsy was 13 and Nancy was 14.
Patsy "Mitchell" was Patsy DeFendi, the daughter of Warren and Vada DeFendi. Patsy was born in Dubuque, Iowa and her family later moved to Rockford. Her father may have worked in a local factory.
Nancy was Nancy Mitchell, the daughter of Ernie and Doris Mitchell. Nancy told us her father was said to have had a radio show at one time, though the family has no tapes or information to provide the details. She says her dad's brother told her once that her dad sounded a bit like Johnny Cash. Her father died on July 4, 1944 in World War II somewhere in France. He is buried in Rockford. Her mother found work as a waitress and later owned a couple of restaurants and bars.
As the teen-age girls began to explore their musical interests, Nancy recalled that it seemed from the very first song they ever sang together, it was as if they had been singing together forever. They were a natural duo one might say. Patsy sang all the harmony parts while Nancy sang lead.
Before we go any further, let us talk about the photo at the top of this page and the one to the left for no discussion of The Mitchell Sisters would be complete without a bit of trivia that connect them to another legend in country music. The girls were not only talented musicians, but they also designed the stage wear you see them posed in. The tailor that made the outfits for them was the legendary tailor to numerous country and western stars through the decades, Nudie. Nancy tells us the outfit was purple and they wore yellow boots.
Patsy developed quite a bit of musical talent. She could play any instrument she chose to. When she wasn't playing her guitar along with Nancy, she played upright bass. More than once Nancy saw her friend's fingers bleed from playing so long on that bass.
The girls entered every contest they could find and with their natural talent, won a lot of them. Those contests led to appearances on the local radio station, WROK in Rockford. It also helped them get spots on what were called "package shows" back then.
The package shows featured artists such as The Prairie Ramblers, Arkie The Arkansas Woodchopper, and others from the legendary WLS National Barn Dance in Chicago, which was less than a hundred miles away.
The Mitchell Sisters were not booked by WLS, but they had an agent who booked them on the shows, gaining them exposure with the Barn Dance fans.
In one talent contest that occurred in 1950 at the Mendelson Club Talent Show, the Mitchell Sisters took home the first place prize.
A few years later the Mitchell Sisters became regulars on a local show called "The Rockford Hayloft Jamboree". That show was originally supposed to only be a benefit for a friend of many of the local young Rockford musicians. But folks enjoyed the show so much, they formed their own organization and started giving shows every Saturday night in a grade school gym.
The show soon outgrew the gym and moved to the Rockford Theatre when as the crowds continued to grow. Word had gotten out about the talented musicians and their show as they began to get Inquiries from places as far away as Chicago.
The Mitchell Sisters act broke up for a while when Nancy married and moved to Norfolk, Virginia. That left Patsy and their combined career behind, though not perhaps willingly. It seems Patsy was willing to move, but her parents weren't quite comfortable with the move and her being so young at the time. In Virginia Nancy discovered there was many places to sing. Nancy went back to Rockford and persuaded her parents to let Patsy to come with her for a while. She stayed with Nancy and her husband until she got a job and a place of her own. The Mitchell Sisters began to sing and entertain audiences all over the Norfolk and Portsmouth areas and even into North Carolina.
The Mitchell Sisters worked out of the WCMS radio station artist's bureau in Norfolk most of the time but also found they were able to free lance. WCMS had a live radio show every Sunday afternoon. The Mitchell Sisters were a part of this show that also included such acts as Milton Riley and Johnny Williams and their Rhythm Rangers band.
Saturday nights found the girls appearing on Lucky Lon Backman's WAVY Tidewater Jamboree in a local theatre in Portsmouth. During the week the girls played jobs that the radio station booked for them; sometimes they worked alone and sometimes with Milton Riley and Johnny Williams and their band, or with Bobby Smith's band, or even with Tommy Riddle's band. Another act they worked with in Norfolk was Jimmy Pittman's.
One of the biggest thrills of their career was a guest appearance on "The Old Dominion Barn Dance" airing over radio station WRVA in Richmond, Virginia.
One of the acts the WCMS artist's bureau booked them with was the little known (at that time) Gene Vincent, of "Be Bop A Lu La" fame. Later in his career he came to the Rockford area in Illinois when the girls were and went to the show and got to see him afterwards to talk over those early appearances together.
The girls were told that after WCMS got Gene Vincent's career off and running, that Patsy and Nancy would be next in line to record for Capitol Records. But around that same time, Patsy got married their act broke up again before the record contract became a reality. The radio station was a bit sad to see the act break up, but found that Nancy was quite capable as a solo act.
Nancy stayed in Virginia and worked with Tommy Riddle's band for a short time and then she went back to Illinois and eventually lost all contact with her friends in Virginia.
She started appearing again on "The Rockford Hayloft Jamboree". Then she joined a band that was going to Quincy, Illinois to appear on a local show called "The Possum Holler Op'ry" as one of the band members knew one of the stars of the show, Toby (Dick) Ellis. By this time, Nancy had remarried to the pedal steel guitar player in the group, Jim Moore.
After awhile (perhaps during 1958) the Op'ry gang decided to go on a wagon train trip to California and actually carry mail there. They got a government contract to carry some mail and the postal service issued a special stamp. The Possum Holler gang had to take a first aid course before they left. Nancy was expecting her second child at the time and could not make the wagon trip. But a few of them did complete the trip. Perhaps the few that did had to due to being contractually obligated to do so.
Patsy passed away in October of 2003. As of 2004, Nancy is still singing. She's married to a pedal steel guitar player, Bill, who is a member of the Ozark Steel Guitar Association and in Nancy's opinion, a very fine steel player.
Nancy and Bill have made several appearances on another show that started up in Jonesboro, Arkansas, "The Roundup Show". A lifetime friend of theirs, Ira, another steel player and also a member of the Ozark Steel Guitar Association, started the show over 20 years ago when he left The Rockford Hayloft Jamboree and moved back to Arkansas.
The show is still going strong and they pack the house every Saturday night.
Timeline and Trivia Notes
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Credits & Sources
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