A quartet of singing sisters from southeast Iowa, that won the Bill Riley Iowa State Fair Talent Search 48 years ago, will return to the fair for a special performance tonight. The Surber Sisters from What Cheer won the competition in 1961. Carolyn, Phyllis, Linda and Virginia Surber were in their late teens and early 20s at the time. Phyllis Graham, who is now 67 and living in Kellogg, says it’ll be a thrill to perform with her sisters once again at the Fair.
"I’m not really so nervous about it except for the fact that we don’t get together to practice very much," Phylliss said. "I just talked to one sister and we agreed we’ll be a little relieved when it’s all over. Hopefully we’ll do okay." Other winning acts from 1982 through 2008 will also perform tonight as part of the 50th anniversary of the talent search. Graham remembers she and her sisters were surprised to win the competition in ’61.
"Each time that we won was an enormous surprise for us because we were just doing it for the fun of it. That was a nice time in our lives," Graham told Radio Iowa. The Surber Sisters, who sing southern-style gospel with piano accompaniment, recorded two albums and toured after the state fair victory.
"I was looking at an old scrapbook that I made years ago and it revived all those memories," Graham said. "I couldn’t even remember that we had gone so many places and done so many things. We were all over the place. We had our 15 minutes of fame and we really enjoyed it…it was fun." The Surbers’ father was a minister who played guitar and sang, while their mother sang and played piano. Phyllis says Carolyn, 69, now lives in Keokuk and Linda, 65, lives near St. Louis.
Virginia Surber died from cancer about 20 years ago. A younger sister, Becky, will perform with the group tonight. The Surber Sisters and other past talent search winners will take the stage ahead of internationally-acclaimed opera singer Simon Estes, a native of Centerville. Estes’ performance is scheduled at 7 p.m.