Doris Day’s Career as a Pop Singer

03 Apr

As Will Friedwald writes in his essential A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers “The world of pop music is a funny place – perhaps the only area of our culture where someone can be rich and famous and still be considered ‘underrated.'” He is referring to Doris Day. Actually, the entire reason that I purchased his book is because I had read that he was an enthusiastic fan of Doris Day as a singer, which turned out to be perfectly true. “Doris Day can be considered the best [pop singer] just because she’s as great as a pop singer can be.” “Doris Day sang like she had nothing to prove.” “Doris Day has a sound like bottled sunshine. It’s hard to think of another human voice that’s so luxuriously sensual.” “At her very best, Doris Day is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald, yet though she’ll hardly die broke, she’s never gotten a fraction of their respect.”

The irony is that Doris Day became a singer by accident. In many ways, her entire career was an accident. Born Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff, she once said, “I’m still Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff from Cincinnati, Ohio. All I ever wanted to do was to get married, have a nice husband, have two or three children, keep house and cook – a nice clean house – and live happily ever after – and I ended up in Hollywood.”

But even if she hadn’t ended up in Hollywood, she would have had a stellar career as a pop singer, though it was her career as a singer that ultimately led her to Hollywood. Fortunately, unlike other fine singers like Alice Faye or even Judy Garland, she was still able to record while making films.

She originally intended to be a dancer. As a child, she teamed up with another young dancer, Jerry Dougherty, and danced around Cincinnati, winning prizes until Doris Day’s mother decided they should move to Hollywood, where she was convinced her daughter would be a success. But before they could move, Doris Day was in a car accident, which left her right leg shattered. It took her a year to recover fully. To pass the time, she listened to the radio and tried to sing along with Ella Fitzgerald. She eventually took lessons and her teacher, Grace Raine, recognized that Day’s voice and singing was special.

Day sang at a local Chinese Restaurant, sang on the radio, and soon was hired by band-leader Barney Rapp, who gave her the name Doris Day, supposedly after the song she sang, “Day by Day.” Rapp’s band played at Rapp’s nightclub in Cincinnati, then went on tour. She then sang for bandleaders Bob Crosby, Fred Waring, and finally Les Brown.

Les Brown and Doris Day

After a disastrous marriage to trombonist Al Jorden, who was abusive, she was now a young divorcee with a child and returned to work with Les Brown. In 1945, she would record her first big hit, “Sentimental Journey,” which struck home with the post-WWII mood of returning soldiers and starting life afresh.

Before taking a screen test and being chosen by Michael Curtiz for her first film, Romance on the High Seas (where she had another hit with “It’s Magic”), she signed with Columbia Records. After WWII, the big bands were fading and there was more interest in vocalists, like Frank Sinatra. Unfortunately, many of the songs Columbia would assign Day were cheesy novelty numbers, but there were also records and songs of the highest quality.

She would never tour again and she always preferred not to perform live. The remainder of her career as a singer would occur in the recording studio. But she only grew more popular, both as an actress and singer, into the 1960s.

Some of her greatest albums are “Duet,” where she is accompanied by Andre Previn; “Day by Day” and “Day By Night.” Will Friedwald also makes a case for her recording with Robert Goulet of “Annie Get Your Gun.” But there are many more. She spanned big band, Broadway, pop, and could even swing.

As Friedwald writes, “Dinah Shore, who had been around longer, had a bigger broadcasting career, but couldn’t touch Day in pictures; Judy Garland had a shorter but more spectacular film career, but wasn’t utilized as much on recordings or radio as she should have been. Paramount tried to make Rosemary Clooney the next Doris Day, but she never caught on in pictures. Day was the sole female singer to come from the band world and make the transition to solo stardom and pictures.”

Friedwald tends to measure the ultimate success of a singer, not only by their vocal abilities, but by the body of work that they produce, if they record worthy songs and albums that stand the test of time. In the case of Day, despite all the novelty songs, she recorded an impressive number of songs by the great composers like Gershwin, Berlin, Mercer, Rodgers, etc. Sadly, at least sadly for us, she retired from singing quite early in life, when she was in her forties.

But perhaps it’s churlish to repine. It is her life to live and she gave us so much extraordinary music. Far more than most singer/actors. I can never get tired of listening to her vast body of work.

This post was written as part of the “Second Annual Doris Day Blogathon,” hosted by Love Letters to Old Hollywood. Click here for more posts celebrating Doris Day.


Considering Doris Day – by Tom Santopietro

A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers – by Will Friedwald

The Great Jazz and Pop Vocal Albums – by Will Friedwald




Posted by on April 3, 2018 in Music


Tags: , , , , , ,

29 responses to “Doris Day’s Career as a Pop Singer

  1. Katrina Morrison

    April 3, 2018 at 2:36 pm

    Lovely review Christina😊
    As wonderful as she is, poor Doris did not have good taste in men. I love listening to her sing 🎶 and of course, watching her 🎥 movies 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      April 3, 2018 at 2:45 pm

      Thanks! Yes, it seems a real tragedy that she chose the men she did. But what a career. It’s kind of amazing to think that without men like Melchior, it could have had an even better one.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Katrina Morrison

        April 3, 2018 at 3:07 pm

        True…I doubt she would have done the Doris Day Show at 51 years old. Talk about a show that changed drastically from one season to the next! Even so, Doris is and will always be a joy to watch and listen too!

        Liked by 1 person

        • christinawehner

          April 3, 2018 at 4:00 pm

          I’ve actually never seen her show, though I did read that it was wildly variable. Did they have different writers each year?

          Liked by 1 person

          • Katrina Morrison

            April 3, 2018 at 5:46 pm

            Probably… the first two years, she was a single mom with two young boys living on a farm with her Dad. The third year she moved to the city without her children. Then, they disappeared like they never happened….reminds me of the murderer Casey Anthony but Doris is nothing like that. They just stopped existing. The last couple of years she had to act like syrup sweet Doris but it seemed too faky because she was too mature. The last couple years there were tons of guest stars with Doris getting romanced….The show started good and then lost its way. Doris retired after five years of that. All five seasons are on Netflix or Sling! I get both of these so I am not sure which one LOL I binged on it for a week…please don’t judge 😂

            Liked by 1 person

            • christinawehner

              April 3, 2018 at 6:58 pm

              No judging at all! Far worse things than Doris Day. 🙂 I binged on Doris Day movies one month, as fast as I could get them.

              That’s rather hilarious how her children simply disappeared. I wonder what the rational was for that.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Michaela

    April 3, 2018 at 3:47 pm

    Lovely post! I agree with Friedwald — Day is quite the underrated singer. I have the “Day by Day” and the “Annie Get Your Gun” albums on vinyl and they’re quite delightful. It is interesting that she didn’t continue touring or do a concert series later in life like Judy Garland did.

    Thanks for participating in my blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      April 3, 2018 at 3:49 pm

      Apparently, she didn’t like performing live; she liked to get things perfect in a studio. But she would have been amazing! And a vinyl of Day by Day and Annie Get Your Gun sounds lovely! I’m beginning to collect vinyls, too, but am really early in my collecting.

      Thanks so much for hosting!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    April 3, 2018 at 5:30 pm

    Much to think about in your article. Perfect pitch and the innate phrasing of an actress – any composer would be thrilled to have their tune in Doris’ capable hands.

    I hope you won’t think this too pushy, but I want to share this old post of mine. I think you might find it interesting:

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      April 3, 2018 at 7:02 pm

      I appreciate your sharing it very much! : )

      That’s a good point; it seems like she always made a song sound about as good as a song could…even songs I don’t always like when others sing it.


  4. The Flapper Dame

    April 3, 2018 at 6:30 pm

    Doris is truly one of the only greats that could truy transitioned from singing to acting- and did It well- foday nobody really can do that !!! Now If you’ll excuse me- Im going to go listen to more of Miss Day singing!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      April 3, 2018 at 6:59 pm

      Sounds delightful! 🙂 You’re right, when was the last time anyone transitioned from singer to actor.


  5. maddylovesherclassicfilms

    April 4, 2018 at 7:19 am

    Lovely post, Christina. I love Doris Day’s singing voice. Her voice is so powerful and warm and emotional. I love that she was equally gifted as a singer and actress. I would have loved to have seen her sing live.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      April 4, 2018 at 2:25 pm

      Yes, that would have been so special! She did record, I think two, live concerts, but only because she was contractually obliged to. But here is a clip of her singing “The Way We Were.”

      Liked by 1 person

      • maddylovesherclassicfilms

        April 6, 2018 at 2:45 am

        Thank for that.


  6. whimsicallyclassic (Kayla)

    April 4, 2018 at 12:22 pm

    Great article! I love Doris Day’s voice. It’s so soothing. It’s an interesting, but accurate, idea that despite her huge career and legend status, Day is underrated as a performer an actress. I think she’s written off as the eternal version and equated with being sticky, syrupy sweet. If these people who think of Day as just a fluff actress had actually seen some of her films, they’d see someone who was genuinely talented and had range.

    I’ve never seen “The Doris Day Show.” It’s on Hulu. Reading some of the comments above, it sounds interesting. I may need to check it out.

    Re: Day’s children disappearing in “The Doris Day Show,” that happens on “The Lucy Show” too. For the first few seasons when Lucy Carmichael lives with Vivian Bagley, she lives with her two children and Viv’s son. Then when Viv and her son move away about halfway through the series, Lucy’s children start appearing less and less. Eventually, Lucy moves to California and while there are a couple throwaway lines regarding the whereabouts of Lucy’s children, they are never seen again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • whimsicallyclassic (Kayla)

      April 4, 2018 at 12:24 pm

      Apparently I cannot type this morning. I’m feeling a little under the weather, so maybe that has something to do with it. I meant to say that *Day is underrated as a performer AND actress. I think she’s written off as the eternal VIRGIN.

      Liked by 1 person

      • christinawehner

        April 4, 2018 at 2:35 pm

        I know how that goes about typing! I hope you feel better soon!

        Yes, you’re so right! It seems that even now she is still often underrated. And she really did far more roles than people think, like you say. And no matter what kind of role she played, she was always a total professional…even when a role or song was not worthy of her talent, she never condescended to it, but gave 100%.

        That’s funny that the children disappeared in Lucy’s show, too. It makes it seem like every new season is kind of a new experiment. You never know what’s coming. 🙂


  7. Silver Screenings

    April 4, 2018 at 4:24 pm

    Sometimes I wonder how one person could have SO MUCH TALENT. She has an incredible singing voice AND she’s an incredible actor with perfect comedic timing + dramatic ability. And yet she’s not as well known today as she should be.

    I enjoyed reading more about her singing career and how it coincided with her acting career. Thanks for sharing this research with us. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      April 4, 2018 at 8:13 pm

      I know what you mean; it does seem amazing that she is not more acknowledged! As you say, it’s hard to imagine a person with more talent.


  8. thestoryenthusiast

    April 5, 2018 at 8:14 am

    This just sums her up perfectly “Doris Day has a sound like bottled sunshine.” Loved learning more about Doris’ music career in your well-written article. It was particularly interesting the comparisons that were made with other singing/acting stars. Despite her fame, she still remains an underrated performer, both as an actress and as a singer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      April 5, 2018 at 1:20 pm

      Thank you!

      Perhaps Doris Day just made it look too easy! 🙂 It seems like the easier it looks, the less credit a person gets for something.


  9. In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood

    April 7, 2018 at 10:55 pm

    Hey Christina. Just reminding you that I have you on the roster for the Bette Davis Blogathon. It ends on the 7th.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      April 8, 2018 at 4:53 pm

      Hi Crystal – thanks for reminding me! I thought I had until the 8th. My mistake! I am going to have it finished this evening, though.


  10. Le

    April 9, 2018 at 4:50 pm

    As my Spotify statistics show, Doris Day is one of my favorite singers. I agree that she is underrated. Yet remembered and celebrated, she is not often considered to be as big as Ella Fitzgerald – and she certainly deserves. Maybe a little of her sweet film persona got in the way? I can’t put my finger exactly on why she is overrated, but you certainly have made her justice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      April 9, 2018 at 8:55 pm

      Thanks! I think you are right about how her film persona perhaps became mix-up with her career as a singer. Frank Sinatra seems to have kept assessments of his acting and singing separate, but perhaps he wasn’t as identified as a movie star as Doris Day was.


  11. Howard Green

    September 18, 2018 at 2:45 pm

    Thanks for the DD article. i’ve loved her singing and acting since childhood. And i’ve had the great pleasure of meeting her on numerous occasions – a lovely lady – and a performer who could do it all! She’s still kickin’ at 96!


  12. Megan

    April 25, 2019 at 4:41 am

    Doris Day is quite talented. I have never listened to her tracks though. Things were quite difficult for her. This makes her more admirable. I will surely check out her songs



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