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Doris Day’s Career as a Pop Singer

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.


Sources:

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

 

 

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2018 in Music

 

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Billie Holiday Sings “My Man”

Billie Holiday with Louis Armstrong from the movie New Orleans

Billie Holiday with Louis Armstrong from the movie New Orleans

When I first became interested in American popular music – the music that is now referred to as The Great American Songbook – the singers I most often listened to were Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Doris Day. They are extremely accessible singers, particularly Ella Fitzgerald, and one of the factors that particularly led me to Ella Fitzgerald were the songbook albums she recorded. Her first songbook recording was The Cole Porter Songbook in 1955. She went on to record a songbook for Harold Arlen (most famous for the songs in The Wizard of Oz), George and Ira Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Johnny Mercer (a lyricist more than a composer) and Jerome Kern. There is no better introduction to all these composers or to the Great American Songbook than these albums by Ella Fitzgerald.

However, there was one singer I have constantly heard described as one of the finest interpreters of the Great American songbook, despite the fact that she is known primarily as a jazz singer: Billie Holiday.

But Billie Holiday has taken me some time to appreciate. Known for her artistry as a singer, she is not known for a lovely voice. In fact, her voice has been described as “raspy” by some and she is not what I would call easy listening. You have to concentrate more on her than you do on Ella Fitzgerald.

I recently read a book called Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth by John Szwed. The book is less a biography and more of an appreciation of her art as a singer. He discusses her voice, the songs she sings, but mostly how she sings them. It is a book that requires that you periodically go to youtube to hear what he is describing otherwise his descriptions can be difficult to follow. The other difficultly I had with the book is that he seems to assume that the reader is already familiar with the “myths” of Billie Holiday. There’s been a lot written, but not a lot known for certain, especially about her early life. But I really did like his focus on her music rather than on her life and it went a long way in helping me to appreciate her.

Billie Holiday had a very limited vocal range, so one of her trademarks was to flatten the songs somewhat, repeating certain notes. She would also often slow down songs, much slower than anyone else was singing them, and she sang with a somewhat looser rhythm. Szwed described it at one point as floating above the accompaniment, though she would always catch up rhythmically when she needed to. Billie Holiday began singing in nightclubs, which had a more intimate setting, and another feature of her style was a confessional approach to singing, almost as if she were talking rather than singing.

The song that finally helped me to really hear what Billie Holiday was doing was a 1949 live performance of the song “My Man,” with Jimmy Rowles at the piano. It’s a tragic love song, about how she loves her man despite the fact that he is no good whatsoever and doesn’t love her, beats her (in contemporary recordings, the reference to beating is sometimes removed), and doesn’t even understand how much she loves him. This theme of loving a worthless man is fairly common to songs of that era (why don’t we ever hear men sitting around singing songs about how much they love their worthless women?), but the feeling behind the song, the way Billie Holiday sings it, is deeply moving.

The song “My Man” was originally written in French in the nineteen-teens and called “Mon Homme.” It was popularized in America in 1921 by Fanny Brice, Ziegfeld Follies’ singer, actress and comedian. The song is still primarily associated with her, though Barbra Streisand has also sung it in the movie Funny Girl, which is loosely based on the life and career of Fanny Brice.

Billie Holiday first recorded the song in 1937. At the time, she was making a vast number of recordings with Teddy Wilson and His Orchestra. They were recording music for jukeboxes specifically for black audiences and now those recordings are considered, some of the finest jazz ever recorded. Her recordings with Teddy Wilson are also noted for the fine interaction between Holiday, who said she wanted to use her voice like an instrument, and the improvisation of the instrumentalists.

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2015 in Great American Songbook

 

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