Doris Day: Big band star


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Doris Day was a singer before she was a movie star

For all of her acclaim as an actress, Doris Day said her days as a big band singer were “the happiest times in my life”.

Born Doris Kappelhoff in Cincinnati, her stage name was even derived from a song – Helen Forrest’s Day After Day.

Her father was a music teacher and church organist, while her mother loved popular music – but the youngster initially aspired to become a dancer.

It was only when a car accident left her with two broken legs that the 13-year-old turned to singing.

“I couldn’t walk for almost three years,” Day recalled.

“That was the greatest thing that happened. Instead of dancing, I sang. They carried me three times a week up a stairway to my music teacher.”

After winning a radio station talent contest (singing, naturally, an arrangement of Day After Day), she left home to launch a career as a dance-band vocalist, aged just 16, touring with Bob Crosby, brother to jazz superstar Bing.

While most people know her voice from clean-cut pop hits like Secret Love and the Oscar-winning Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be), Day’s earlier records showcase a more sultry and inventive performer.

“Doris had a wonderful jazz vibrato voice and could have been one of the top jazz singers,” said Frankie Laine, who sang a duet with Day on Sugarbush.

“Her breath control, her diction, her dynamic control are all flawless,” acknowledged Voice Council magazine in 2016.

“She had a masterful command of the different colours in her voice. She could sing light or strong in any part of her range.”

“Make no mistake, she could sing,” agreed Steve Leggett on Allmusic.com, “and she came from the first generation of singers to truly understand the nuance of singing on studio microphones, which gives her vocals depth, clarity, and an uncommon presence.”

Here is a completely non-definitive list of five standout Doris Day songs.

1) Sentimental Journey (1945)

This is the song that made Day’s name, after it became a hit with US soldiers returning home from World War Two.

Although the singer was just 20 when she recorded it, there’s a weary sentimentality to her phrasing that chimed with the troops.

The song sold millions of copies and topped the Billboard charts for more than two months in 1945.

2) My One And Only Love (1962)

You can almost hear Day swoon in this romantic cover of the Frank Sinatra standard, recorded in 1962 with pianist Andre Previn.

The sparse, jazzy arrangement highlights the delicate beauty of Day’s voice – a deliberate choice on the singer’s part, whose desire to work with Previn was a reaction to the syrupy orchestral ballads she’d been recording for the big screen.

3) Secret Love (1953)

Some of those syrupy orchestral ballads are worth sticking around for, though. Secret Love, from Calamity Jane, practically drips with longing and desire, and rightfully earned Day an Oscar.

The star fell in love with the song the first time that co-writer Sammy Fain played it for her. “I just about fell apart,” she later recalled.

Famously, she recorded the song in less than 15 minutes. The sleeve notes for her compilation album A Day at the Movies say she rode a bicycle to the studio, did one take in front of a full live orchestra, and left the musical director “grinning from ear to ear.”

4) Everybody Loves A Lover (1958)

A cheekily playful pop song, that Day was offered after mentioning to lyricist Richard Adler she was looking for a new novelty song to record.

The star’s last major hit in the US, it is notable for the third verse – where Day’s performance of the first and second verses superimposed, creating the illusion she’s singing with herself.

The song was nominated for a Grammy in 1958.

5) Love Me Or Leave Me (1955)

Love Me Or Leave Me presented Day with one of her most challenging dramatic roles – playing the real-life singer Ruth Etting, who was discovered in the 1920s by Chicago gangster Martin Snyder.

Snyder had ties to showbusiness and became her manager and husband – but he turned out to be violent and controlling. After they separated, he shot Etting’s new lover (and piano player) Myrl Alderman.

The title track is a cover of Etting’s biggest hit, originally recorded in 1928, and Day’s expressive vocals convey a tangible sense of resignation and regret as she sings: “Do you remember when you loved me once? What happened? What happened?”

“You gotta give her credit, the girl can sing,” preens Snyder (James Cagney) as she performs the song in the film.

He had a point.

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