Doris Day, who turns 90 on April 3, is a film legend, but she should also be
celebrated as a wonderful jazz and big band singer
Despite the glittering film career that has earned her numerous awards and a
Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Doris
Day said that the best time of her career was when she was a big
Day, 90 on April 3, 2014, had a sparkling style ("a voice so fresh you
could smell it," said Andy Williams) and she loved singing. "The
happiest times in my life were the days when I was travelling with Les Brown
and his band," Day said when she was in her seventies.
She was born Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff in Cincinnati, Ohio, and came from
a musical background. Her German father Frederick was a music teacher, choir
master and church organist, while her Alma Sophia Welz taught her to love "hillbilly
music", which came out in her boisterous version of The Deadwood Stage
(Whip-Crack-Away!) when she played Calamity Jane in 1953.
Singing had not been Day’s original dream. When she was 13 she was a passenger
in a car accident that broke both her legs and ended her hopes of a dance
career. "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."
She spent hours listening to big band music on the radio and was inspired by
the singing of , saying: "There was a quality to Ella’s voice that
fascinated me, and I’d sing along with her, trying to catch the subtle ways
she shaded her voice, the casual yet clean way she sang the words."
While she was still a teenager she impressed jazz band leader Barney Rapp with
her version of Day After Day, a song by Richard Himber & His Rhythmic
Pyramids Orchestra. Rapp told her that von Kappelhoff was a name too
unwieldy for concert marquees and suggested she changed her name to Day, in
honour of the song she loved.
Her career was off and running and after a spell with the celebrated jazz band
of Bob Crosby, she began singing with Brown’s troupe, eventually marrying
the band’s trombonist Al Jordan, the first of four husbands. "She was
every bandleader’s dream," said Brown, "a vocalist who had natural
talent, a keen regard for the lyrics and an attractive appearance." It
was a 1945 song called Sentimental Journey, co-written by Brown, that made
her name when it became a sort of unofficial anthem for weary troops as they
returned home from fighting in Europe.
It was another jazz standard, Embraceable You, that triggered her career in
movies. Her rendition at a Hollywood party prompted Jule Styne to arrange a
screen test, which led to her first film, Romance on the High Seas (1948).
She was a good actress (Oscar-nominated as Best Actress for Pillow Talk in
1959) but her singing in films was a key factor in her Hollywood success.
The song Que Será, Será (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) won an Oscar in 1956
Academy Award for Best Original Song when it was key feature of Alfred
Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Que Será, Será became something of a
signature number for Day but she would sometimes tell fellow musicians that
it was a song she never particularly liked. Part of her success in singing
film songs was that Day was an incredibly expressive singer and could take
good lyrics and to some extent act them out vocally (think of Tic, Tic Tic,
A Guy is a Guy or Just Blew in from the Windy City).
One of the best Day films for singing is the 1955 movie Love Me Or Leave Me
(also starring James Cagney) in which Day played jazz singer Ruth Etting.
The Twenties songs of Etting – including Sam, the Old Accordion Man Shaking
the Blues Away and Everybody Loves My Baby were expertly performed by Day.
It was a fitting triumph because she deserves credit as a fine jazz and show
tune singer, shown on songs such as The Very Thought of You (with Harry
James & His Orchestra), My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time, It’s
Magic or Fly Me To The Moon. Frankie Laine, who sang a duet with Day on
Sugarbush, said: "Doris had a wonderful Jazz vibrato voice and could
have been one of the top jazz singers."
Big band leader Les Brown with singer Doris Day, in 1945, the year they
had a hit with the song Sentimental Journey PHOTO: REX FEATURES
Her singing career has been acknowledged – three Grammy
Hall of Fame Awards and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, plus the
first Legend Award ever presented by the Society of Singers – and she made a
successful comeback at the age of 87. Her main focus for decades has been
her animal welfare activism (Day is marking her 90th birthday with a
three-day animal benefit event including auction items from Paul McCartney)
but she made one last foray into music with some unreleased recordings
produced by Day’s late son, Terry Melcher.
"I had to sing some modern songs because I had already done all the old
ones," she said. Among the songs she recorded was the song You Are So
Beautiful (To Me), a hit in the Seventies for Joe Cocker. She was as
professional as ever on the album My Heart, recording most of the vocals
live with the musicians in the studio, choosing all the songs and approving
all the final mixes and mastering. The album was a success and in 2011 Day
became the oldest musician to earn a UK Top 10 with an album featuring new
It was fine musical triumph after a career spanning more than 600 recordings
but it is her early jazz recordings that remain so graceful and explain why
Sarah Vaughan, when asked to name her favourite singer, replied "I dig