From the current Spring 2017 Issue
Singer, actress, animal lover, legend: The remarkable life and career of DORIS DAY
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A DAY MAKES
By Michael Barrett
Doris Day conquered the worlds of song, cinema, and television. She became one of America’s most prominent, beloved and prolific artists for four decades before walking away to concentrate on animal charities and other issues.
Ironically, she wanted to be a dancer.
She was born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff in Cincinnati in 1922 or 1924, depending on whether you believe her or the Census Bureau. Although her father was a choirmaster, that appears to have had little impact on her career, because she stated that her parents separated over his infidelity. Instead, young Doris trained as a dancer and performed locally for several years until a 1937 car accident injured her legs.
While recuperating in bed, she listened to the radio — and as she stated in A.E. Hotchner’s 1975 tome Doris Day: Her Own Story, she became enamored with one singer in particular: “The one radio voice I listened to above others belonged to Ella Fitzgerald. There was a quality to her 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.”
This quote is crucial and revealing, for you can hear a similar approach to bending the tone and modifying the melodic line in Day’s most intimate and greatest recordings, as in her jazz album with pianist Andre Previn. This also links Day to the legendary Connee Boswell, whose records (with and without her sisters) influenced Fitzgerald’s own vocal evolution into what many people consider the greatest female singer of the American songbook.
The chain of influence continues. Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Esperanza Spalding has been free with her love for Day, telling SPIN magazine that Doris has “a street thing about her... her tone and phrasing... White ladies don’t sing like that.
“[Doris] does things with her voice that are really groovy and soulful,” Spalding continues. “When I hear a singer and it’s warm, and there’s color, and there’s depth, it interests me and I want to find out more.”
Such appreciation gives us hope that Doris Day, one of the 20th Century’s great performers, isn’t being forgotten in the 21st Century by youngsters who know their stuff, even though Miss Day retired decades ago from a life of performance that never truly drove her. It was just something she did — very, very well and very, very successfully.
Before she finished her eight-month stint with local voice teacher Grace Raine (whom Day always credited profusely), the teenage singer was performing on WLW/Cincinnati, as part of Carlin’s Carnival. That’s how she was heard and hired in 1939 by bandleader Barney Rapp, who renamed her in honor of how she sang “Day After Day.”
That’s where she met her first husband, an apparently abusive trombone player, and gave birth to son Terry. In short order, she moved on to become the “girl singer” for Jimmy James, then Bob Crosby, and finally Les Brown and His Band of Renown, where she became an overnight success in 1945 — after six years in the business.
Her first number one song was a little ditty called “Sentimental Journey.” It was one of the greatest hits of 1945, as “the boys” who survived World War II were on their joyous-yet-also-melancholy journey home. Doris doesn’t seem to sing the song so much as breathe it, whispering her patented warmth and intimacy into the listener’s ear. Part of the magic is how a lilting song, touched by sadness and yearning, evolves into something triumphant and optimistic.
This is one of those “iconic” songs, as they now say — even if the phrase doesn’t quite make literal sense — that forever evokes not just Doris Day but an entire era and cultural moment, even nostalgia itself. Certainly it cemented her career and heralded the wider industry move from bands with singers to singers backed by bands.
After another year with Brown (during which she recorded six more Top Ten records), Day tried her hand at radio, first as a singer on The Jack Kirkwood Show and later for a two-year stint (with Les Brown’s orchestra) on Bob Hope’s top-rated radio show for Swan Soap. (In later years, Day was asked what she learned from Hope; she replied with a smile, “Never step on his lines.”) By 1952, she had become the star of her own radio series.
By then, of course, she had gone from being a singer to being a star. During the break-up of her second marriage, she sang at songwriter Jule Styne’s house. Her performance led him and writing partner Sammy Cahn to endorse her for Warner Brothers’ Romance on the High Seas, a project that had been placed in jeopardy when would-be star Betty Hutton’s pregnancy caused her to drop out.
THE MOVIE STAR
Those sparkly things in the sky were aligned. Romance became the Technicolor hit of 1948, introducing a dazzled public to both a new movie star in Day and another exquisitely breathed hit song in “It’s Magic.” The film’s director was Michael Curtiz, who directed pretty much everything (and won an Oscar for something called Casablanca) and gave the novice actress some valuable advice: don’t act, just be herself. Her own personality was fresh and confident enough to shine through the camera. It didn’t hurt that she wasn’t afraid to work, and her colleagues often remarked about her thorough professionalism.
Among the players in that picture were Oscar Levant, the brilliant pianist and wit who later came up with the line, “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” That remark is so amusing that it’s cast a completely unfair shadow on her film persona, and it’s past time to correct it.
As biographer Thomas Santopietro noted, Day was the only actress of her time — and by far the most popular — who consistently played successful career-women who weren’t defined by their hunger for a man.
And let us further note that she was the only big star of her era who consistently played mothers — and often single moms — starting with her second movie, My Dream Is Yours. That’s right: Doris Day was the original sex-symbol mom!
The snide assumptions of her “virginity” refer to her “sex comedies,” like That Touch of Mink, in which millionaire Cary Grant woos her, and her “trilogy” with Rock Hudson: 1959’s Pillow Talk, 1961’s Lover Come Back and 1964’s Send Me No Flowers.
But wait. In Mink, her response to his overtures is that of an experienced woman who sees through a charming line and doesn’t want to be hurt again. By the time she falls in love with Grant’s character, his own deepening feelings cause him to re-evaluate his initial plans. For a film made in 1962, it’s a subtle way of negotiating Hollywood’s codes with real human behavior and without punishing either character for their pasts. As for the three films she made with Hudson, Day was hardly playing “the girl next door.” Indeed, one of the more memorable moments of Pillow Talk is a phone conversation between Day and Hudson from their respective bathtubs. In Lover, the pair wake up in bed after a drunken wedding neither one can recall, while Flowers begins with the couple already married. These films couldn’t — and wouldn’t — be explicit as the Hollywood of a decade later, but neither were they “kid’s stuff.”
Other movie highlights included 1950’s Young Man with a Horn, an excellent jazz drama starring Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall; 1951’s Storm Warning, a Ronald Reagan drama in which Day (playing Ginger Rogers’ sister) is murdered by the Ku Klux Klan; On Moonlight Bay (1951), a wonderful, nostalgic musical based on Booth Tarkington’s Penrod stories, and one of Day’s funniest films; Calamity Jane (1953), which co-starred Howard Keel and introduced another iconic Day song, the Oscar-winning “Secret Love”; Young at Heart (1954), a fine melodrama which saw her starring for the first and only time with Frank Sinatra; Love Me or Leave Me (1955), an excellent biopic of singer Ruth Etting, with James Cagney as her gangster boyfriend; Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 remake of his own The Man Who Knew Too Much, with James Stewart and another indelible Day hit (the Oscar-winning “Que Sera Sera”); and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960), a mature family comedy with David Niven, based on Jean Kerr’s bestselling book and the inspiration for a television series.
To be sure, some films were better than others, yet Day was consistently ranked among the Top Ten box office stars, just as Billboard consistently rated her the top female vocalist.
Then her third husband, Martin Melcher, died in 1968, leaving her in debt from his management and business dealings with their attorney. She successfully sued the attorney and accepted a settlement but found herself contractually obliged to make a television show, which she’d never wanted to do.
THE TV STAR
The Doris Day Show ran on CBS for five seasons from 1968 to 1973. “Que Sera Sera” was used as the theme song, and it was the only consistent element of the sitcom. Under Day’s creative control, the series changed its format and supporting cast every season.
It started as a family show about a widow, her two young sons and a big dog on a ranch in Mill Valley. In the second season, it became a job comedy as she worked for a San Francisco magazine. The next year, they all moved to the city. For the last two seasons, she still had the magazine and the apartment, but the family vanished without explanation.
The show finished in Nielsen’s Top 30 in each of its first four seasons and even cracked the Top 10 in its second year. Feeling her obligations were over and her debts paid, Day was glad to finish the series. She fulfilled a contract to make a few specials and didn’t appear on TV again until 1985, when she hosted Doris Day’s Best Friends for Christian Broadcasting Network. This show was part of her long-standing commitment to animal causes, which has defined most of her known charity work.
Doris Day, who lives in Carmel, doesn’t make public appearances. She’s not a hermit, because she pursues various activities and has done radio interviews. On the other hand, she turned down honors from both the American Film Institute and Kennedy Center and didn’t show up for her 2004 Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush.
This top-ranking singer and actress never won an Academy Award, although she did receive a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, while “Sentimental Journey,” “Secret Love” and “Que Sera Sera” are in the Grammy Hall of Fame. The Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave her a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.
Incredibly, she released an album in 2011. My Heart consists mostly of 1980s recordings produced by her son Terry Melcher before his death from melanoma in 2004. The CD includes songs from The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Beach Boys, in addition to Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful.” At the age of 89, Day became the oldest woman to reach the Top Ten in the United Kingdom with an album of new material. It was an impressive accomplishment in a life and career that has seen plenty of others.
Doris, if you’re reading these words, you are still so beautiful.
Tune in to Those Were the Days on April 8 to hear Doris Day on radio.
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