Doris Day in the recording studio, mid-1950s

Doris Day in the recording studio, mid-1950s. – Sony Picture Archives

Doris Day – a singer who could act,
or an actress who could sing?

After the final sales figures were tallied at the end of 1959, music industry executives announced their list of the Top 10 best-selling recording artists for the entire decade of the 50s. Only one female made the list. Was it Ella Fitzgerald? Patti Page? Rosemary Clooney? Judy Garland? Dinah Shore? Peggy Lee? No – it was Doris Day, whose box-office records and critical acclaim in her concurrent film career seemed to be changing the general public’s perception of her from a singer who could act to an actress who could sing. That may still be the majority view, but many who appreciate popular music, especially the standards in the Great American Songbook, think of Day as a singer first.

“I love to sing; it takes me to a different dimension,” Day once remarked. Hearing her recordings can take listeners to a different dimension, too, thanks to this uncommonly talented singer. The Encyclopedia of Popular Music describes her as “one of popular music’s premier vocalists,” and nine times in 10 years (1949-1958), disc jockeys who responded to Billboard’s annual poll rated Day as the top female singer in the U.S.

Bing Crosby once commented that another singer had a “vibrato so wide you could drive a truck through it.” Such was not the case with Day; her narrow vibrato was just one aspect of consistently high-quality vocalizing. Her velvety pipes were amazing: A quick study with unerring rhythm, she had perfect pitch, clear diction, and seamless modulations from one key to another. Long diminuendos were not a problem for her; she was in full control of every syllable she sang and every breath she took. In addition to all that, Day was a master of evocative phrasing and lyric interpretation. She was a highly disciplined artist with a tremendous work ethic, who enjoyed her craft and made it sound easy.

An extremely versatile vocalist, Day’s catalog is wide ranging. Very skilled in swing and novelty numbers, she also had a few early hits with country songs. Later in her career, some of her soft rock singles made the charts and she also recorded a great Latin album. Beyond all those genres, however, Day was a superb jazz singer; many of her renditions of blues, torch songs, and ballads (her favorites) are unsurpassed. Lyricist Ira Gershwin wrote that “anything from the alphabet to the phone directory can be suggestive if inflected in husky tones by anyone sexy,” and that is certainly an apt description of some of Day’s work.

As fine a vocalist as she was, singing was not uppermost on Day’s mind as a youngster. After extensive training from a very early age as a dancer, she spent a summer performing in and around Hollywood with the famed Fanchon & Marco troupe in her early teens. The promising future in dance that seemed so certain ended abruptly when Day suffered a serious leg injury in a car accident. To combat the boredom of months of hospitalization and a long period of recuperation at home, she began taking voice lessons. Her vocal coach, Grace Raine, later commented, “In all my years of music, I never saw a girl work so hard.”

Doris Day with the Barney Rapp band.

Doris Day with the Barney Rapp band in 1939.

Still on crutches, Day had a brief stint in her mid-teens singing on live radio and at a Chinese restaurant in her home town of Cincinnati, Ohio. At that time, she was known to audiences by her birth name, Doris Kappelhoff, but that was before local bandleader Barney Rapp, who hired her to sing in his new nightclub, gave her the stage name of Day. He took it from the popular 1930’s song Day After Day (not Day by Day, as is often erroneously reported). As Rapp recalled, “That kid was a real hot singer.”

The earliest recordings of Day’s singing are Little Sir Echo and I’m Happy About the Whole Thing, which were made during a remote radio broadcast in June of 1939. After Rapp’s nightclub folded, she sang with the band on one-night stands and also occasionally at Cincinnati’s elegant Netherland Plaza Hotel.

In mid-spring of 1940, Bob Crosby hired Day to replace his girl singer. At that time, his was voted the third best swing band in the country, after Benny Goodman’s and Glenn Miller’s. Now Day was singing with a world class outfit whose musicians included such jazz greats as drummer Ray Bauduc, Billy Butterfield on trumpet, trombonist Ray Conniff, composer/bassist Bob Haggart, guitarist Nappy Lamare, clarinetist Matty Matlock, sax player Eddie Miller, and pianist Jess Stacy.

Doris Day with Les Brown's band on 1941.

Doris Day with Les Brown’s band in 1941.

After a summer on the road, Crosby’s band had a theater date at the Strand in New York City. In August, Les Brown heard Day there and hired her for his own band. Soon they performed at the dance campus of the New York World’s Fair, and Day made her first recordings with Brown in late November 1940. One is Dig It, a cute jump tune on which she had just a one-minute vocal, typical for band singers at that time.

George Simon, undoubtedly the era’s most respected and knowledgeable music critic, observed, “Doris Day, for combined looks and voice, has no apparent equal. She’s pretty and fresh looking, handles herself with unusual grace . . . and is one of the most impressive of band vocalists.” High praise for a young lady still in her teens.

After eight months with Brown, Day got married and left the band. Her employment with him was interrupted by a two-year absence, during which time she became a mother, returned to Cincinnati, got divorced, and sang on WLW radio as a staff vocalist. Because that station had the most powerful transmitters in the U.S., Day’s voice was heard by listeners all over the country.

Finding record success - Day and Brown hit the charts.

Finding record success – Day and Brown hit the charts.

When she returned to the Brown band in the spring of 1943, WWII was raging and they frequently entertained at military hospitals and at war bond drives. In March of 1945, two Brown-Day recordings were back-to-back #1 hits. My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time sold over a million copies, but an even bigger hit was Sentimental Journey, which sold over five million. The band played a six-week engagement at the Hollywood Palladium that summer and attracted sell-out crowds of over 6,000. In Day’s final two years with the Band of Renown, recordings on which she sang were invariably hits; they averaged one song in the Top 20 every other month.

With the Big Band era beginning to wane in 1946, Day left the band in the late summer of that year to embark on a solo career. She was a guest vocalist on several radio programs in Los Angeles, and then signed a two-month contract with restaurateur Billy Reed to open his new Little Club in New York City, beginning in January of 1947. Returning to New York later that year, she sang on Saturday nights from early September through November on Your Hit Parade, a nationwide radio program hosted by Frank Sinatra.

During the next year, Day had several singles in the Top 20. Two (Love Somebody and the Oscar-nominated It’s Magic ) were million-sellers. Beginning in September of 1948 and continuing for almost two years, she appeared weekly on Bob Hope’s radio program in Hollywood. Her chart popularity led him to call her Jukebox Jenny. The radio job reunited her with Les Brown, who had become Hope’s orchestra leader.

Bob Hope, Doris Day, Les Brown.

Bob Hope, Doris Day, Les Brown.

Day spent seven weeks in the first four months of 1949 doing two nationwide tours with the Hope show. Her first solo album was released that year and landed in the Top 5, joining Again and a handful of her other charted singles. Music reporter Joseph Roddy wrote, “Doris Day is the most artful performer of sultry singing of them all . . . and her most recent releases (Imagination, With You Anywhere You Are, and Bewitched) are as soft and humid as torch songs can be and still be legal.” Day’s recording of the latter song charted at #1 in 1950 and was another million-seller.

From 1950-1952, she had four Top 5 movie albums, three of which charted at #1, and more than a dozen charted singles. They included Shanghai and two million-sellers, A Guy is A Guy and Sugarbush. In late March of 1952, Day began hosting her own weekly radio show. During its 14-month broadcast, her guests from the music industry included Frank Loesser, Sammy Cahn, Liberace, Harry James and Bob Crosby, her old boss.

Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster did the musical scoring for Day’s rousing 1953 film Calamity Jane, and they won the Academy Award for best song with Secret Love.  Day’s recording of it was a million-seller that charted at #1 early the next year. She had another big hit in 1954 with If I Give My Heart to You, which charted at #2. By this time, Her record sales had reached almost $5 million annually (equivalent to $43 million today), but her success was about to become even more impressive.

Doris Day, Love Me or Leave Me.

Doris Day, Love Me or Leave Me.

Love Me or Leave Me, a film biography of singer Ruth Etting, was released in 1955. Day later commented, “It might be the best film I ever did.” Her recordings of the two new songs written for the film were both hits and one of them, I’ll Never Stop Loving You, was nominated for the best song Oscar. Day was the only vocalist on the soundtrack album, which stayed charted in the Top 10 for 25 weeks, 17 of them at #1. Not only was it the recording industry’s best seller of the more than 1600 albums released in the U.S. that year, it was also the third biggest seller of the entire decade. Of the tens of thousands of albums released during the next 40 years, it is ranked at #13.

In June of 1956, Day signed what was then the biggest 5-year contract ($1,050,000) in Columbia Records’ history. She soon recorded her first non-movie album in seven years, the Top 20 critically-acclaimed Day by Day. In a Downbeat magazine nationwide poll of over 750 musicians and composers to determine that year’s best musical personality, Day came out on top.

Day recorded two songs for her 1956 film The Man Who Knew Too Much, indicating that she clearly preferred one of them. “We’ll Love Again is one of the most beautiful ballads Ray Evans and Jay Livingston have ever written,” she said. That song, however, was completely overshadowed by Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera), which reached #1 in Australia, Belgium, France, and the U.K. and #2 in the U.S., where it stayed charted for seven months. Ultimately it sold 20 million copies, won the Academy Award for best song, and became inextricably linked with Day.

doris-day, recording studioDoris Day Music CDs @

Part of Day’s work in music was behind the scenes in 1957. The only female and the only vocalist, she served on a committee with nine other representatives from the recording industry in founding the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. (Informally known as the Recording Academy, it is the organization that presents Grammy awards and issues gold records.) Ironically, that was the first year since 1947 that she did not have a newly-charted Top 20 hit.

Three of Day’s outstanding albums were released in 1958 and 1959. One was the jazz-oriented Day by Night, and the others were part 1 and part 2 of her Hooray for Hollywood album. Day remarked that those dual volumes  represented “some of the best work I’ve ever done.”  Vocalist Margaret Whiting, whose father had written the title song of that collection, described Day as “one of the best singers there ever was.”

Everybody Loves a Lover was the final Top 20 single of Day’s career to be charted in the U.S. In the first six weeks of its 1958 release, it sold half a million copies (and more than two million overall), stayed charted for four-and-a-half months, and earned Day a Grammy nomination. Two of her other singles charted that year – the title songs from her films Teacher’s Pet and Tunnel of Love.  And a compilation album called Doris Day’s Greatest Hits, which sold in the multi-millions, earned her a gold record. Her solo record sales had reached 16 million copies, a tremendous number for the period in which she recorded.

Doris Day, Hollywood walk of fame stars, one for music, left, and one for films.At the opening of the Hollywood Walk of Fame in February of 1960, Day received two Stars – one for films and one for music. Her Show Time album was released later that year and, when songwriter Cole Porter heard her recording of his I Love Paris from it, he told a friend that he wished Day would sing more of his songs.

Porter was not the only composer to compliment her work: Richard Rodgers, who was known to be stingy with effusive praise, but not at all stingy with criticism – especially of vocalists who sang his songs – wrote to Day that her sultry 1961 rendition of his I Have Dreamed was the most beautiful version he had ever heard. That same year, her single of his The Sound of Music brought Day another Grammy nomination. (In her career, she recorded about three dozen of Rodgers’ songs.)

During a five-month period in 1964, Day recorded four albums. One of them, Latin for Lovers, she later described as “very close to being my favorite album.” That same year she had a Top 10 single in the U.K. with Move Over, Darling. The title song of one of her films, it was co-written by her son, record producer/singer/composer Terry Melcher, and was one of a handful of soft rock songs Day recorded over the years.

In mid-1967, after Day’s two-decades-long association with Columbia Records ended, she recorded The Love Album. It was independently produced under the guidance of her son, and all of its tracks were torch songs done in very slow tempo. Due to a series of major personal ordeals that befell Day shortly after recording, the tapes were misplaced and the production was not completed. When the album was finally released in 1994, Day commented, “I’m very, very fussy about my recordings. On this album, I sang things I really loved and that I felt very deeply about.”

Day hosted and sang on two television specials (one broadcast in 1971 with Perry Como and the other in 1975 with John Denver), but did not make any recordings for several years. In 1985, then in her early 60s, she collaborated with her son to record several songs for her new cable television show. Compiled 26 years later into an album called My Heart that made the British charts, these were the final recordings of a versatile and tremendously talented vocalist whose work was too often underrated.

Doris Day, Grammy Awards

Doris and Marty in the recording studio. Photo: Howard Green

In 1998, Day received a Grammy Hall of Fame award for her recording of Sentimental Journey. The following year, she received another for Secret Love. She was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame in 2007 and received the Grammy lifetime achievement award in 2008. Two years later, the Society of Singers presented its first-ever Legend Award to Day. And in 2012, she received yet another Grammy Hall of Fame award for Que Sera, Sera.

Some statistics:
In her cinema career (1947-1967), Day made more films per year than did any other leading American actress whose work included the same period. Among her contemporaries, Judy Garland was the only other major female recording artist who also had a significant film career. To maintain both careers simultaneously and successfully is remarkable. During her solo recording career, which spanned those same two decades, Day cut more albums – an average of 1.7 per year – than did Patti Page, Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney, Dinah Shore, and Ella Fitzgerald in their solo careers.

Day had some other extraordinary numbers as well. During her career she recorded at least 800 songs. Of those, just over 300 were for 11 movie albums and 20 studio albums. In only six years (1949-1955), eight of her albums were in the Top 5, half of them charting at #1.  In 10 years (1948-1958), no fewer than nine of Day’s singles were million sellers. The number of weeks her singles stayed on the Billboard and Cash Box charts (454 and 394, respectively) averages to over eight years, or more than a third of her recording career.

Les Brown and Doris Day.

Les Brown and Doris Day. Photo: heckyeahdorisday

In addition to Les Brown and her close friend Frank Comstock, Day worked with some of the industry’s best arrangers and conductors. These five deserve special mention: Almost half of Day’s 39 films were musicals, and 17-time Academy Award nominee Ray Heindorf was the musical director on most of them. She recorded some singles with Percy Faith, who also did the Oscar-nominated orchestration for her soundtrack album from Love Me or Leave Me. Day’s friend Axel Stordahl, Frank Sinatra’s longtime orchestra leader, was the conductor on several of her singles, as well as for one of her albums released in 1960. She recorded some singles and two excellent albums with Frank deVol. Day also recorded a number of singles, did three movie soundtracks, and cut two splendid albums under the baton of the great Paul Weston.

Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, recalls that Day’s work in the film I’ll See You in My Dreams made him cry. He said, “When a singer can make you cry, you know she’s got the goods.” Praise for Day’s talent has also come from fellow vocalists, including Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, soprano Anna Moffo, Robert Goulet, Anne Murray, Frankie Laine, Olivia Newton-John, Johnny Mathis, Patti Page, Frank Sinatra, Sue Raney, Andy Williams, and Sarah Vaughan. Songwriters, arrangers, conductors, musicians, producers, critics, and music historians are among dozens of other music industry professionals who highly regard Day and have long admired her work ethic and talent. Comments from just a few follow:

Bandleader and former boss Les Brown:
Doris is one of the most eloquently expressive singers of all time.

Pianist/composer/jazz expert Max Morath:
Day is a master of popular standards whose best work was with jazz phrasing.

Conductor/arranger Don Pippin:
There’s something very organic and natural about Doris’ voice; it just reaches people.

Rock singer/songwriter/guitarist Brian May:
It’s unbelievable how accurate Doris Day is; she’s technically unmatched and mind-blowingly expressive.

Lyricist and jazz critic Gene Lees:
Doris sings with keen intonation. She’s always had a sense of the dramatic meaning of a lyric.

Music critic and jazz historian Gary Giddins:
Doris Day should be proposed for sainthood as a jazz singer. She was the coolest and sexiest female singer of slow ballads in film history.

Conductor and arranger Paul Weston:
Doris never knew how good she was. I always felt that she was a better singer than she thought she was. She was very expressive.

Pianist/arranger/composer Ronnell Bright:
Doris is on the same level as Ella. Her tone and interpretation are so pure and lovely. She is truly exceptional.

In an American Film Institute tribute to James Cagney in 1974, Day said to him, “You don’t play a character; you live the character.” That observation can be applied to her own vocal career: Doris Day didn’t sing a song; she lived the song. And as she once commented, “If you sing a lyric the way it should be done, you’re acting.” Nobody did it better.

For your listening pleasure
To anyone who may be only slightly acquainted with Day’s vocal work, this writer would suggest listening to recordings that represent her versatility in several genres. In addition to the titles cited in the preceding text, there are literally hundreds of other examples from which to choose. Because Day’s work was of such high quality, however, selecting just a few of her best recordings is nearly impossible. Here are four dozen, almost all of which can be heard on the internet and can give one a good start in appreciating Day’s superior skill:

With Les Brown – It Could Happen to You; ‘Tain’t Me; Come to Baby, Do; You Won’t Be Satisfied (Until You Break My Heart); Sooner or Later.

From the late 1940s – It Takes Time *; Just Imagine; No Moon at All; You Go to My Head; That Was a Big Fat Lie; Canadian Capers.

Recorded in the 1950s – I’ll Be Around; From This Moment On; Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me; Sposin’; 10,432 Sheep; Kiss Me Again, Stranger; Foolishly Yours; At Sundown, Nothing in the World; Let It Ring; Somebody Somewhere; Hello My Lover, Goodbye; Whadja Put in That Kiss?; Easy to Remember; In the Still of the Night; Stars Fell on Alabama; Blues in the Night; Fit as a Fiddle; Love Me in the Daytime; No; Mood Indigo.

Recorded in the 1960s – Here We Go Again; My Ship; Who Knows What Might Have Been; Nobody’s Heart; Little Girl Blue; I Got Lost in His Arms; Since I Fell for You; How Insensitive, Perhaps, Perhaps; I’m Beginning to See the Light; Every Now and Then; There They Are.

From the 1970s & 1980s – The Way We Were; This is the Way I Dreamed It; My Heart; Heaven Tonight.

* First solo recording

doris-day, recording studio

Doris recording the soundtrack for Calamity Jane. Photo: Time Life

In a 1954 interview Day commented,

My voice was entrusted to me as a means of bringing happiness to other people, and I never get over being grateful to God for allowing me this privilege.”

Her voice has brought – and continues to bring – happiness to countless thousands of listeners around the world. That’s a pretty impressive legacy from someone who didn’t originally intend to become a singer.

Judy Rigdon

See also Doris Day was a sparkling jazz singer – The Daily Telegraph. UK