People associate me with stride piano, but long before I heard Fats Waller or Count Basie, I was an obsessed old movies fan, lucky enough to grow up in Los Angeles with the series Million Dollar Movie that featured top-tier films, each of which would run for a whole week, airing twice a night. As a child I watched every airing, memorized the music and lyrics, and tap-danced my way around the house.
One of my favorite obsessions was Doris Day. Few would put Fats Waller and Doris Day in the same sentence, but both radiated an energy and joy that made everyone fall hard for their charms, especially me. Neither had an easy life, which made their sunny mien all the more remarkable.
Doris is seldom mentioned when people discuss their favorite jazz singers, but to my ears, she had it all. She had a wonderful sense of swing, a beautiful sound and gorgeous technique. She made every note sound effortless. That only comes from hard work and commitment, which she had in spades. Grace Raine, Doris’ voice teacher and biggest influence, said she never saw a girl work so hard in all her years in music.
In A.E. Hotchner’s biography of Doris, she said that Raine taught her the “correct” way to sing lyrics. Raine said, “When you sing the words to a song, imagine that you’re singing to one person, just one, a very special person, and that you’re singing in that someone’s ear. Remember that when you’re singing a lyric, it’s really like playing a scene. Make it mean something to you.” Doris felt that early vocal work helped her make the transition to acting.
In her late teens, Doris was on her way to Hollywood for a dancing career, having already gained recognition in a dance duo with her partner, Jerry Doherty. The day before they were to leave for Hollywood, Doris was in a car with friends who thought they could beat an oncoming train. They didn’t. Doris’ right leg was shattered, along with her hopes of a dance career.
During her long convalescence, Doris sang along with the radio and discovered her talent for singing. She zeroed in especially on Ella Fitzgerald, the way Ella shaded her voice and the casual, clean way she sang each word.
Except for possibly Frank Sinatra or Bing Crosby, few other entertainers have left such an impressive legacy. Doris did 39 movies, 650 recordings, five seasons of The Doris Day Show, and multiple television specials. In the 1960s, she was the No. 1 box-office female star for four years, a record matched only by Shirley Temple. (As of 2012, only six male performers had achieved that same distinction.) Two of her songs won Oscars: “Secret Love” from Calamity Jane and “Que Será, Será” from The Man Who Knew Too Much.
We recognize great actors and singers but often discount the charmers, the ones who make it look so natural that we infer there’s nothing behind it. With Doris, there was a horrific accident, four bad marriages, and countless other challenges behind every move she made. Her authenticity came through with every note she sang and every part she played, whether she was digging deep into pain with James Cagney in Love Me or Leave Me or romping comedically with Rod Taylor in The Glass Bottom Boat.
I asked another dreamy-voiced singer, Maud Hixson, who has done a number of Doris Day tribute shows, what stands out most to her about Doris, after studying her over the years. “Doris had an unrelenting positivity throughout her extremely difficult life,” Maud said. “No matter how sad things got, she found something good and projected that. That’s impressive and inspiring.”
And Doris was gorgeous, as if the rest weren’t enough. When I was a teen, one of my friends, who knew my Doris obsession, gave me a picture of Doris with her hair colored in as a brunette. “Have you ever noticed that if Doris Day had your mother’s brunette hair, they’d look almost exactly alike?” she said, handing me the doctored picture.
“Oh my God! I’ve never noticed that! You’re right. Wow! Do you think I look like Doris?” I asked, hopefully.
“No, not at all. But isn’t it enough that your mother looks like Doris?”
Absolutely. It was more than enough.