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I'm Confessing that I Love Doris Day
As a jazz singer—but I don't know if that makes it better or worse
How hot was Doris Day?
Check out these survey results from the 1960s. They rank the top money-makers in Hollywood (as chosen by theater owners).
Doris Day doesn’t get much respect nowadays. But she rode taller in the saddle than John Wayne and got more fans shook up than Elvis Presley.
Around that same time, ‘Doris’ became one of the 10 most popular names for baby girls in the United States. It doesn’t even rank in the top thousand today. So if you meet a woman named Doris today, she’s probably around 60 years old.
You can thank Doris Day for all that.
But 1964 was the end of an era. Movies were tightly censored, and Doris Day—who was more sweet than sexy—was a perfect leading lady for repressed libidos. She was the director’s first choice for romantic comedies where everybody stays completely dressed for the full 90 minutes.
I’m not sure this actress ever really deserved her reputation for primness. She may even have had a love affair with Ronald Reagan. Her Hollywood co-star Oscar Levant once quipped: “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”
Yet chasteness was her style, and that was how the audience always viewed her.
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But by 1967, Doris Day no longer made the list of leading Hollywood box office stars. It’s no coincidence that the movie rating system arrived on the scene around that same time—and public tastes quickly shifted to R-rated fare where Doris Day was a losing proposition.
She might have adjusted to the new style of filmmaking. Day was even offered the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967)—a part that would have completely reinvented her screen image. But she found the screenplay offensive, and the role went instead to Anne Bancroft, who earned an Oscar nomination.
Doris Day just stopped making movies after 1968—even though she lived another half century, and must have received many offers to return to the big screen. Instead she had a five-year run with an incoherent TV sitcom. (She was a widow with young children in the first season, and single with no kids in the last season—who knows what she did with the youngsters?)
She later blamed the sitcom on her husband Martin Melcher, who signed her up to do the show without asking her permission—and then died suddenly at age 52, leaving her bankrupt. By the 1980s, Day’s audience draw was so poor that she couldn’t even succeed with a talk show on a Christian broadcasting network. It only lasted for 26 episodes.
Given all this, it would be easy to forget her. Her best days are more than a lifetime away. Who cares?
Even more unusual, I want to convince you that Doris Day was an important and gifted jazz singer.
She’s just not cool enough. But Day also suffers from the 80 year rule in pop culture. She rose to fame as a big band singer in 1939—so any of her fans from those days must be close to 100 years old now.
Day enjoyed a huge audience as a singer in the early 1940s. And it kept growing until she reached the peak of her music career in 1945. That year she sang on two tracks that hit number one in the charts. Over a two year period (1945-46) she released seven different songs that made the top ten.
“Sentimental Journey,” the best known of these, had the good fortune of being the most popular song in America at the end of World War II. So it served as an unofficial theme song for millions of soldiers returning home.
This tune was truly an overnight success. Day’s boss, bandleader Les Brown, had given her a copy of his new song “Sentimental Journey” during a hotel gig in Newark. At the first rehearsal, the singer felt so moved by the lyrics that her scalp tingled. Day later claimed this was always a sign that she had some special affinity with a song.
The next night, the band tried the new tune out for dancers at the hotel. The response was extraordinary. Day later recalled that memorable debut:
I started to sing the lyrics and by the end of the first eight bars the couples had stopped dancing and were just standing there, arms around, listening to me. It was an overwhelming success. They just stood there, wildly applauding, until we played it again—and again. There were requests for it all night long.
I sang it on a network remote [radio broadcast], and mail came pouring into the hotel from all over the country….Everywhere we went that’s what people wanted to hear.
“Sentimental Journey” stayed on the chart for six months.
The song’s cultural impact would reverberate for decades to come. Bob Dylan recorded his cover version in 2017—more than 70 years after Day’s success. Ringo Starr’s first solo album after the Beatles broke up was entitled Sentimental Journey, which also was the opening track. Amy Winehouse recorded a demo of “Sentimental Journey” when she was just 17. You can also find versions by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and a host of other jazz vocal legends.
Doris Day started all this, but her own version could hardly be more low-key and less ostentatious. It’s almost conversational in its tone. Day simply delivers the meaning of the words in the most direct way—almost like a letter to a loved one. And she got many real letters in response, especially from soldiers overseas.
“Some of them wrote me love letters,” she later remembered. “It was very touching.”
She sang many of these songs and played a key role in introducing several of them. For example, Day introduced the Oscar-winning song “Secret Love” in the movie Calamity Jane—which earned her another number one record—and it soon got covered by dozens of jazz stars. Day turned “When I Fall in Love” into a commercial hit and a perennial jazz standard. She also helped popularize “My Romance”—which she sang to great effect in the film version of Jumbo.
In fact, a jazz song launched her movie career.
Songwriters Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn were so impressed with her rendition of the Gershwin song “Embraceable You” at a Hollywood party that they told director Michael Curtiz (of Casablanca fame) that he needed to cast Day in a movie. She had no acting experience, but beat out more experienced actresses after a stunning audition. Curtiz later said that Doris Day was the proudest discovery of his career.
Day herself had so little confidence, that she had already bought a plane ticket back to Cincinnati. But then she got the call telling her to stay in Hollywood.
Curtiz explained that her lack of film experience was outweighed by her honesty. And that same quality inhabits her singing—there’s a forthright quality to her vocal work that almost demands your allegiance.
I would go so far as to say that Day became the biggest star in Hollywood simply by applying to movies what she had already done with songs. Whether on screen or record, she is absolutely believable and fully committed to her emotional stance.
Here is Day in her first Hollywood movie—you can see how naturally her singing merges with her acting.
But the key to her appeal is her confident projection of every song she sings. You always get the sense that there’s no place in the world she would rather be than singing this song at this particular moment.
Check out how powerfully she projects her personality in this film scene from 1951.
She made it all seem so easy. In many of her films, she is thrust in front of an audience and asked to sing with little preparation. This is almost a trademark of her movies. Put on the spot, she just effortlessly delivers the goods.
Those kind of roles played to her strengths.
I’m sure millions of moviegoers saw Day in these scenes, and thought: Gosh, maybe I could do this myself. It doesn’t look so hard. That was part of her charm—she seemed such a natural (the word invariably used of such people).
The truth is that Day worked hard on her singing. As a youngster, she took weekly vocal lessons, and soon increased the pace to three times per week. She had a gift for singing in tune, and with a pleasing relaxed delivery. But never too relaxed—don’t expect her to linger far behind the beat like Billie Holiday or Carmen McRae. Day also had a sassy, insistent quality that translated into a forthright way of phrasing.
Above all she focused on delivering the meaning in the words. “I worked very hard on projecting lyrics,” Day later explained in her autobiography—“feeling them, putting them within the framework of some imagine scene that fitted the song. It was this early work on lyrics, I’m convinced, that later helped me make the transition from band singing to movie acting.”
I applaud Doris Day’s movie hits. But fans gradually forgot about her singing.
Sometimes directors remembered to give her a feature song. Even Alfred Hitchcock, who rarely inserted songs in his films, let her sing “Que Sera, Sera” in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956). It was only time one of his movies got an Oscar for Best Song.
Once again, the director cast her as a reluctant vocalist forced to sing for a skeptical audience without advance warning. But this was a role she knew well. To some extent, she had lived it.
Yet the biggest reason why people have mostly forgotten about her singing is. . . Doris Day herself. After her ascendancy to elite status in Hollywood, she paid little attention to her career as a vocalist. And she stopped making studio records completely after her contract with Columbia ended in 1967.
Finally, a new record came out in 1994, entitled The Love Album—but the tracks had been recorded during three sessions in 1967. The tapes sat on a shelf for more than a quarter of a century. The record was bittersweet—both a reminder of how well Day interpreted songs, and testimony to how little she seemed to care about her legacy.
To my mind, Day ranks among that small group of stars who never took their own talent seriously enough. Dean Martin is another example—a tremendously gifted vocalist who complacently sang whatever producers put in front of him. Artists like this deserve better, but they hold a large share of the responsibility for how seldom their records are heard nowadays.
I turned to music historian and critic Will Friedwald for more insights on this matter. He is my most trusted source on anything having to do with the great popular songs from the middle decades of the 20th century, and the vocalists who specialized in this work. He also has the advantage of having known Doris Day.
He shared this with me:
Doris was very, very proud of her work as a singer, her singles and especially the best of her albums. She really loved the Duet album with André Previn, even though she didn't have anything especially interesting to say about it, other than that she loved André and was very proud of it. This was the only album of hers that I actually was able to get her to sign for me.
At the same time, however, she just couldn't listen to her vintage recordings. When the Bear Family boxes started coming out, she resolved to listen to them, but it took forever for her to get through the first box—she literally could only listen to a few tracks at a time. After she finally had listened to the first box, she never listened to any of the others. It was just too painful for her—a combination of the memories they brought back, and dissatisfaction with her own voice. She was smart enough to be proud of that work—even though it was too painful for her to actually listen to it.
One more intriguing note: when I talked to her, she would repeatedly say things like "If I were to start singing again, I would do this...." She said that enough times that I finally asked, "Doris, you keep saying that—does that mean that you're actually thinking about it?" Confronted with the direct question, she would somehow back out of it and never answer directly. But I do remember that she mentioned it repeatedly—without just trying to tease me, I don't think!
(By the way, Will will be contributing an essay to The Honest Broker in the near future. And he might be setting up his own Substack—if you want to make sure you’re on the mailing list, you can do that at this link.)
Day was too tough a judge of her own abilities. There’s lasting merit in so many of those records. My favorite, too, is Duet (from 1962), which finds her collaborating with André Previn’s jazz trio. But I also recommend Day by Day and Day by Night with Paul Weston handling the orchestra. And there are gems in many other albums, for example her unexpected cover version of the Beach Boys’ poignant ballad “Disney Girls” from My Heart, a compilation of tracks originally made for TV. You should also find time to listen to those early hits with Les Brown’s band.
But be forewarned—it’s a lonely world if you join me as a fan of Doris Day’s singing in the year 2023. I don’t expect that the jazz world will embrace her any time soon. And pop culture forgot her long ago.
But singers could still learn from her effortless mastery.
Maybe this Day from the past has truly passed, never to dawn again. But you would never guess that from the records themselves. They still shine if you’re willing to take a sentimental journey and give them a spin to renew old memories. I’m countin’ that these tracks can take you back, even if it’s the first time you’ve heard them