UNDERRATED / A word in your ear: The case for Doris Day's songs

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The Independent Culture
IN 1980, to coincide with a National Film Theatre retrospective, Judith Williamson mounted an offensive in Time Out entitled 'Reclaim the Day', a ground-breaking reassessment of the films of Doris Day. Far from being the all-American cheerleader for virginity, she was rediscovered as a woman who held out for what she wanted. Tomboyish and tough, or smart career woman, she may have capitulated to marriage and domesticity by the final frame, but only on her own terms.

Yet despite the rehabilitation of her screen work, little consideration has been given to her as a singer. Million-sellers like 'Que sera, sera' got her pigeon-holed as being ever- lastingly perky. Buoyant but bland. But that's too too simple.

Day is no Broadway belter (though there's plenty of vocal punch in The Pajama Game), but her work is, at best, subtle, delicate and polished. Calamity Jane opens with Day lowering her breathy soprano and driving her way through 'The Deadwood Stage' but the score's most famous song is 'Secret Love'. Her hallmarks are all there. The warm, closely miked voice holds back the consonants and caresses the vowels. A rising glissando on the harp announces the bridge and she opens out to sing 'Now, I shout it / From the highest hills', before reining the sound back in for 'Even told the golden daffodils', and we're back to her tender contemplation of happiness. All of which was recorded on the first take, with no orchestral rehearsal, straight through in three minutes flat.

It's the tenderness which is so distinctive. Her teacher, Grace Raine, taught her to sing as if directly into the ear of a single listener. This creates a striking intimacy that helps disguise the banality of much of her huge repertoire - has anyone else bothered to record 'Be My Little Baby Bumble Bee'?

Seven years as a band singer and 16 largely indifferent Warner Brothers' musicals gave her a wide range: up-tempo numbers through novelty items, to the ballads which are the cream of the crop.

On the soundtrack to Love Me or Leave Me, she sings the De Sylva / Brown / Henderson classic 'It All Depends on You', arguably her finest recording. Floating the melody above an elegant, steady piano accompaniment, she barely inflects the words at all, but the sheer musicality of her phrasing enhances the yearning behind the lyric. It's a deeply moving performance of the utmost simplicity. Her album with Andre Previn on piano is just as good, with exquisitely partnered readings of songs like 'Remind Me' and 'Fools Rush In'.

In her debut picture, Romance on the High Seas, she goes to drown her sorrows but, spying a piano, she decides to sing instead, telling the bartender, 'Never mind. I'll get my kicks my way.' She does, and so do we.