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Lita Roza: Sultry interpreter of romantic ballads nevertheless best known for 'How Much is That Doggie in the Window?'

The public know the Liverpool singer Lita Roza for one song above all others, the children's novelty "How Much is That Doggie in the Window?" However, that doggie was her bête noire: she was talked into recording the song and did not consider it representative of her work. There were few to rival her real talent as a sultry and sophisticated interpreter of romantic ballads.

She was born Lilian Patricia Roza, one of seven children, in Liverpool in 1926, and owed her exotic looks to her Spanish ancestry. Although she moved to London, she retained her northern connections and joked, "I have a lot to thank the city for. My voice can be attributed to a good pair of lungs and the Liverpool air."

Her father, Frank Roza, played the piano-accordion in Liverpool clubs and she and her sister Alma would sing with him. When she was 11, she saw an advertisement in the Liverpool Echo, "Juvenile dancers wanted for pantomime", and she attended the audition without her parents' knowledge, this independent spirit dominating the whole of her career and, indeed, her life. As a result she worked in the chorus for several pantomimes at the Empire, the final one being Cinderella in 1941 with Jack Buchanan, Beryl Reid and Fred Emney. This was followed by a six-month, nationwide tour in a variety show, Black Velvet, with the Liverpool comedian Ted Ray. At her mother's request, she returned home when the bombing intensified.

Putting show business on one side, Lita worked as a "butter cutter upper" at Home and Colonial, which involved dividing 56-pound blocks of New Zealand butter into half-pound slabs for domestic sale. She also worked in a cycle shop but when she caught her leg on jagged glass in a store-room, she was left with a scar and knew her dancing career was over.

Aged 16, Roza was singing in a Southport restaurant, The New Yorker, for £5 a week. The owner combined her Christian names to make Lilita, but she shortened it to Lita. When she had saved £16, she left her job and moved, on her own, to London. She said, "I thought I would make the rounds of agents and it would be a walkover, but it was hard going."

The pianist Sid Green recorded Roza's voice and the next week asked her if she would join Harry Roy's band, as his vocalist, Réné Lester, was leaving. She loved singing with Harry Roy, but when the band went to Egypt to entertain the troops, she was too young to go. She found two jobs: one at an up-market club, the Albany, in Savile Row and the other at the Embassy Club in Bond Street. As a result, she was singing from eight in the evening to four in the morning.

Her life changed again when she met a serviceman in the Canadian Air Force. She was only 18, "but he proposed to me after our third date so it was very romantic". Roza went to Canada with him in November 1944 "but I was seasick all the way. . . His home was in Miami. He had a job spraying crops and he was up at 4am and going to bed at 7pm." She was restless with nothing to do, "so I started singing in a night club, which upset him tremendously".

After the couple were divorced, she remained in the United States until 1950. Back in London, the bandleader Ted Heath invited her to a rehearsal for one of his Sunday Swing sessions at the Palladium. She recalled, "After I had sung, he said, 'How would you like to go on tonight?' and I said, 'I'll go and get a dress.' "

Ted Heath and his Orchestra was at the peak of its success, with exceptional vocalists in Dickie Valentine, Roza and then Dennis Lotis. "Frank Horrocks, who was their pianist, said I had perfect pitch, and I had never heard the phrase before," she said.

In 1951, Roza recorded "Allentown Jail" with the Heath band. Although record sales were not then collated, it was undoubtedly her first hit, as the song rose high in the sheet-music charts. After "Allentown Jail", her A&R man, Dick Rowe, asked her to sing "How Much is That Doggie in the Window?" and Roza replied, "I'm not recording that, it's rubbish." She recalled, "He said, 'It'll be a big hit, please do it, Lita.' I said that I would sing it once and once only and then I would never sing it again, and I haven't. The only time you'll hear it is on that record."

Even when the record was No 1, no one could persuade Lita to perform her hit, but it did lead to her recording several unsuitable songs. She was appreciated as much for her stunning looks as for her voice and she topped the Melody Maker poll for Favourite Female Vocalist from 1951 to 1955, and a similar one in the New Musical Express from 1952 to 1955.

In 1954, Roza left the Ted Heath band and started working as a solo act: "I would be singing with pit orchestras, who were usually dreadful," she said. "It was like going to the knacker's yard although I always carried my own pianist." In 1955, Lita had hits with two songs she liked – "Hey There" and "Jimmy Unknown" – and then sang "A Tear Fell" on a charity single for the Lord's Taverners Association, which made No 2. She recorded albums of standards, Listening in the Afterhours (1955) and Love is the Answer (1956).

In 1956 Lita married a trumpet player from Ted Heath's band, Ronnie Hughes. The marriage didn't last, although they did have reconciliations and remained friends. While they were living in Marble Arch, Lita recalled, "Ronnie went out for the papers one day and met Johnny Keating, who played great trombone and had also worked for Ted Heath. Ronnie said that I was doing an album for Pye and asked him to play on it. We formed a small group with Ronnie on trumpet. He was a beautiful trumpet player, still is." The album, despite an appalling title, Drinka Lita Roza Day and no rehearsals to speak of, is among Roza's best and was recorded in 1960 at the Prospect of Whitby pub in Wapping. It ends when the landlord calls time.

She had recorded another fine album, Me On a Carousel, for Pye in 1958, as well as a stream of variable singles, the better ones including "Volare" and "I Could Have Danced All Night". After leaving Pye in 1960, Roza recorded only sporadically. "I used to think, 'What's the point? Who's going to buy the records?' I didn't want to sing rock'n'roll and anything else wasn't selling."

Roza had discovered at the age of 21 that she was diabetic, but her health was never an issue until she went to South Africa in the early Seventies. "My worst moment was singing in the Gold Room in Johannesburg as I had never considered the altitude, and no one had given me any advice," she said in 2003:

I should have reduced my insulin dose because I was using more energy by being so high. As a result, I went out on the first night and looked at the audience and thought, "What am I doing here?" I had no idea where I was and had to be taken off stage. Of course, the papers implied I was on drugs or drink, but I wasn't. I hadn't got my insulin right.

Although Roza cut back on performing, she worked with the reformed Ted Heath band from 1980 to 1995 and appeared in a royal gala performance in 1985: "I spent 30 years on the road, sleeping in strange beds and now I have a nice home and I want to live in it. I keep reading about people making comebacks, but I have never wanted to make a comeback. I like my life the way it is."

In 2001 Lita Roza unveiled the Wall of Hits in Mathew Street, Liverpool, and made her final appearance at the Liverpool Empire the following year. "When rock'n'roll came in, my work was considered middle of the road," she said at the time, with a laugh. "Now I suppose many people would say I was nearing the end of the road."

Spencer Leigh

Lilian Patricia Roza (Lita Roza), singer: born Liverpool 14 March 1926; twice married; died London c14 August 2008.