Though best remembered today as the virginal heroine of such light sex comedies as Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, Doris Day began her career as a vocalist during the big band era. Her voice graced such popular hits as “Sentimental Journey” and “My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time,” earning her a reputation as one of the most seductive singers of that era.
Born Doris Kappelhoff, in Cincinnati, Ohio, she began to study dance at age six. At thirteen, she won an amateur contest, and her mother decided to take her to Hollywood. A car accident along the way prematurely ended her dream however. Her right leg was severely injured, and she returned home to recuperate.
Living above a tavern owned by her uncle, Day had access to a jukebox and began to take an interest in singing. She studied voice and, though still needing crutches to walk, won an amateur contest on radio station WLW singing “Day by Day.” Soon after, in 1939, she began performing at a local Chinese restaurant on Saturday nights and making unpaid appearances on a local radio program.
Early Band Career
That same year, after doctors had finally switched her from crutches to a cane, bandleader Barney Rapp heard Day on radio and asked her to audition. Rapp had made a national name for himself playing smaller hotels but had decided to settle down in Cincinnati and open a club. Day, then still known professionally as Kapelhoff, impressed Rapp and began singing with the band six nights a week when the club opened in April. The orchestra leader found her last name cumbersome and changed it to Day, based on the song that launched her career.
Rapp closed his club after only a few months and began playing one-nighters in the local area. Day stayed as vocalist, but the long work days took their toll, and she eventually settled in Chicago singing with the Jimmy James Orchestra. In May 1940, she audition for Bob Crosby’s band and landed the job, joining them at the Blackhawk Cafe, replacing Marion Mann.
Several conflicting stories revolve around Day’s departure from the band. She remained with Crosby only two months, being let go in July. In her autobiography, Day indicates that the band released her in an effort to cut expenses, and that Gil Rodin, the group’s manager, helped her land a replacement job with Les Brown. According to Day, singer Bonnie King was handling chores on Crosby’s radio show at that time while Day was touring with the band. Day indicated that King was the girlfriend of “the man who handled the radio account.” Rodin told Day that the expense of flying King in each week to wherever the band was playing to do the radio show was too much, so they were going to make her their touring vocalist as well.
Down Beat reported Day’s firing and King’s hiring by stating that the ad agency who handled the Camel show found Day’s salary too large, though this is at odds with Day’s account as according to her she wasn’t singing on the radio program so her salary shouldn’t have been an issue. Down Beat also reported that King had been singing on St. Louis radio at the time. Other reports say Day decided to quit Crosby after a member of the band made strong passes at her and frightened her, and Brown stated in an interview that he’d heard Day was dissatisfied with Crosby’s group and was ready to leave. Whichever is the correct story, King replaced Day in July 1940 and handled both road and commercial work.
Les Brown Years
Joining Brown’s orchestra in August, Day felt at home. Brown’s men were as respectable as swing musicians could be, and she was well-liked by all. She left the band in March 1941, though, to marry Jimmy Dorsey trombonist Al Jorden, whom she had first met and started dating when they both were members of Rapp’s band. After leaving Brown she briefly sang with Joe Sanders’s band.
Everyone warned Day against marrying Jorden, but she ignored their concerns. Once married, she discovered that he was insanely jealous, and he began to physically abuse her. After the birth of their son, Terry, she tried to move home to Cincinnati on her own, hoping to divorce Jorden once safely away, but upon finding out her plan he quit Dorsey and moved with her. She finally managed to leave him in early 1943, with the help of her family.
Back on her own again and needing to earn a living, Day joined Boyd Raeburn’s orchestra, singing with it in May, and later took a job as staff singer at WLW, where she performed on several programs over the next few months. She also sang with local bandleaders Jimmy Wilbur and Ted Phillips. Brown asked her to return, but she refused, not wanting to leave her son at home. The orchestra leader finally convinced her in early 1944.
Day’s career didn’t really begin to take off until near the end of the war. She had her first number one hit with Brown’s band in April 1945 with “My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time,” followed by “Sentimental Journey” in June. The two songs helped propel her into the national spotlight for the first time. Reports that summer had her leaving Brown for an MGM contract, but she did not. She finished eighth in Billboard magazine’s 1946 college poll for best overall female vocalist. In the 1947 poll, she finished sixth overall and fourth favorite female band vocalist. Day ranked third in the 1945 Down Beat annual reader poll.
In mid-1946, wedding bells once again rang for Day when she married former Brown saxophonist George Weidler. Weidler had moved to the West Coast after leaving the band, and Day gave notice to follow him, leaving the band on September 15. Weidler’s finances were meager. The couple lived in a run-down trailer park in an industrial area of Los Angeles, and Day supplemented their income by working on radio. While returning to New York for a one-month club engagement in February 1947, she received a letter from Weidler saying he was divorcing her. She quickly left the East Coast and returned to Los Angeles to salvage what was left of her life.
Though Day and Weidler didn’t divorce until 1950, his letter sparked Day to focus on her career. She made her first solo recordings on Columbia in March and signed on as co-host, alongside Frank Sinatra, of radio’s Your Hit Parade program for the fall 1947 season. Attracting the attention of Hollywood, Warner Bros. offered her an audition for one of the leads in the musical comedy Romance on the High Seas after Judy Garland and then Betty Hutton had been forced to leave the picture. The audition proved successful, and she left Your Hit Parade in November 1947 to make the film. She and Sinatra shared the cover of Down Beat’s November 19, 1947, issue. She made Down Beat’s cover alone on July 29, 1948.
Day’s early solo recordings were often quite jazzy, though her work began to soften over subsequent years. Her most visible sides from the 1950s onward were pop songs. Some of her biggest hits were “Secret Love,” from the film Calamity Jane, and “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)),” which she sang in the Alfred Hitchcock thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much.
The focus of Day’s career shifted to Hollywood after her successful role in Romance on the High Seas, and she starred in several musicals and serious films over the next few years. 1958’s Teacher’s Pet, however, marked a turning point in her career. It was the first of what would become the many wholesome roles for which she is best remembered. She quickly emerged as a pop culture icon, her wholesome innocence the perfect non-threatening match for Marilyn Monroe’s sexuality.
This new image was not to Day’s liking however. It had been the creation of her husband/agent, Marty Melcher. Melcher had begun to sign her for films that she didn’t want to make. He’d also begun to embezzle from her earnings. When he died in 1968, she found herself broke and on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Before his death, Melcher had also committed her to a television sitcom. The Doris Day Show ran between 1968 and 1973 and was a huge success, helping her rebuild her finances. Aside from the series, though, Day appeared on television very rarely.
In 1974, Day won a $22 million judgement against her deceased husband’s lawyer for his role in the mismanagement of her funds. She then retired from show business, returning only briefly in the mid-1980s for the cable series Doris Day’s Best Friends. She considered a return to the big screen several times, but suitable roles were hard to come by. In 1976, she married Beverly Hills businessman Barry Cromden. The couple separated in 1979 and then divorced.
An avid animal lover, Day spent most of her retirement promoting and raising funds for the animal welfare groups she founded. She donated much of her income to those causes and also attempted to start her own pet food franchise. Day lived out the rest of her life in Carmel, California, where she died in 2019 at age 95.