Dorothy Claire

Photo of Dorothy Claire

Born into a musical family, blonde vocalist Dorothy Claire began singing as a young girl, winning first prize in an amateur contest at age six. She received her professional start in 1937, at age sixteen, after attending the University of Notre Dame prom, where the Indiana University dance band was playing. She knew many of the orchestra members, and they asked her to sing. Bandleader Slim Lamar also happened to be in the audience and offered her a job. Her parents initially refused to let her join Lamar’s group but were talked into it by one of her school teachers, who pointed out that she might not get such a break again. It was Lamar who changed her name, using his interest in numerology to choose Dorothy for Dorothy Lamour and Claire for Ina Claire.

Claire was with Joaquin Gill’s orchestra in February 1939 when she signed with Bob Crosby. The move to Crosby’s band puzzled many. Down Beat magazine writer Milton Karle wondered why Claire, whom he called a “showmanly little singer with very little voice” who “used to yell her lungs out” would want to sing ballads. One New York tabloid intimated that she joined so she could be near one of the group’s married members. Singer Marion Mann remained with Crosby, giving the orchestra two female vocalists, which wasn’t unusual for the band at the time. Mann handled the ballads, while Claire was used to her best advantage, singing the more animated numbers. Billboard magazine called Claire a “lively newcomer” who “shades a colorless voice with energetic versions of swingy ditties.”

During her Crosby days, Claire would rarely stand at the microphone while she sang. Instead, she would tear around the room, singing at tables or anywhere else she felt the urge. One Down Beat writer, remembering her performances, wrote:

Those of us who knew her were afraid to sit by the ringside. There’s no telling what piece of nonsense she’d introduce into her routine and more’n likely we’d be the guinea pigs.

Claire caused a sensation with Crosby, staying in the band through at least June, but by December 1939 she was with Bobby Byrne. As Claire matured, she grew more professional and less wild, so that by the time she’d settled into Byrne’s outfit she was confining her act to the bandstand. Her animated vocals proved popular with audiences, and she quickly became a featured performer with the orchestra.

Claire ended up in the center of a nasty legal battle between Byrne and Glenn Miller in early 1941. In December 1940, facing the imminent departure of Marion Hutton, Miller enticed Claire to leave Byrne, reportedly offering $250 a week, a significant incentive to the $75 a week she received with Byrne.[1] Miller also promised Claire evening clothes as well as extra pay for recordings and special broadcasts. Claire accepted and joined the band on January 6, 1941, despite the fact that she had just signed a two-year contract with Byrne in November.

Understandably upset with Miller’s poaching of Claire, Byrne sued Miller for $25,000, charging him with “conspiracy, connivance, coercion and intimidation” for inducing the singer to break her contract. Miller’s attorney argued that Claire was still under 21 years of age at the time, which meant any contract she had entered was not legally binding in the eyes of the law. Claire’s mother, however, had countersigned her contract. Miller eventually decided that the legal headache wasn’t worth it and released Claire at the end of March, replacing her with Paula Kelly.

Claire returned to Byrne, remaining with his orchestra until he disbanded in October 1942 to join the Army Air Force, one month before her contract would have expired. She spent three weeks out of the band in July 1941 for an emergency appendectomy. She finished ninth in Billboard’s 1941 poll for most popular female vocalist and twelfth in 1942. A natural comedienne, Claire developed a unique singing style that made the most of her limited vocal abilities, though she often wasn’t given the right material to work with by bandleaders.

After Byrne disbanded, Claire received an offer from Sonny Dunham, though she took a month off for a minor operation before finally joining his outfit in November 1942, becoming the star attraction in what was an otherwise less-than-stellar group. She had other ambitions than to be a member of Dunham’s group though. She made it known that she wanted to do musical comedy and set her agent to looking for appropriate work. Dunham wasn’t completely sure if Claire would stick around, and Claire’s preference for doing numbers as a single prompted the band’s other female singer, Mickie Roy, whom Dunham had brought in from California, to leave the band after only one week and caused Dunham to rethink his plan to have no male vocalists. He brought in Don Darcy to replace Roy. Coincidentally, when Claire took time off due to illness in early 1943, Paula Kelly, who had taken her place in Miller’s band, subbed for her.

Dunham released Claire in early 1944 as part of an effort to restructure his band. Claire quickly found a home with Boyd Raeburn, joining in February.[2] She stayed only a few months, launching a successful solo career in mid-1944, performing in nightclubs and theaters. She had her own NBC Blue radio program in 1944 and 1945, broadcast from Chicago.

Claire occasionally filled in for orchestras in need of a temporary female vocalist, including Lawrence Welk’s band in July 1944, when Janie Walton went on a three-week vacation, and Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra twice in 1946. She sang for Charlie Barnet in January 1947 after Barnet dissolved his West Coast band and put together a new group in New York for an engagement at the Strand Theater. Claire recorded with Dorsey’s band in early 1946 and solo that same year on the World Wide label. When World Wide went bankrup, the masters were bought by Enterprise and redistributed in 1947.

In June 1947, Claire landed the role of Sharon McLonergan in the Broadway production of Finian’s Rainbow, replacing Ella Logan, who decided to leave the show. Claire became Logan’s understudy in May when Kitty Kallen had dropped out due to other commitments. Claire ended up staying with the show for eighteen months.

After leaving Finian’s Rainbow at the end of 1948, Claire returned to the nightclub circuit and in 1950 began appearing regularly on television’s The Paul Winchell Show. She made guest appearances on many other television programs as well. She recorded on the MGM label in 1950. She continued performing into the 1970s, mainly in nightclubs, also appearing in two films, as a singing prostitute in Cat Ballou (1965) and in the low budget 1970 Lenny Bruce biopic Dirtymouth.

Dorothy Claire passed away in 1982, age 62. Her sisters, Judy and Betty, were also band vocalists. She appeared twice on the cover of Down Beat, once with Dunham and once with Byrne.

Notes

  1. Choosing Claire to replace Hutton was a smart decision by Miller. Claire and Hutton had similar singing styles, which made Claire basically a drop-in replacement for Hutton’s role in the band. ↩︎

  2. Raeburn hired both Claire and Darcy from Dunham’s band as well as several of Dunham’s key sidemen who’d also been released. ↩︎

Music

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  • Two Little Doodle Bugs
    Bobby Byrne (Dorothy Claire), Decca (1939)
  • Busy As a Bee (I'm Buzz, Buzz, Buzzin')
    Bobby Byrne (Dorothy Claire), Decca (1940)
  • Easy Does It
    Bobby Byrne (Dorothy Claire), Decca (1940)
  • Stop Pretending
    Bobby Byrne (Dorothy Claire), Decca (1940)
  • Slow Freight
    Bobby Byrne (Dorothy Claire), Decca (1940)
  • The Air Minded Executive
    Glenn Miller (Dorothy Claire, Tex Beneke), Bluebird (1941)
  • Perfidia
    Glenn Miller (Dorothy Claire, Modernaires), Bluebird (1941)
  • A Little Old Church in England
    Glenn Miller (Ray Eberle, Dorothy Claire, Modernaires), Bluebird (1941)
  • I Found a Million Dollar Baby (In a Five and Ten Cent Store)
    Bobby Byrne (Dorothy Claire, Stuart Wade), Decca (1941)
  • Nighty-Night
    Bobby Byrne (Dorothy Claire), Decca (1941)
  • Who Started Love?
    Boyd Raeburn (Dorothy Claire), V-Disc (1944)
  • Love Makes the World Go Round
    Dorothy Claire, World Wide (1946)
  • Sooner or Later
    Dorothy Claire, World Wide (1946)
  • The Coffee Song
    Dorothy Claire, World Wide (1946)
  • Does Your Heart Beat for Me
    Dorothy Claire, World Wide (1946)

All recordings are from the Internet Archive's 78rpm collection. Copyright owners, please see our removal policy.

Sources

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  64. “N.Y. Latin Quarter Inks Rudy Vallee.” Billboard 11 Dec. 1948: 40.
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