Remembering Doris Day, the last great vocalist of the big band years

Doris Day, one of the most acclaimed singers of the 20th century and an icon of 1950s and ’60s cinema, has died. She was 97.

With her passing, we can officially close the big band years. She was the last of the great musicians and vocalists from that fabulous era of the late 1930s and early ’40s, until she succumbed to pneumonia on Monday in Carmel, Calif.

You can’t entirely blame Hollywood for Doris Day’s girl-next-door image. Les Brown and His Band of Renown, with which Doris sang in the ’40s — most notably from 1944 to 1946 — had a role to play in that image, too. After all, Brown presented a squeaky-clean image himself, and young Day was a perfect accomplice in what legendary jazz critic George Simon referred to as “the ice cream soda band.”

An admirer of Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington, Day began her music career with Brown and landed her first hit with Sentimental Journey in 1945. She went on to record several more Billboard chart-toppers with Brown’s orchestra, and by the 1950s she had become the most popular and one of the highest-paid singers in the United States.

“For combined looks and voice, she has no apparent equal,” Simon wrote in an early review of Day with the Brown orchestra. “She’s pretty and fresh-looking, handles herself with unusual grace and, most important of all, sings with much natural feeling, and in tune.”

Day left the Brown band in 1946 for a screen test in Hollywood, and the rest is history. Her first steps in the film industry were musicals for Warner Brothers such as Romance on the High Seas, I’ll See You in My Dreams, Calamity Jane, Lucky Me and Young at Heart. Day then went on to more dramatic roles in films such as Love Me or Leave Me and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much in the mid-’50s.

But it was the 1959 romantic comedy Pillow Talk that gave Day her breakthrough, and she became the biggest female film star of the 1960s with more hits such as Lover Come BackThat Touch of Mink; Move Over, Darling; The Thrill of It All and Send Me No Flowers.

As USA Today put it in her obituary: “Whether God-given or Clairol-tinted, all Hollywood blondes are not created equal. Take the bombshell blitz of the ’50s and ’60s. Marilyn Monroe was the alpha goddess, while Grace Kelly was the class act. But existing on a more approachable perch was Doris Day. Her brand of beauty came sprinkled with freckles. She was one of us and we loved her for it.”

It is her 39 motion pictures, and the many hit songs she sang in them, for which Doris Day will be most fondly remembered. But it is her career as a singer, first with Bob Crosby’s orchestra, and then with Les Brown, that we will remember on The Big Band Show this coming Sunday night from 5 to 10 pm on JAZZ.FM91.