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border crossings


By David McGee

Doris Day
Collectors’ Choice
Released: 2008

Doris Day’s name may not immediately spring to mind when considering the great pop singers of the 20th Century, especially of the WWII and post-war years, but she ranks with the finest of her time. Her movie career so overshadowed her recording career—and alone among the female artists of her day, she did have full-time recording and acting careers, hers beginning in 1940 before she even thought about becoming an actress—that a few generations have come of age thinking of her mostly as the wholesome lass of silver screen fame. She appeared, after all, in 39 films, and as of 2009 was the top-ranked female box office star of all time and in the top 10 of all box office stars, irrespective of gender. Early on, she was aiming for a career as a dancer, a dream derailed when her legs were severely injured in a car accident in 1937, after which she started taking singing lessons, and at age 17 began performing professionally around her home town of Cincinnati. In 1945, while working with bandleader Les Brown, she had her first hit record, a big one it was, too, in “Sentimental Journey,” now one of the beloved songs in the Great American Songbook, but at that time a sentimental favorite of our men overseas. In 1948, though, fed up with the business and having separated from her second husband, Day was ready to go back home to Cincinnati when her agent persuaded her to join him at a party at the home of composer Jule Styne. We now have Styne and his collaborator Sammy Cahn to thank for one of the truly remarkable recording careers in pop history. When she sang “Embraceable You” at the party, Styne and Cahn recommended her for a role in the film they were working on, Romance On the High Seas, which produced another hit for her in “It’s Magic.” The movie roles came regularly and with them great songs—by 1953 she had notched her fourth chart topping hit in the wonderful “Secret Love,” from Calamity Jane. In 1956, her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much gave her a signature song in “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” which Day reportedly despised but which became her theme, and showed up in two other of her movies, 1960’s Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and as a duet with Arthur Godfrey in 1966’s The Glass Bottom Boat. Her last top 10 hit came in 1958, with “Everybody Loves a Lover,” but she continued recording into 1967, with her final LP being The Love Album, which did not see a commercial release until 1995. In toto, she recorded more than 650 songs; all are not gems, of course, but her voice had personality to burn and a charm that would not be denied. She didn’t do melancholy; hers was an incessantly sunny disposition—feel-good music (before the term was coined) that made you embrace this singer as your friend and confidante, someone who spoke directly to you in the most empathetic and sympathetic tones, thereby bringing you into her confidence.

‘Silver Bells,’ Doris Day, from the December 21, 1970 episode of The Doris Day Show

Only one Doris Day Christmas album exists, from 1964, and its title is as straightforward as her singing: The Doris Day Christmas Album. The folks at Collectors’ Choice, however, have included another nine tracks of Christmas fare, most from non-album singles sides, and so gathered all of Ms. Day's entire Yuletide reports on one CD as Complete Christmas Collection. It’s pretty amazing and pretty much beyond criticism—oh, you can hear her strain for a couple of fleeting moments when she tries to belt out a refrain, but she quickly reins it back in and makes a smooth, seamless transition to the original melody line and to the vocal turf where she thrives. The first dozen cuts on the CD are from the album proper, and feature wonderfully low-key, richly textured orchestral arrangements by Frank Comstock and/or Pete King. Her “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” is a breathtaking balance of subdued, thoughtful singing over a sumptuous, perfectly calibrated string-rich arrangement—one of the best versions ever of this holiday chestnut. Her tender “Snowfall,” with its cascades of strings and muted, heralding horns, achieves an ethereal quality on the strength of Day’s impressionistic musings on the captivating, whimsical nature of snowflakes and the beauty of their appearance—it’s the model for a similarly poetic discourse four years later by Tony Bennett on his classic Snowfall album.

Interestingly, the span of years represented by these recordings happens to chronicle the singer’s maturation as a song stylist. On the earliest cut, a 1946 rendition of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” far heavier on horns than the usual arrangement of this standard, Day staggers her phrasing, singing behind or ahead of the beat at points and sharply clipping the lines at the end of stanzas instead of flowing along with the melody before taking a breath to start another verse; contrast this with the version on her 1964 Christmas album: the vocal is smooth and creamy, she’s stretching out certain passages, adding extra syllables and subtly playing with the tempo. The voice is older, of course, and has a weight absent from the chirpy youth of 18 years earlier, but with that also comes a more reflective, knowing subtext—listen to the clipped, upbeat “though it’s been said/many times, many way/merry Christmastoyou,” as opposed to the later version’s graceful, low-key “merry Christmas…to…you,” with its suggested sighs and cuddling up coziness, as comforting as it is heart tugging.

Doris Day, ‘Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow’/’Winter Wonderland’ from her 1964 Doris Day Christmas Album

Despite her squeaky clean onscreen image, Day had plenty of turmoil in her personal life (four marriages, for starters), and there was a reason Oscar Levant once said he knew her “before she was a virgin.” But whereas her friend and contemporary Frank Sinatra—who admittedly recorded far more Christmas material far longer into his life than did Day—brought his own personal pain and regrets to his later seasonal work, Day leaned towards being either swooningly romantic or playful and frisky; you won’t hear Sinatra’s swagger in her version of “The Christmas Waltz,” but you will hear sincere good tidings with a frisson of flirtiness, a little personal twist, a tinge of romantic possibility in her sunny tone. Almost every song has something in it to grab the attention, whether it be the seductive, deliberate approach to “Toyland,” so full of wonder, or the sincere, spiritually resonant reading of a call for fellowship, tolerance and unity in “Let No Walls Divide,” a 1961 cut off a Christmas album featuring an all-star lineup of Columbia recording stars. Wonderful technique is at work in all of Day’s recordings, but what she wrought in her Christmas material is something beyond technique, something abiding in the exalted realm of the heart, where pure feeling produces the peace that passes all understanding. This is beautiful.

Doris Day’s Complete Christmas Collection is available at

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