If like me you’re an assiduous reader of the indexes of reference works and biographies concerning gospel, soul and pop music in the 1960s the name of Doris Troy will certainly be familiar as she features in the histories of some of the most famous and successful acts of the era.
And, I do mean famous and successful for Doris a gifted songwriter and singer in her own right worked as a backup vocalist with; The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Dusty Springfield, George Harrison, Carly Simon, The Drifters, Solomon Burke and Chuck Jackson and that’s by no means an exhaustive list.
Consciously or not you will have listened to Doris’ rich and vibrant tones as the radio played such classics as ‘My Sweet Lord’, ‘You’re So Vain’, ‘In The Middle of Nowhere’, ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ or ‘Tell Him I’m Not Home’ all of which were all the better for her contributions.
The latter song, one of the powerhouse singer Chuck Jackson’s finest, shows the uncredited Doris making a major contribution to a considerable hit through the clarity and charm of her answer/commentary vocal.
As an excellent recent music documentary directed by Morgan Neville, ‘Twenty Feet From Stardom’ has shown there is an enormous wealth of talent and fascinating life stories to be discovered within the ranks of the backup singers who ensure that the spotlit stars’ vocals are carefully framed and supported to emphasise their strengths and minimise their weaknesses.
Doris, along with colleagues such as sisters Dionne and Dee Warwick and Cissie Houston (mother of Whitney) in America and Madeline Bell in Britain used their grounding in the disciplines of singing in gospel choirs to know when to swell the sound and when to lay back to feature the lead vocalist to best effect.
From a record producers point of view such talents are invaluable as their versatility, modesty and ability to work accurately and quickly in the studio saved time and money and left the studio crew free to concentrate (if necessary) on encouraging or handhiolding the sometimes fractious stars whose names would grace the resultant record and hopefully the charts.
Doris was the New York city born child of a Baptist preacher who loved to sing from her toddling days. Though her family wanted her to use her obvious talents solely in the service of the church Doris could not help but to also want to sing the kind of rhythm and blues and soul songs she heard on the radio as she grew up in the 1940s and 1950s.
Moreover, when Doris was only 16 she got a job as an usherette at the high temple of black music in New York, the Apollo Theatre, where luminaries like Ray Charles and James Brown gave masterclasses in singing and the art of winning and holding an audience.
Doris was an avid listener and a quick learner. Soon she was singing with a jazz tinged group, ‘The Halos’ and trying out her hand as a songwriter. In 1960 Dee Clark provided Doris with her first vinyl credit and top 40 hit when he sang the breezy,’ How About That’ on the Vee Jay label.
Hooking up with the Warwicks and Cissy Houston she became a regular in the New York recording studios working with the cream of the instrumental and vocal talents of the time. She helped to create the sophisticated yet passionate sound mixing the gospel and soul traditions with added latino and broadway seasonings which distinguished early 60s records created in the Big Apple.
All the while Doris was writing her own songs seeking to find her own artistic voice and bag a hit of her own. In 1963 she gloriously achieved this ambition when she wrote and recorded the song most people will always associate with her, ‘Just One Look’.
Doris had taken the song demo (produced by Halo colleague Gregory Carroll) to Atlantic Records where the ever canny Jerry Wexler immediately issued the demo unaltered recognising a sure fire hit when he heard one! The song was a top 10 hit in America and a top 40 hit in the UK (the springy beat group cover by The Hollies made it to the dizzying heights of Number 2).
‘Just One Look’ is one of those soul/pop songs that just fizzes with life. Doris’ vocal and the ebullient production are irresistible to these ears. Doris deliriously summons up the the fast heart beating, head swirling, I want to shout it from the rooftops! sensation of having fallen irrevocably in love. That’s a story that can never grow old and Doris’ song will always tell a lovely truth reminding us anew of the joys of life and love.
Doris was especially beloved by the fanatical supporters of soul music in the UK – a group which in the mid to late 1960s often seemed to take on the devout dedication of a religious fraternity obsessively seeking out icons and relics of their faith in the form of black vinyl 7 inch 45rpm records. Enough of these devotees bought another of her self-penned songs, ‘What’ cha Gonna Do About It’ for it to scrape into the top 40 in 1964.
Here, in under two minutes, Doris gives a virtuoso display of pop soul singing sliding through her vocal gears as she cajoles, castigates and charms her surprisingly reluctant lover. Surely no one could resist such an appeal! I also love the rare use of the legal term, ‘Double Jepoardy’ in the lyric.
Doris found London of the swinging sixties very much to her taste finding a well informed musical community which fully appreciated the depth of her talent and her easy charm and affability.
Musicians and producers simply loved working with a woman who made performing and recording a delight. She was one of those people who took a genuine interest in the people she came across whether they were superstars or the studio janitor.
She was admiringly referred to as Mama Soul and soon became a fixture in the London clubs and recording studios. She struck up a particularly close friendship with Madeline Bell and together they sang soulfully on many of the great 60s hits of Britain’s finest ever female vocalist, Dusty Springfield.
They collaborated with Dusty to sublime effect on, ‘In The Middle Of Nowhere’ and, ‘Little By Little’. Together they produced records that were every bit as soulful as anything coming out of Motown in the same era (something freely acknowledged by Detroit’s finest when they toured Britain).
The final recording of Doris I’ve chosen to showcase here is a particular favourite the wonderfully swinging, stinging and bluesy, ‘He’s Qualified’ from 1967 on Capitol which goes some way to prove the old record collectors adage that it’s on the ‘B’ side of singles that some of the finest 60s gems are to be found.
As the 60s drew to a close Doris found herself in the improbable position of occupying an office in the headquarters of the Beatles Record Company and counter cultural fairground, Apple Records.
The Fab Four had always been afficianados of the vocal stylings of black pop and soul singers and like everyone else they were won over by the Doris’ generous and caring personality.
George Harrison produced an LP on Apple by Doris and recruited a veritable who’s who of musical movers and shakers including Eric Clapton to play on the album. To my mind the result shows too many head chefs overwhelming the songs but the record still repays a listen – especially the songs co-written with another secret hero of the 60s Klaus Voorman.
Actually Doris was involved in one great record during her period at Apple: Billy Preston’s magisterial, ‘That’s The Way God Planned It’ which for Billy and Doris must have brought back wonderful memories of their gospel roots. I defy anyone not to get out of their chair and testify along to this one!
Doris’ continued to record and perform in the 70s and 80s though now largely limited to an audience of appreciative long time fans. Her life and career took another extraordinary turn in the mid 1980s when her sister Vy and brother in law Ken Whydro wrote a musical based on Doris’ life titled, ‘Mama I Want To Sing’.
The show was a celebrated long running triumph for its composers and for Doris who took on the role of her own mother for over a decade raising the roof of theatres all over the globe.
Doris died on February 16 2004. The affection she was held in within the music world was demonstrated by the reminiscences offered by Dionne Warwick, Valerie Simpson and Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun at her funeral.
I Imagine there cannot have been a dry eye in the church when her companion in the chorus on so many great records, Cissy Houston summed up Doris’ soul and character by singing, ‘If I Can Help Somebody’.
Back in the early 1940s a young girl declared what she wanted to do with her god given gifts – ‘Mama I Want To Sing’. I think we can safely say that Doris Troy kept her promise to herself and did her Mama proud.
Note: The best starting point to appreciate the treasures in Doris’ career is the Kent Records compilation, ”The Doris Troy Anthology 1960 – 1996′.