Friday, 19 May 2017

Dora's World

What a fascinating, if frustratingly difficult to research, character Dora Hall is. The woman released close on 20 albums and over 100 45s in around 15 years (she seems to have been most active between 1963 and 1978), featured in several TV specials and to all intents and purposes coulda, shoulda, woulda been a big star. But she wasn’t. Despite what middle America may have been spoon-fed to believe the only reason that Dorothy Myrtle Donahoe Hulseman had a career at all is that she married well.

Born in 1900 (or possibly earlier, I’ve seen one review from 1975 that claimed she was in her 80s at that point) she had been hoofing (and singing) from an early age – apparently starting out as part of a song and dance act when she was just 10 years old. Dora then joined the female vocal trio the Harmony Maids (a different act from the 10-piece all woman jazz orchestra of the same name, popular during the 20s & 30s), but retired at the grand old age of 18 when she wed.

Her husband was Leo Hulseman, who worked for the Dixie Cup company. In the 1930s Leo left Dixie and set up his own company, Solo. That paper cone you see people drinking out of at water coolers on TV and in films? That’s a Solo cup. Launching a range of disposable dinnerware, soon Leo and his company – and Dora – were very, very rich. They became richer still when their son Robert came up with the red Solo cup; made from expanded polystyrene this was soon the cup of choice on college campuses, at sports events and even had a hit song written about it. When sales of the red Solo cup were at their height the company was turning over in excess of $1.5 billion a year.

Leo wanted to help Dora realise her dreams of being a star so, after giving him several children and 14 grandchildren, her devoted husband purchased a film production studio and established his own record company – Premore - to help promote her. Hello Faithless, written by established hitmakers Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, was issued in December 1962 and was reviewed in Billboard; they called it a ‘very listenable performance of a catchy novelty effort’. Proving itself a minor hit on local radio, and covered the following year by Rosemary Clooney, the disc was licensed and released in the UK by King Records in 1964.

But real success eluded Dora and Leo. Unperturbed, Leo hit on the idea of giving his wife’s recordings away with Solo products. Soon you could buy paper cups and their plastic holders in gift sets with 45s shrinkwrapped to them. Purchasers of other Solo items were encouraged to collect tokens and send them in for ‘top tune’ discs – the adverts never mentioning Dora by name, but offering instead anonymous recordings in various styles, including pop, kiddie, Christian and country. Dora Hall recordings appeared on labels including Premore, Premere, Calamo, Reinbeau and Cozy, all owned and operated by Solo. It must have been heartbreaking for the kid, having sent off for a hit record to have instead a woman in her 60s warbling I’ve Got You Babe.

In 1966, no doubt inspired by Capitol’s success with Mrs. Miller, Dot Records (home of bad music maven Pat Boone) issued Today’s Great Hits!, featuring Dora covering such standards as Downtown (also covered by Mrs. Miller), These Boots Were Made For Walking (also covered by Mrs. Miller)… you can see where I’m going with this, can’t you? The album, arranged and conducted by H.B. Barnum, was recycled/repackaged on a number of occasions by the various Premore/Reinbeau imprints. Leo was not averse to hiring the best musicians in the business to help his wife: as well as working with Barnum (best known for the Judy Street/Soft Cell 45 What and for David McCallum’s Communication), she also recorded with arranger, producer and Academy Award-winning composer Jack Nitzsche, who worked extensively with the Rolling Stones, Neil Young and the Phil Spector stable. Goodness knows how many top musicians are anonymously hiding away on Dora Hall sessions. Could that really be the Four Seasons singing backing vocals on her Give Me Your Heart For Christmas?

With no hit records coming, but plenty of vinyl being given away, Leo decided to launch Dora on to television. She appeared in a number of TV specials, dancing, singing and attempting comedy with a slew of second- and third-rate actors, singers, dancers and comedians including Frank Sinatra Junior, Stubby Kaye and Rosey ‘The Thing with Two Heads’ Grier. One such special, Once Upon a Tour, reputedly set Leo back a cool $400,000. Hour-long TV special Rose on Broadway aired in March 1978 and co-starred Scatman Crothers, Donald O’Connor and the ubiquitous Frankie Junior, and several other ‘sponsored by Solo’ shows appeared over the years.

The difference between Dora and other similar artists is that Dora could actually sing. When she sings kid-friendly songs such as Tony the Pony she’s actually quite charming. Her failings, if you will, become most apparent when she tries to sing pop songs; her vaudeville-trained voice just isn’t right for contemporary music and it’s here she starts to sound ridiculous. And when Dora did Disco… well! Let’s just say Ethel Merman was safe.

Dora died in 1988; Leo left the world the following year. Her career is testament to his love for her.

Here’s the awful You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You from Dora Hall Sings Disco (issued, incidentally, in exactly the same sleeve – and with exactly the same tracks – as Dora Hall Sings Swing Jazz) and the Jack Nitzsche produced Hoochi-Koochi (also recorded by Nitzsche and Hall with different lyrics as Floozy Little Suzy Brown).

Enjoy!


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