Doris was born into a stern religious family and was
sequestered about as far away from R&B as she could be, but her
experience in the Pentacostal church choir helped
mold her musical style for the rest of her life. Somehow, she must have convinced her
parents to let her work at the Apollo Theatre, because that’s where
she was performing usherette duties when she was discovered by James
Doris broke out of her religious vacuum and sang jazz
in the ‘50s with The Halos and was somewhat of a rarity at the
time: A singer who wrote her
own songs. Dee Clark recorded
“How About That” in 1960, and it peaked at #33 in the States,
her first taste of chart success.
Three years later, she would register her first hit as
a singer-songwriter with “Just One Look”, which cracked the top
ten and was soon thereafter recorded by The Hollies, who took it to #2 in
the U.K. Her follow-up single,
“Whatcha Gonna Do
About It”, reached #37 in the States and #38 in the U.K.
This dent in the U.K. chart inspired Doris to make the
great egress to London, where she was signed by Apple Records and recorded
her eponymous debut with support from the likes of Eric Clapton, George
Harrison, Billy Preston, Leon Russell, Ringo
Starr, and Stephen Stills. Doris
eventually returned to the U.S., doing a turn in Vegas with Lola Falana.
Her career got a boost in the early ‘80s when
her sister Vy wrote a musical based on
Doris’s life entitled Mama, I
Want To Sing!. The show
debuted in 1981 and became an international success. Doris herself appeared in the London
production, playing her own “Mama”, and sharing the stage with
Chaka Khan and Deniece Williams. There were 1,500 performances in
Harlem’s Heckscher Theatre alone.
In 1996, Doris was honoured
with the Pioneer Rhythm & Blues Award, and was joined on stage by Patti
Austin, Darlene Love and Mavis Staples for a live performance of
“Just One Look”.
Doris returned to the stage in 1999 with “Gospel
Is…!” which was performed at Harlem’s Williams Lafayette
Institute for the Arts.
She passed away on 16th February 2004, in
Las Vegas, from emphysema. A
film version of Mama, I Want To Sing!
was released in April 2008.