Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cuttin' Capers by Doris Day

I'd like to devote this post to one song that's been rattling around my head lately: "Cuttin' Capers" by Doris Day. It's the title track from a 1959 album by her, and I think it's worthy of study in terms of what made Doris Day such a great singer.

First of all, to cut a caper means to "leap or frisk about" or to frolic. (I'm sure most people could figure this out by looking at the image on the album's cover and thinking about the lyrics, but I like to confirm.)

Now this notion of cutting capers seems peculiar to Doris. A decade earlier she recorded "Canadian Capers (Cuttin' Capers)", a nifty number in which she name-checks different band leaders as she skates through the lyrics, with a vocal group called The Sportsmen backing her up. A very playful number that encapsulates the optimism that is so central to her persona.

In 1959 Doris Day was at the height of her fame as a film actress. Her album sales were flagging, however. Her last best-seller was 1956's Day by Day. Apparently she and her managers had miscalculated on the follow-up Day by Night: according to the all music site the "chaste approach (on this album) may have been out of step with for the album market of the late '50s." So Doris decided to steer clear of the dreamy ballads and go up-tempo with Cuttin'Capers.

Apparently this album didn't hit the mark commercially- perhaps a continuing signal that Doris Day's brand of wholesomeness was out of step with the zeitgeist - but I find it tremendously appealing and filled with confident and creative singing.

Before I deconstruct the performance, let me give you some background on the song "Cuttin' Capers". The lyrics were composed by Joe Lubin, who had a year earlier written "Teacher's Pet" for the Doris Day/Clark Gable movie film of the same name. Lubin also worked with Little Richard on "Tutti Frutti". The music was by a man named Adam Ross (also known as Irving Roth). He had just written "That Jane from Maine" for a movie by the same name starring Doris, Jack Lemon, and Ernie Kovacs .

So we're not talking Rodgers & Hart here. These two men were basically given the charge: "We need a theme song for this album. Make it light and uptempo. Be sure it says 'You are in for some fun!'"

I think they succeeded brilliantly. Before we head to the recording, though, let's consider the conductor, Frank De Vol. His style is unmistakable if you have recordings with classic pop singers from the 1950s. De Vol's signature was to throw in an instrument that pops out from the strings and adds a touch of whimsy to the mood of the song. This style definitely feels dated and gimmicky- much more than Billy May's, another busy uptempo conductor from the time. (His horns were grounded in Dixieland.)

So on November 29, 1958 Doris Day records "Cuttin' Capers" with De Vol, one of four numbers she put in the can with him that day. It will be the track that establishes the theme, and she starts robustly.
(Click here to listen to the song as you follow my discussion.)

Hey, look at me! (high horn trill)
Can't you see? (lower trill)
I'm in love, I'm in love, I'm in love! (Declarations are run together)

(This is shouted out, separated from the next phrase; a variation of what just preceded it and a clever way of vocally saying "Wake up! Listen! I'm daft!")
Look at me!
I'm cuttin' capers
I'm on a spree, see (I suspect she added the "see". She slides into it like a horn. Sweet!)
I'm cuttin' capers

I'll do that town
the way that a clown does
gonna laugh, gonna sing, gonna have a wonderful fling (slight pause after each phrase)

So here I go
I'm cuttin' capers
On with that show, oh
I'm cuttin' capers

I felt this way 
the moment you kissed me
I'm in love
 (repeated 5 times!--slows down slightly with last one, making a lilting and playful sound for the initial consonant in "love")

Doris then returns to the top. When she arrives at the "I'm in love" again, it's time to put a bow on it and bring the proceedings to a snappy ending. Here's how she does it.

I'm in love
I'm in love
I'm in love
I'm in love (These are delivered rapidly. Then she vamps.)
I'm in love (Emphasis on first word.)
So in love
(Pause. De Vol comes in with a filigree.)
I'm in love! 

It's an infectious 2 minutes and 41 minutes, well-plotted by the singer and the conductor. Sometimes I just listen and surrender to the song's happiness. Other times I get analytical and listen for patterns and repetitions, or think about how much of it was improvised that day in the studio and how much was planned in advance.

Whatever the case may be, it just illustrates why Doris Day is such a classic stylist. Recently Terry Gross scored an interview with Doris on the occasion of her 88th birthday. How wonderful to hear her voice again! Terry Gross opens by complimenting her singing, and her response is delightful. Check it out - you'll learn a lot about her!

1 comment:

MIKEY'55 THS said...

Michael DeVita is the author of a brand new book about Doris Day that chronicles her life, especially her music, from the beginning to the very end. "My 'Secret Love' Affair With Doris Day", now available at Check the reviews and get your copy now!
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