(Above: Gift with purchase.)
A few years ago music fans were subjected to Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” a song that, while not fantastic, also wasn’t as purely terrible as people claimed that it was. (I mean, the poor girl got threats over it. What’s wrong with people?) What we learned from the process of “Friday” becoming a minor hit, though, was that in 2011 ANYONE could become a pop star IF you were willing to hire a producer to make a record for you. The “vanity record” became something of derision, and in some cases rightfully so. (If you are not familiar with Alison Gold, might I recommend “Chinese Food,” which is a terrible song with a terrible video.) Record producer Patrice Wilson was willing to make a video for anyone who paid him, as long as they allowed his rap talent in the middle of their song. (He’s the much older guy who appears inexplicably in the video for “Friday,” and plays the creepy panda in “Chinese Food.”) Vanity records were seen as a modern media scourge.
Except, of course, they weren’t a new thing at all.
In 1962 then 62-year-old Dora Hall wanted to be a rock and roll star. Actually, she wanted to be a singer well before that, claiming to have been a cabaret singer in the 1920s. Where everything clicked for her was when she married a guy named Leo Hulseman, who in 1936 started a company that manufactured drinking cups called the Solo Cup. (You may be familiar with the red ones.) Hulseman became a millionaire many times over selling the cups (and those flimsy plastic-holders that made it look like you were holding a coffee cup that were the staple of “fancy” family parties of my youth.) Hulseman decided to use his fortune to try and make his wife’s dream come true.
He went to considerable expense. He launched three different record labels – Premore, Reinbeau, and Cozy – to release his wife’s songs. He included offers for getting them free in packages of cups as giveaways in the hopes that the songs would catch on. It almost worked: one of her releases on Premere (the original spelling of Premore), “Hello Faithless,” made #39 on the WLS Survey and got a brief mention on the WJJD survey as well. (I’m not surprised you don’t remember it.)
Undaunted, Hulseman kept trying to make Dora a star. She kept going into his studio and making records that the public didn’t want. It’s not that her singing was necessarily bad, it was just – well – odd. Hearing someone’s grandmother singing “Satisfaction” didn’t have the same appeal as the Stones version. It’s important to note that these productions had to be REALLY expensive – the musicality, the background singers, the quality of the recording – these were top-notch attempts at making hits, even if the vocals didn’t quite rise to the same level.
So, with the music not moving the public’s meter, Hulseman tried television. (Remember – this guy’s got a TON of cash.) He produced a pilot for a variety show called “Once Upon a Tour,” which the networks all passed on airing. (Some independent stations may have gotten this thing.) There were low-level stars on the show – all paid by Hulseman to stand there and go along with it.
In total Dora Hall released some 59 different records (if you count the various combinations of A-sides and B-sides being switched around across all three labels). Her fan club supposedly boasted over 41,000 members in the 1960s. (I don’t know if people were joining it for the same reason that they were seeking out performances by Florence Foster Jenkins, but it’s possible.)
There’s a lot about Dora’s career that I didn’t cover. Larry Waldbillig at the History’s Dumpster site did a piece on her back in 2012 which is a great read. Dora Hall passed away in 1988 in relative obscurity, despite every effort on the part of her and her husband to rectify that situation.
So why did I pick this particular Dora song? I own a copy. Tucked deep into that original box of 45s that I inherited from my parents was one of these “buy cups, get record” songs. I think I listened to it once as a kid, said “meh,” threw it back in the box with the kiddie records, and that was that. I should have paid closer attention. “Did He Call Today, Mama” was actually written by a young Randy Newman, who you know for many other film compositions (and, of course, “Short People.”) The B-side of the Premore release, which I have, is called “I Won’t Give Him Up” and it’s actually not horrible. (I can’t find the full version anywhere, so I may have to upload it.)
See for yourself. You can hear “Did He Call Today, Mama” by clicking here. No, you don’t get any cups.