(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.
6 thoughts on “So you wanna be a rock and roll star: Dora Hall, “Did He Call Today, Mama” (1965)”
Mercy, I remember seeing them. A few albums show up in used album shops and second hand stores. Back in my WYGR days in the 70s, we used to get albums from another self-promoter who managed to round up a couple of friends to perform his compositions. Ever bump into any of the albums from William Arpaia? Vocals on one side, marches and polka tunes on the other. http://www.songpoemmusic.com/labels/arpaia/1001.htm
Better info source – http://www.songpoemmusic.com/labels/arpaia/vandalia.htm#1001
In 1965 we got this record inside a box of Quisp cereal. I was 7, loved Did He Call Today, Mama? I can remember a lot of it. I Won’t Give Him Up was faster, but I don’t remember as much of it. Funny to think of a 62 year old woman asking her mama if her lover called. Awesome about Randy Newman!
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“Once Upon A Tour” was not Dora’s only TV special. There were also “Rose On Broadway,” “Dora’s World,” “Imagine That!” (a kiddie-oriented special,) “Cameo Music Hall” and possibly others. They were bartered to local TV stations who could have the show free as long as they aired it with the Solo commercials in it, plus a couple “blank” commercial minutes that could be sold to local used car dealers, furniture stores or whatever. Most if not all of these specials also had a “soundtrack album,” which were of course offered free with Solo Cups; and later you could get the specials themselves on VHS tapes as premiums. Calamo Records was another label used to issue free Dora records.
I have two unopened boxes of those Solo Cozy Cups, along with the holders. They have bounced around my family for years now, most recently finding a home in the RV. One box has an ad for “Dora’s World” presenting Dora Hall. Did some web searching trying to figure out who this is. And I found this. Wow, millionaire’s wife, who is basically a nobody, gets a late in life chance at stardom because hubby has cash to burn. I think it is hillarious. Oh, her version of “Satisfaction” is very odd.
I guess she had been a vaudeville performer or something similar before she married Leo. In a way, it’s kind of a sweet story. It’s not like the guy was trying to turn some silicone bimbo into a star; this was his wife of many years, and she apparently wanted to try show biz again, so what the hell. She got her wish, the customers got free records, and nobody got hurt.