Dolly Dawn, 86; Popular Big-Band Singer in '30, '40s

Times Staff Writer

Dolly Dawn, a popular big-band vocalist and recording star of the 1930s and '40s who was known for her deft touch with rhythm tunes and ballads, has died. She was 86.

Dawn, who performed for a time as Dolly Dawn and Her Dawn Patrol, died of kidney failure Dec. 11 in the Actor's Fund Nursing Home and Assisted Living Care Facility in Englewood, N.J. She had suffered from diabetes in recent years.

As featured vocalist with the George Hall Orchestra, which broadcast live six days a week from the Taft Hotel in New York City over CBS radio in the 1930s, Dawn scored a string of hit records.

They included "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie," "Every Minute of the Hour," "Robins and Roses," "Says My Heart," "My Own" and "Little Yellow Basket."

Replacing Loretta Lee as the band's vocalist in 1935, the ebullient and endearing Dawn was an immediate hit, reportedly inspiring show business columnist Walter Winchell to coin the phrase "singing like a canary."

Dawn's lively rendition of "You're a Sweetheart" became the nation's most popular record in early 1938 and one of her signature tunes.

She periodically had multiple hits at the same time, and made guest appearances on "Your Hit Parade" and the Bob Hope, Edgar Bergen and Milton Berle radio shows.

Dawn also appeared in musical shorts, and she had her name and face on more than 400 pieces of sheet music.

Ella Fitzgerald, who became a lifelong friend, credited Dawn as one of her influences.

"Dolly could swing and also break your heart with a ballad," said Alan Eichler, a talent manager and friend who booked Dawn into the Vine Street Bar & Grill in Hollywood and the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles in 1986.

"There was just a sincerity in everything she did," said Eichler, "and physically, she looked like a dolly. She had bright, carrot-red hair and a cherubic face and wore bright red lipstick."

The daughter of Italian immigrants, Dawn was born Theresa Maria Stabile on Feb. 3, 1916, in Newark, N.J.

She grew up in Montclair, N.J., where her father at one point ran a restaurant.

By the time she was a teenager, she was singing under the name Billie Starr on a local weekend radio show and had won first place in an amateur talent contest in Newark conducted by Hall.

A couple of years later, after learning that Hall's female vocalist was leaving the band, Dawn arranged to audition for the bandleader.

Hall was considering a number of new stage names for his young singer when Harriet Mencken, a columnist for the New York Journal-American, met her.

"Well, you're as dimpled as a dolly, and as fresh as the dawn," Mencken said. "What about Dolly Dawn?"

In the late 1930s, Hall began featuring Dawn with a small group of musicians from the main band, which gave rise to the billing "Dolly Dawn and Her Dawn Patrol."

At the height of her success, Dawn was simultaneously under contact to two rival record labels: RCA's Bluebird label with the George Hall Orchestra, and Vocalion, Columbia's jazz label, as Dolly Dawn and Her Dawn Patrol -- which, Eichler said, "was unheard of."

Before hiring Dawn, Eichler said, the George Hall Orchestra had been a popular yet uninspiring dance band at the Taft Hotel.

"She's the one who gave it its zip," he said.

When Hall decided to stop leading his band and serve just as its manager, he staged an elaborate ceremony at New York's Roseland Ballroom on July 4, 1941, where he officially turned over the band's leadership to Dawn.

"It wasn't just a gimmick," Eichler said. "When she took over the band, she actually learned to conduct."

But in less than a year, as musicians began to be drafted, Dolly Dawn and Her Dawn Patrol disbanded. Dawn pursued a solo career, but it never matched her previous success.

By the early 1950s, her career was in decline. In 1975, spurred by RCA's release of a two-disc collection of her original recordings with the George Hall Orchestra, Dawn experienced a resurgence of popularity in New York City's jazz and cabaret clubs.

In the 1980s, Larry Taylor of the Chelsea Music Society, a musical librarian who had archived her work, organized a series of concerts for Dawn at Caroline's, the Latin Quarter and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The concerts led to two new albums: "Smooth as Silk" and "Memories of You" (Audiophile), in the 1980s.

Of the 1986 "Memories of You," Los Angeles Times jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote: "One of the pleasant surprises of the season is Dawn's reemergence as a first-rate, jazz-influenced singer."

Until recently, Dawn performed occasionally in New York clubs.

In 1998, she was inducted into the Big Band Hall of Fame at a ceremony in West Palm Beach, Fla.

"Aunt Dolly got up and sang a song, 'Exactly Like You,'" recalled Peter Sando, Dawn's nephew. "It was beautiful."

Dawn, who never married, also is survived by her sister, Ida Sando of Spring Lake, N.J.

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