Spectropop remembers

DORIS TROY (1937 - 2004)

Mama Soul

Although she was born in the Bronx, and first came to prominence in the US with her 1963 hit 'Just One Look', Doris Troy, who has died aged 67 of emphysema, earned probably her most loyal following in Britain. Nicknamed Mama Soul by her British fans, she moved to London after enjoying a steady streak of UK success and some noteworthy collaborations with leading British musicians during the mid-1960s. She affirmed her Anglophile leanings by signing with the Beatles' label, Apple, in 1969; a deal instigated by George Harrison.

Troy was born Doris Higginsen, the daughter of a Barbadian Pentecostal minister who had settled in New York. Her parents disapproved of subversive forms like rhythm & blues or rock'n'roll - they also forbade their four children from going to the cinema - so Doris cut her musical teeth by singing in her father's church choir.

At 16, she managed to talk her way into a job as an usherette at Harlem's Apollo theatre, affording her an opportunity to see the foremost stars of black music at close quarters. She formed a three-piece group called the Halos, and began writing her own material, initially under the name of Doris Payne. In 1960, a music publisher paid her $100 for her song 'How About That', and it became a hit for Dee Clark.

Doris embarked on a solo career, though after a couple of singles flopped, she realised she could earn steadier wages as a backing singer for more established artists. She worked with Solomon Burke and the Drifters before she and Gregory Carroll wrote 'Just One Look'. They took their demo tape to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, who instantly offered to release it. The record reached number 10 in the US charts. Atlantic decided to strike while the iron was hot, and released Doris's debut album, 'Just One Look And Other Memorable Selections', in July 1963. She changed her name to Troy, apparently inspired by the Homeric heroine.

But her winning streak quickly burned out, and, with interest in America waning, Troy began to visit Britain more often, where a cover version of 'Just One Look' by The Hollies had helped to raise her profile. In her live shows, she was often backed by the fledgling Elton John (then still known as Reg Dwight) on piano, and 'I'll Do Anything (He Wants Me To Do)' became a northern soul staple.

Once again, it was Troy's talents as a backing singer that opened influential doors. She can be heard on the Rolling Stones' 1969 anthem 'You Can't Always Get What You Want', and enjoyed a prominent solo spot on Pink Floyd's 1973 epic, 'Dark Side Of The Moon'. She appeared on George Harrison's solo hit 'My Sweet Lord', and on Carly Simon's 'You're So Vain', and featured as both writer and singer on Billy Preston's album 'That's The Way God Planned It' for Apple. On her album 'Doris Troy', she was surrounded by an extraordinary galaxy of talent, including Stephen Stills, Peter Frampton, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr, but sales were disappointing.

Troy remained in England until 1974, when she moved, first to Los Angeles and then to Las Vegas, where she found steady employment in nightclubs and casinos. But the most remarkable episode in her career was yet to come. In March 1983, 'Mama, I Want To Sing', a stage musical based on Troy's life, written by her younger sister Vy and her husband Ken Wydro, opened at the Heckscher theatre in Harlem. Hailed as a triumph, it ran for 1,500 performances and spawned several touring versions. From 1984 to 1998, Troy sang the role of her mother, Geraldine, travelling with the show internationally and opening it in London, with Chaka Khan co-starring.

Despite the renewed prominence the show brought her, Troy was far from wealthy in her later years, and was forever grateful for the royalties that continued to trickle in from 'Just One Look'. "When I recorded that song in a little basement studio in New York, I asked God to keep that song alive forever," she reflected. "And you know, he answers prayers".

Adam Sweeting - The Guardian

Doris Higginsen (Doris Troy), singer-songwriter: born January 6, 1937 - died February 16, 2004