Monday, December 23, 2002

Dolly Dawn, 86, Big Band Singer

By DOUGLAS MARTIN/The New York Times

Dolly Dawn, a big-band vocalist whose honey-sweet voice each noon, six days a week, bounced invitingly across America in the late 1930's and early 40's, died last Wednesday at a nursing home in Englewood, N.J. She was 86.

Her death was announced this week by her family.

She was one of the first vocalists to become the sole focus of a band, at a time when bands and musicians were still the main draw. Ella Fitzgerald called Miss Dawn an influence on her own singing. Joe Franklin, the New York radio and television personality, said in an interview that when Walter Winchell coined the term "canary" for female singers, he was referring to her.

She sang first with George Hall and His Orchestra, and then with a group carved out of the band called "Dolly Dawn and Her Dawn Patrol." Later, she played clubs, dance halls and street fairs, among other engagements, all over the United States.

But Miss Dawn dropped out of the limelight and became known mainly to the cult following that saw her in scattered club appearances in the 1970's and 80's, and responded to the release of a two-disk album of her records with George Hall on the RCA Bluebird label in 1976.

There was another revival of interest in her after Sony's reissue of some of her hits, most recently a collection called "You're a Sweetheart" in 2001. Paper dolls of her are sold on eBay.

She received almost no royalties for her reissued recordings, obtained only minimal Social Security and suffered in recent years from diabetes and kidney failure, Peter Sando, her nephew, said. She had lived in a transient hotel in Manhattan before being given an apartment and other assistance by the Actors' Fund, also in Manhattan. She moved to the Actors' Fund Nursing Home and Assisted Living Care Facility in Englewood earlier this year.

Theresa Maria Stabile was born on Feb. 3, 1916, in Newark and grew up in Montclair, N.J. Both her parents were Italian immigrants and her father ran a restaurant, among other jobs. Her cousin was the bandleader Dick Stabile. At 14, she won an amateur contest that Hall held in Newark. He shook her hand, but had forgotten her a year or two later when she showed up at the Taft Hotel in Manhattan, where his band regularly played. With the regular female vocalist about to leave, Ms. Dawn auditioned and got the job. She was known at the time as Billie Starr. Mr. Hall and Harriet Mencken, a writer on The New York Journal-American, came up with Dolly Dawn.

"She's as fresh as the dawn and as dimpled as a doll," the newspaperwoman said, according to an article in Radio Guide in 1937. Miss Dawn never stopped hating the name, which she thought made her sound like a stripper.

After six months of musical training, she began singing with Hall's band in July 1935, which every day but Sunday was broadcast nationally on CBS radio from the Taft Hotel at noon. The show's tagline: "Dance With Romance." Her relationship with Hall and his wife was so close that they formally adopted her when she was 19. In a ceremony on July 4, 1941, he turned his band over to her and became her manager.

She returned the loyalty. Tommy Dorsey asked her to sing with his band, but she turned him down, said Ronald Knoth, a social worker who helped her during her later years.

A popular part of the band's performance had become her appearing with just seven musicians in a group she named Dawn Patrol, after a newspaper column Ed Sullivan wrote called "Along the Dawn Patrol." Sullivan, a friend, gave her permission.

Ms. Dawn never married, saying that her music was her husband and children. She is survived by her sister, Ida Sando, of Spring Lake, N.J.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times

Gayle P. De Poli