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RIP Donna Fuller, thrilling jazz-pop contralto, 85: What a voice, and what a life!

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85-year old jazz and pop contralto Donna Fuller died Tuesday. She performed in Playboy Jazz clubs, toured with Christine Jorgensen, was A-list adjacent, and made two really good albums you should listen to.

UPDATE 4/20/2017: We knew it was coming, but it’s still hard. Donna Fuller, the cool contralto we profiled in March, died Tuesday at the age of 85 at her home in the Valley. But Donna did it her way, literally. She was quite ill, but hospice allowed her to stay in her home. And she passed as she was listening to a playlist her grandson made for her. What song was playing at 5:01pm, when she finally let go? Of course, it was “My Way.” Donna is survived by her grandson Cody Hickox, her daughter Heather Hickox, and her son-in-law Dave Bernstein, who were all there at the end. Also there were the cards and letters Off-Ramp listeners sent her. Those kind words meant more to her than she (and we) could say.

Editor's note: Time and illness are catching up with singer Donna Fuller, and she's now in hospice. If you remember her performances or are a new fan, and want to send a card or a letter, we'll make sure she gets it. Mail it to Off-Ramp, KPCC, 474 South Raymond Ave, Pasadena CA  91105-2629, and write "For Donna Fuller" on the envelope.

"How do I describe myself? 85 and still glad to be kicking. And, until just recently, still singing." -- Donna Fuller to Off-Ramp host John Rabe

Imagine you're a young singer from the Midwest, recording your first record in LA. The driver pulls you up to a building in Hollywood and that's when you realize ... your first studio album is being cut at Capitol Records!

Stuff like this was always happening to Donna Fuller, and while the payoff was never stardom, the story of this remarkable woman - now 85 and in failing health - tells the story of a certain era in Los Angeles.

After touring the country with her sultry contralto and landing a recording contract with Liberty Records, the former former U.S.O. girl and Playboy jazz club singer was recording next door to Nancy Sinatra, glamming up for parties at the Playboy Mansion, and brushing shoulders with celebrities from the golden era of pop and jazz.

Donna Fuller's debut album, "My Foolish Heart," recorded at Capitol Records, 1957
Liberty Records
Donna Fuller's debut album, "My Foolish Heart," recorded at Capitol Records, 1957

Donna was artistically courted by record producer and arranger Don Costa, known for his work with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Barbra Streisand. Remembering the scene at Capitol Records, she still pictures him pulling the musicians together.

I think the first album had 32 musicians. Everyone starts tuning up ... it's exciting when you start hearing it. Don's in the booth, everybody else is in the booth. You've got friends rolling around out there that you can see through the glass. Then they tap, and Don says 'Go for one!'

Donna's first album was recorded in 12 hours. That's 12 songs in 12 hours.  "You don't do that anymore, "she says. "I mean they spend a year getting one song. Privileged, privileged."

A small town girl from Cambridge, Kansas, her mother first spotted her talent as she danced and sang around the house. But her first professional recognition came when she was 13, after she performed at a block party: "I got a call after that. It was from a Mrs. Edith West Elba and she wanted to teach me how to sing. So I went and took opera lessons for years. Then started working in clubs, and nightclubs. And they just didn't quite go together."

Donna says she knew exactly when she began wanting to sing jazz, "When I started getting paid for it!"And her critique for modern singers? Turn up the drama. She says, "I can't sing a song like a stick. It's not in me. I think nowadays, they don't know what they are saying. They are saying words but they don't know what they mean. Like Sinatra, Sinatra can sing a song and you know what the hell he's singing about."

Pioneering transsexual Christine Jorgensen in 1954
Maurice Seymour/Wikipedia Commons
Pioneering transsexual Christine Jorgensen in 1954

She also traveled the country with a true pioneer, and it started with a phone call: "It was to be the singer, comedian, MC forChristine Jorgensen." Jorgensen was one of the first American transsexuals, and she crafted a career as a performer, even doing a Marlene Dietrich impression. "I met Christine in San Francisco and we traveled up to Oregon and went through her act." After the shows, Donna says Jorgensen would sometimes be jealous. The men would want to be romantic with Donna, but with Christine, "they were interested in her story."

In 1957 Donna recorded her first album, "My Foolish Heart." "People around town had heard me sing," she says, "and Joe Green, who was a writer, pianist, nice guy, took me to Liberty Records and Liberty Records took me to Pete [Rugolo]... he was with Stan Kenton for a long time. He was dating Anne Bancroft at that time... well before Mel [Brooks]. She was at my recording!"

Billboard magazine's April 27th, 1957 edition reviewed "My Foolish Heart:"

Thrush's disk debut is a good one. Her delivery - in the bluesy-torchy vein - comes across as well-suited to the small chic-type club. Choice of material was excellent and obviously tailored to the voice. "Mister Blue" and "Dusky January" are good cases in point. Demonstrate the better known "My Foolish Heart." A striking album cover effectively catches the spirit of the album.

 In response to that review, Donna says, "Yeah, you should have seen some of those 'chic-type' clubs..." But the album didn't sell. Looking back, she says, "You always hope. You can't expect anything in this business really."

Donna Fuller's second album, from 1964
DCP Records
Donna Fuller's second album, from 1964

Her second album "Who is Donna Fuller?" was recorded with DCP Records in 1964. If you flip the album over and read the spiel on the back, you'll find:

Who is Donna Fuller? She is svelte and sexy. She sort of slinks around the floor like a lean, hungry lynx. She can caress a ballad in a throaty-sultry style and belt out a tune with dynamic vibrancy. She is Donna Fuller, a sophisticated package of sheer talent. What are Donna Fuller's hobbies? In her spare time she likes to paint and sketch. She is a poodle-fancier and shoots a mean game of billiards.

Is any of this true? She says she did play a little pool. And as for art, Donna laughs. "You know I always thought I was so lousy at it. But I enjoyed it. I never looked at anything and thought 'Wait until a museum sees this!'"

An ad featuring Donna's version of hit song "I Will Wait for You" from the movie, "The Umbrellas of Cherboug"
Rosalie Atkinson
An ad featuring Donna's version of hit song "I Will Wait for You" from the movie, "The Umbrellas of Cherboug"

Throughout her career, lots of writers and producers brought music to her but she wouldn't sing just any tune. "It has to say something to you. It has to touch you in some way. Someone can sing one song, and it means one thing. Someone else can sing it, and it's an entirely different song. You pick up a song and look at it and say I either 'love it' or 'I can't stand it.'"

After her recording career, Donna was a longtime member of the Hollywood Presbyterian Choir. Her studio albums are rare finds nowadays, sometimes bringing hundreds of dollars. Off-Ramp intern Rosalie Atkinson got lucky with this one.

At 85 and quite ill, Donna Fuller is spending what time remains to her with her family in the Valley.

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