I know she wouldn’t want the tears but the tears come. I know she wouldn’t want the sadness but the sadness is there. I know she wouldn’t want anything but a reaffirmation of life, for those who loved her so much and so deeply. And while heaven welcomed her with a huge smile yesterday afternoon, February 16, 2004, my world is just not the same without that always-encouraging, always-loving sound of my friend Doris Troy’s so-distinctive voice.
Music buffs may know Doris as the writer and originator of the classic “Just One Look,” as the ‘voice’ on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side Of The Moon,” as one of the prominent voices on The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and Dusty Springfield’s “In The Middle Of Nowhere” and as the one and only female soul singer signed to The Beatles’ Apple Records label in the late ‘60s but she was so much more to those who were fortunate enough to know her.
I first encountered ‘Mama Soul’ - as she was known among the loyal British fans who followed her career from the very beginning – on one of her first visits to the U.K. in the mid-‘60s. Replete in blond wig, she was on the set of “Ready, Steady, Go!,” the popular British television show produced by Vicki Wickham, awaiting her the opportunity to sing her then-latest London-made recording, “Heartaches.” It was a funny moment: I was there in my capacity as the founder
of the Nina Simone Appreciation Society with Nina herself and her husband-manager Andy Stroud was conversing with Doris. Andy introduced them and Nina was not exactly welcoming and even I, a mere teenager not versed in the intricacies of inter-personal relations could tell that Nina’s ‘coolness’ had just a little to do with a ‘don’t-be-talking-to-my-man!’ attitude that was written all over her face!
Be that as it may, it was my first real encounter with “The Troy” as she was known to many of her earliest British fans. I knew her fan club secretary Enid Buckland-Evers well for Enid and I were a part of that small band of die-hard R&B lovers who had started clubs for our favorite artists – Mike and Ray with Martha & The Vandellas, Bob with Irma Thomas, Chris with Inez & Charlie Foxx, Gloria with Dionne, The Shirelles and the Scepter-Wand crew, me with Nina and of course, our godfather Dave Godin who ran the omnipresent Tamla Motown Appreciation Society. Those were heady days and Dave in particular had developed a strong bond with Doris, whose street smarts (earned through dealing with the sharp-shooters in the ‘60s New York music biz) and wonderfully warm personality made her such a real character and a delight to be around.
Doris and I shared many happy moments during those days in London when she was signed to Apple, hanging out at her Portman Mews pad, talking about all the people she’d worked with and so many of my own musical idols. As I detailed in my 1999 book, “The Soulful Divas,” she was the very first person to hear my musical efforts on tape when I played her my accappella version of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” and she was always encouraging: “Baby, if you wanna sing, don’t let nobody stop you, chile! You can sing…you got a sound!” So many times through the years, she would tell me never to give up on my dreams and when I finally made it across the ocean to become the “Blues & Soul” correspondent in New York, Doris was thrilled. She felt that she had played a role in my decision to pursue music journalism and express my obvious passion for R&B through the written word and many times since those early years in New York, I could hear that downhome voice in my head reminding me that I always had someone in my corner…
There were tough times for both of us: Doris struggling to revive her career in Los Angeles, me sorting through personal relationships that had dysfunction written all over them. More than once, Doris gently berated me for my choices: my L.A. roommate Percy, a musician who had won my heart, was not someone she trusted or felt belonged in my life, let alone in my heart and she tried to tell me as best she could knowing that we each have to learn through our own experiences.
I remember those L.A. days in particular: Doris herself was caught up in her own personal dramas with folks who were hanging on in hopes she might ‘make’ it again career-wise and I was often reminded of the words of her song “Ain’t That Cute,” a tune she had written during her Apple years that revealed her own experiences with show-biz ‘wanna-bes,’ groupies and the like. Sometimes, it was painful to watch Doris go through changes as she dealt with more unsavory music biz folks who would promise her so much and deliver so little…
But through it all, she would somehow find the faith and strength to soldier on, getting a brief respite from relatively obscurity in L.A. with a mid-‘70s record deal with Midland Records. We journeyed to Philadelphia for a session that never quite turned out and finally, in 1979, with me back in the Big Apple, Doris agreed to record a couple of songs with me and my good friend, the late John Simmons (formerly of the group The Reflections and then musical director for Stephanie Mills). We were right there in midtown Manhattan cutting a disco version of “It’s All In The Game” and a Nathan-Simmons composition, “You Got Me Baby” and Doris was a complete treat in the studio, a professional to the core. Try as I might, I was never able to get the finished masters placed on either side of the Atlantic and that was a disappointment for all concerned. Now, with Doris’ passing, it occurs to me that some enterprising record executive – likely in the U.K. – will want to release them as true Troy rarities!
We both would leave New York in the ‘80s – Doris establishing herself as a fixture in Las Vegas, me returning to L.A. to write my first book (on Lionel Richie). After working with Lola Falana for a while, Doris would finally achieve a whole new level of success after her sister, famed New York broadcaster Vy Higginsen (who she had always encouraged and of whom she was so proud) created “Mama I Want To Sing” with husband Ken Wydro. The groundbreaking musical was based on Doris’ own life, her early years in Harlem, her decision to really launch her own career initially against her mother’s wishes and her return as a bonafide star to the church and the folks with whom she had started. Doris would play the role of her own mother, right there in front of mother Geraldine, a salt-of-the-earth sprightly woman who was so proud of her children’s success, many times on the stage with both sister Vy and her brother Randy Higginsen. It was truly a family affair and Doris loved that her own life story was the vehicle and inspiration for the unprecedented run that “Mama I Want To Sing” would enjoy.
Trips to Japan and back to London followed and the interest in Doris’ work led to the reissue of her Apple work on CD in 1992 and a compilation of all her Atlantic recordings which I created for Ichiban Soul Classics in 1994. Doris was tickled that one of her show biz protégés had been responsible for making her music available again and we spent a time on the phone, laughing and marveling at how life had conspired to keep us together through thick and thin, encouraging and supporting each other.
Indeed after her run in the West End with “Mama,” I encouraged Doris to stay in London. No matter where she roamed, she always knew that British audiences would come through for her – and they did. Unfortunately, staying at one particular apartment in London led to the beginning of a lengthy lung problem: unbeknownst to her, she had been breathing noxious fumes in the place and not long after I saw Doris in London and she learned that she would be a 1996 recipient of a R&B Foundation Pioneer Award, she was headed back to the States to live in Vegas in the home she had purchased there.
Over the years, Doris’ health would go through ups and downs. She always kept the faith, no matter what, and when I included her as one of the artists in my 1999 book, “The Soulful Divas,” she was thrilled. Some reviewers and even a few friends and fans wondered why Doris – whose only big hit had been “Just One Look” – deserved a place with the likes of Aretha, Dionne, Diana and Nina. My answer was always simple, “I love Doris, she deserves to be there for her contribution to music…and besides, it’s MY book so I’ll choose who goes in it!”
Occasionally in the last few years, Doris would have her own concerns – paying the mortgage, paying the bills – but somehow, time after time, “Just One Look” would always come through, used as a commercial by Pepsi for a major ad campaign, featured on some classic soul compilation somewhere in the world. “You know, baby, when I recorded that song in that little basement studio in New York (at 1650 Broadway), I asked God to keep that song alive forever. And you know, He answers prayers,” Doris always reminded when a nice check would arrive, “cause something’s happened with “Just One Look” every year since.” An ordained minister and a woman of immense faith, she beamed, “You know, God is a good God!”
When I finally fulfilled one of my own dreams by making my first CD in 2003, Doris – by this time, in and out of hospital – was just over the moon. She couldn’t stop raving about it and telling me how happy she was that I had given life to one of my heart’s long-held desires. I reminded her that she had been the very first person to really encourage me when I played her that oh-so-rough tape of “A Change Is Gonna Come” back in 1969. She chucked as she often did: “Well, baby, you’ve come a long way! That’s my chil,’ David Nathan. You betta sing, chil’!” We talked about me doing “Just One Look” on a future CD as a blues…and one day, I’m gonna have to do just that…
Until then, quoting two of Doris’ longtime New York friends Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson, writers of “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” I’ve got some memories to look back on. Seeing Doris onstage at The Rainbow Theatre in London, sitting in her living room in that same city in the presence of her good buddy and my first musical love, Dionne Warwick, creeping into her New York apartment after a night on the town when she twinkled, “you been out poppin’ your fingers, child?” Backstage at the Fox Theater in Atlanta when “Mama I Want To Sing” was making it big in the early ‘90s, sitting in her kitchen in Las Vegas playing the card game Uno while we roared as we watched “Judge Maybelline” on television! So many memories, so many laughs and still there’s the music, the wonderful songs Doris recorded for Atlantic like “Please Little Angel” and “He Don’t Belong To Me” and the Northern soul classic, “I’ll Do Anything (He Wants Me To Do),” the perky “Face Up To The Truth” for Capitol, “Stretching Out” for the old British B&C label and of course, “Ain’t That Cute.” And of course, “Just One Look,” with its loping ska beat, a three-track demo that transformed Doris Higginsen aka Doris Payne (her grandmother’s name) into Doris Troy, a woman with a smile as big as her heart. My own world may be a little emptier but Heaven is indeed happier today as an Angel returns home…
Love always, darling Doris, love always!
David Nathan, February 17, 2004
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.