Just One Look
It would be easy to think of Doris Troy as the singer who had one great song, "Just One Look," and then dropped out of sight...except that's far from the truth. Looking further, she had another hit as a songwriter and yet another as an unnamed guest vocalist; later she was associated with the two most popular and accomplished rock groups of all time. Her incredible hit from the summer of 1963 was simply the most obvious component, a calling card of sorts that opened other doors as time went by in a career that ran on solid footing for more than 30 years and is still celebrated on the stage years after her 2004 passing.
The daughter of a minister, Doris Higginsen grew up in the Bronx and was bitten by the performing bug around 1953 when, at age 16, she worked as an usher at Harlem's Apollo Theater, seeing some of the era's greatest rhythm and blues stars up close. Later in the decade, Doris was in The Gospelaires with singing sisters Dee Dee and Dionne Warwick, performing at the Apollo where she had worked in the aisles just a few years earlier. She was the sole woman in a four-member jazz vocal group called The Halos while composing songs as Doris Payne (using her grandmother's last name); she and Frank Augustus came up with "How About That," a late '59 hit for Dee Clark. Technically possessing a contralto singing voice, her first recorded single for Everest Records, "I Want to Be Loved (But Only By You)," revealed a youthful sound, though her lower register is nonetheless evident. This pop tune was followed by a much more soulful effort, "Foolish Decision" with Doc Bagby's orchestra on the Shirley label. Both records appeared in 1960 under the Doris Payne name.
She joined Baltimore native Gregory Carroll, who'd started his career with The Four Buddies ("I Will Wait" was the group's big R&B hit in 1951) and made solo records in 1960 for the Okeh and Epic labels. The two recorded as Jay and Dee (Gregory, his real first name John, was "Jay" and Doris was "Dee") on "What a Night, Night, Night" for Arliss Records in 1961. Opting for a more steady paycheck as a background vocalist, Doris sang behind many N.Y.-based artists including some of Atlantic's best, among them The Drifters and Solomon Burke. While doing some sessions for Scepter/Wand Records, she contributed the spoken line (which also happens to be the title) of "Tell Him I'm Not Home," an early 1963 hit for Chuck Jackson, but wasn't credited for it.
Payne's demonstration recording of "Just One Look" came soon afterwards in the hopes this latest song, which she'd cowritten with Carroll, would be picked up by an established singer. Taking it to Jerry Wexler at Atlantic, she found he had another idea: release it as-is! She changed her name one more time, going with Doris Troy (after Helen of Troy from Greek mythology) while continuing to use Payne for songwriting credits. The single hit the pop top ten in July and had a ten-week run in the R&B top ten. The next two singles showed promise: "Tomorrow is Another Day," backed with "What'cha Gonna Do About It" (another Payne-Carroll song), was followed in early '64 by "Please Little Angel" (penned by Gregory, Doris, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson), but nothing rose higher than Billboard "Bubbling Under" territory.
In England, "What'cha Gonna Do About It" was the song that caught on. "Just One Look" became a huge hit in the early months of 1964, but it wasn't her version that made it, rather a cover by The Hollies that reached number two in March. "Hurry" was the fourth and final Atlantic single, after which she made a trip to the U.K., appeared on an April 1965 installment of Ready Steady Go! (and again in February '66 on a return trip) and did some studio singing behind Dusty Springfield. Returning to the States, she made "I'll Do Anything" in mid-'66 with the up-and-coming producing team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, yet fate frowned on this infectious effort (because a song can't catch on if very few people hear it!). A one-off for Capitol, "Face Up to the Truth" (writer credit this time to Troy, not Payne), appeared late the following year and was similarly ignored.
For Doris, it became an issue of going where she felt more appreciated, so it was off to England in 1969, where she landed a gig singing on The Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want" for the band's album Let it Bleed (Jersey girl Madeline Bell, who'd also worked with Dusty, was on the track as well). She was signed to The Beatles' recently-founded Apple label and worked extensively with George Harrison (who admitted being a big fan of Doris); the two wrote "Ain't That Cute" on the fly and her self-titled Apple album featured an all-star studio lineup (Ringo, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston and others). Then she helped out on George's chart-topping All Things Must Pass LP. She remained in England through the mid-'70s, performing gospel and pop music, eventually gaining a nickname among British fans: "Mama Soul."
Upon returning to the U.S., Doris was booked in Las Vegas and made an appearance as a piano player in the 1975 film That's the Way of the World. There were a couple of singles for the Midsong International label (one of them a 1976 cover of The Eagles' "Lyin' Eyes"). By the early 1980s, the timing seemed right to present the story of her life...as an off-Broadway musical! Her sister, Vy Higginsen, and Vy's husband, Ken Wydro, wrote the script for Mama, I Want to Sing!, which featured a number of pop and gospel songs associated with Doris. She starred in the original production (playing the role of her mother) that opened in March 1983 in a small Harlem theater and has been performed in various stage productions ever since. So, come on...did the world really get "Just One Look" at Doris Troy? Hardly!