British singer Lita Roza was at the height of her fame in the early 1950s, and is remembered most for her 1953 chart topper (How much is) that doggie in the window. As the decade progressed, change came – big band singers were out, rock and roll was in. Lita refused to change her style, which meant her recording output diminished. But she returned to the studio in the 1960s to record some great new material.
She was born Lilian Patricia Lita Roza in Liverpool on 14 March 1926. She married an American service man in 1944 and for a time lived in Miami and sang at the Sky Club with the Buddi Satan Trio.
When her marriage broke down, she returned to Britain in 1950 and successfully auditioned for legendary bandleader Ted Heath. Appearing alongside the band’s two male vocalists, Dickie Valentine and Dennis Lotis, the three of them became the pop idols of their day. Lita was voted the top British female singer in the NME polls consecutively 1952-54.
It was suggested that she should record the novelty song (How much is) that doggie in the window, which had been made popular in the States by Patti Page. Lita hated the song and vowed to sing it once and once only for the recording session. Ironically, the disc went to number one in March 1953 – but she kept her word and never sang it again.
In 1954, she left the band and embarked on a solo career – with her sultry exotic looks and slinky stage gowns, she was a class act. But despite quality recordings for the Decca label, including Jimmy unknown (a cover of the Doris Day Stateside hit) and Hey there (from the Pyjama game), she never topped the charts again.
Then a new wave of girl singers – Alma Cogan, Ruby Murray and Joan Regan – took control of the UK pop charts from the female perspective. Lita’s style now seemed dated – popular music had totally changed as the decade had progressed.
In 1958, Lita switched to the Pye label, where she issued eight singles, including It’s a boy, and an album, Me on a carousel.
1960 saw her release her second and final album for Pye, Drinka Lita Roza day – the title being a take on the ‘drinka pinta milk a day’ slogan of the time. The album was recorded live at the Prospect of Whitby pub in Wapping, in London’s East End, and is quite a collector’s item these days – sought after not only by Lita’s followers but jazz fans too.
Then came a period of no releases at all until 1963 when she signed with Jeffrey Kruger’s Ember label and released a very commendable cover of Ruth Brown’s Mama (he treats your daughter mean) backed with (He’s my) dreamboat, a John D Loudermilk composition that Connie Francis had released as a single in the States. The A-side was totally removed from Lita’s usual output, or indeed what she really liked to sing. “It was a row,” she said, on reflection, “Why ever did I record it?”
A 1963 album for the Ember label titled Love songs for night people contained standards such as Misty and Tenderly.
In 1965 she joined EMI’s Columbia label and cut four sides – What am I supposed to do backed with Where do I go from here, and Keep watch over him backed with Stranger things have happened. All four tracks were arranged and conducted by Ivor Raymonde, the man behind many a hit by Dusty Springfield.
The following year she returned to the Decca studio to record a one-off, Johnny soldier (from the Broadway musical Wait a minim!) backed with Could be, which never saw the light of day in the UK, but had an American release on the London label.
Now, with no recording contract, Lita concentrated on radio and TV guest spots, popping up on programmes such as Juke box jury, and performing in cabaret at home and abroad, to pay the bills. She updated her image and included songs in her act such as Goin’ out of my head, Sunny, What a difference a day made, Petula Clark’s Call me and Cilla Black’s It’s for you. These songs would have made up a super follow up to her earlier ‘late night listening’ albums.
The 1980s and 90s saw Lita return to her roots – appearing as star vocalist with the bands of Len Phillips and Ted Heath, which was then fronted by Don Lusher.
Besides being the first British female to have a number one hit, she was also the first singer from Liverpool to enjoy the accolade. In 2001, Lita was invited to open the ‘wall of fame’ in Matthew Street. The wall carries a bronze disc of every Liverpool artiste and group to have reached the coveted top spot on the charts.
The following year, Lita made a conscious decision to make a final appearance at the Empire theatre, where she had first trod the boards in pantomime as a juvenile. Among other songs, she belted out the Beatles hit Can’t buy me love.
A double CD issued shortly before her death on the Acrobat label, called Love songs for night people, brought together her Ember output – with a bonus of two alternate takes of Mama (he treats your daughter mean) and (He’s my) dreamboat alongside a selection of her best recordings with Decca in the 1950s.
Lita Roza died on 14 August 2008, aged 82 years.
With thanks to Mark Willerton for contributing this profile.
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