Donna Loren was born in Boston – of all places. The vocalist and actress who would become synonymous with sunshine was born Donna Zukor in Massachusetts at the start of springtime in 1947. Donna’s mother, Ruth, remarried a man who adopted Donna. This man was Morey Zukor (Zukovsky) who was an animator who worked with Walter Lantz (Woody Woodpecker) and on the films Gulliver’s Travels (1939) and Shinbone Alley (1970). From the age of six, Donna sang at talent shows and began to appear on the radio doing commercials and performing on the Squeakin’ Deacon radio show with guitar player James Burton. She also appeared on The Mickey Mouse Club (see it here) and recorded a few small singles that attracted little notice. Interestingly, at 13 she acted in an episode of television’s Playhouse 90 titled In the Presence of Mine Enemies that starred Robert Redford as a Nazi. Click here for a clip.
Donna attended Venice High School in West LA. Venice High always makes me think of Myrna Loy. The Queen of Hollywood attended the school and while still a student there, she posed for the statue – called Spiritual – that still stands in the courtyard of the school. While Donna was still a student there, in 1963, when she was 16, she was hired by Dr. Pepper to promote their soft drink – the tastiest pop in history. More than knocking out a few commercials, Loren became the “Dr. Pepper Girl” and her fresh young face became synonymous with the brand on a national level. For the next five years, Donna would appear across the country in print ads and on billboards, on radio and television, she would sing at and co-host – often with Dick Clark – events sponsored by the brand including the 1964 World’s Fair and as part of Clark’s musical touring packages. Loren herself says that for years she appeared to cut ribbons at plant openings across the country.
By 1964, Donna was 17 and had released several singles. Loren’s voice and her records stood out from other fare of the day. When compared to the work of Lesley Gore, for example, Loren’s work was much more mature and she often sang on topics that some would have said were decidedly out of her realm of experience. But – again, unlike Gore – Donna’s voice had a resonance and a deeper tone. When she hits some notes in a lower register you can hear a rich throb and this sound suggested a sophistication and a knowledge that must have been captivating for young people to hear.
In that same year, she became aligned with American-International Pictures. Dr. Pepper may have been involved with Muscle Beach Party (1964) first as a sponsor and eventually Donna was shoehorned in to sing a duet with Dick Dale. The two sing “Muscle Bustle” while the kids dance and pose down, much to the chagrin of Don Rickles and his bodybuilders who are watching from next door. She next appeared in Bikini Beach from the same year singing the energetic “Love’s a Secret Weapon”. Apparently, Donna’s father stayed close by while these movies were filming, perhaps mostly to keep his teen-aged daughter safe from any unwanted advances although reports suggest that the atmosphere during filming of AIP’s beach films was somewhat chaste.
Still in 1964, Pajama Party included Donna as Vikki and for the first and only time she had a few spoken lines to deliver. She sings another rocker, “Among the Young”, on the beach surrounded by guys dressed only in trunks. You’ll notice Donna herself is always dressed demurely. She didn’t go in for the exhibitionism of bikinis and her bosses at Dr. Pepper also wanted her to keep a clean image. For this number, Donna is backed in the film by the Nooney Rickett 4, a group I talked about in my review of Winter a-Go-Go.
Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) is often referred to as the best of the beach party films and, in fact, Donna sings one of the very best songs offered in these films. “It Only Hurts When I Cry” has an undeniable charm and that certain something that elevates it above all the ballads offered in the beach party movies; its only rival is “Promise Me Anything”, heard in Beach Party. Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner wrote many songs for the beach party films and “It Only Hurts When I Cry” (along with “Promise”; they wrote both) is their best. Donna’s next film for AIP would be her last. The disappointing Sergeant Deadhead did not prove to be the beginning of the “military comedy” genre for American-International. On the small screen, she famously kissed Burt Ward on one of her two episodes of Batman in 1966 and the next year she played a princess set to marry Davy Jones in an episode of The Monkees. It was also during this time that she was a featured performer on Shindig, a show on which she always sang live to pre-recorded music. She stayed with the show for its entire run. For a great clip of her tackling “Goldfinger” on Shindig, click here.
As a vocalist, Donna credits serious, full-throated singers like Mahalia Jackson and Eydie Gormé as influences. In 1964, she hooked up with venerable Capitol Records and she made many excellent pop records with the Wrecking Crew and others, the finest musicians in the business; Earl Palmer, Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Ray Pohlman, Al Viola, Billy Strange and Leon Russell among them. She put in excellent vocal performances but she was involved not one bit with any other aspect of recording. Her father was ever-present and told her – quite literally – that “all you have to do is sing”. Not only her dad but there was also always a “handler” from Dr. Pepper on hand and Donna was under many obligations to the soft drink company including what she could eat, wear and how she should look.
However, she certainly doesn’t sound encumbered when she sings and her resonant voice shines through on many of her numbers. Her only long-player was Beach Blanket Bingo, released on Capitol in 1965 but there is an excellent compilation out there that includes this LP and adds all of her significant singles. These Are the Good Times: The Complete Capitol Recordings contains early singles that display her status as a teenager (“Just a Little Girl”) and also her experienced woman persona (“Woman in Love [With You]”). It traces many highs, like the title track, another great song from Styner/Hemric that Frankie Avalon sang well in Beach Blanket Bingo but also contains some clunkers like “So, Do the Zonk” and “I am My Ideal”. Her takes on the songs from the beach party movies are excellent.
After recording a couple of sides for Reprise Records in 1968, she left the business to raise a family. Donna was 21 when she married record producer Lenny Waronker, the son of Simon Waronker, the co-founder of Liberty Records. Together, they had three children, including musicians Anna and Joey. She raised her children and stayed out of the spotlight until the 1980’s when her marriage to Waronker ended and she again ventured into the recording studio.
This time, Donna was in complete control of her music. She started her own record label and wrote and produced her recordings with the help of old friends Jimmy Bowen and James Burton. Of interest to Elvis fans, she also worked with TCB Band members Ronnie Tutt (drums), Jerry Scheff (bass) and Glenn Hardin (piano) in addition to Burton. The music may have been satisfying to Loren but did not light the charts on fire.
During another break from music, she married Jered Cargman, a man she had known in the 1960’s and who had in fact been her prom date. The two moved to Hawaii and Donna started her own clothing business. Donna had designed her own clothes since she was a teenager and now she created her own collection of designs that she sold in boutiques called ADASA Hawaii in locations on Oahu and in Waimea.
Since 2009, Donna has been active with recordings and appearances on the convention and autograph circuit where she performs with other survivors of the Sixties. She currently has an active website – donnaloren.com – and she has self-produced music for her own label and for her YouTube channel. I have to admit, I chuckled a bit when I perused her new releases, her albums, her EPs, her Christmas music and her re-recordings of her old songs but I took pause. I’ve decided it’s great that Donna Loren is making full use of the technology available to her in this era to continue cultivating her love of making music. She’s taking the opportunities she has to be in control, to record music and release it and to perform it live. If she can, why shouldn’t she?
Perhaps what I like best about Donna Loren is her purity. And I don’t just mean her wholesome presentation but I can also appreciate the fact that she was not rabid to achieve and maintain success. She sang because she could and she enjoyed it. When it was time to be a wife and mother, she left it all behind. When she wanted to pursue her love of fashion, she began designing clothes and opening shops. Then, when it was time to sing again, she did. Why wasn’t she more popular in the 1960’s? Hard to say. Some singers have not only the voice but the apparatus in place to achieve success. Donna certainly had the voice but I wonder if being affiliated with American-International and drive-in movies may have hurt her credibility. Maybe she was seen as a shill for Dr. Pepper who just happened to also sing. Whatever it was, it’s a shame that she didn’t scale the heights. But I get the feeling Donna is not bothered by this. And for us fans, her lack of superstardom makes her seem more like ours. The Dr. Pepper girl belongs to us, the few.
Fascinating as usual. You make an interesting point about superstardom, and lack of. And all the factors that may inhibit or enable. Is it as much about management and timing as about talent? Or a lucky combination of everything…
Thanks, George. Must be a combination. Some artists enjoy success and you can’t figure out why! Others, like Donna, just don’t seem to break through. Thanks for your comment.