“I’m basically a live performer,” Dinah Shore says of her first television series, a 15-minute program that was broadcast live twice a week in 1951.
At that time America’s favorite female singer, Shore instinctively understood that her personality was ideally suited to the new medium’s informality and immediacy.
“The big screen was a studied practice,” Shore says of the Hollywood musicals she made in the 1940s. “The little screen was spontaneous, and I love to sing live. The hardest thing in the world for me was to put a song on a record and then not try to correct anything I was unhappy with when it got into the stores. I fell in love with the idea of a live television audience and the excitement of that moment.”
Born Frances Rose Shore and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, Shore visited local blues and jazz clubs when she was as young as 14.
“Most people were singing country songs,” Shore remembers, “but I sang different. I phrased different. Intuitively, I just phrased so that the lyric was important. I breathed in the logical places, but I would elide into another spot if it didn’t disturb the lyric. I didn’t examine it. That was just the way it felt best to me. And most of what I sang had a beat.”
Shore began her professional singing career on radio in Nashville. “We had a microphone set up on the railroad tracks,” she says, “and I would sing until the Dixie Flyer came through. I don’t think I ever got through a song before I would say, ‘So it’s right on time, folks!’”
During her summer vacation in 1939, Shore auditioned with five other singers for a spot on Martin Block’s popular New York radio program with an Ethel Waters arrangement of the song “Dinah.”
“Martin came out of the control room and said, ‘Dinah,’” Shore recalls, “and it was me! I never corrected him. I became Dinah from that day on, and it’s so much better than Fanny Rose.”
Shore was soon recommended to Eddie Cantor for his NBC radio program, Time to Smile, and for the next four years was a featured vocalist on his program.
Beverly Sills, who says she cannot recall a time when she and Shore have not been friends, says, “There is a uniqueness to Dinah’s voice. Unlike a great many popular singers, Dinah has style. Also, the initial timbre of her voice is easy to identify. When you put on the radio, you knew immediately it was Dinah. And that’s very important in establishing oneself in the business. Her voice is an absolute reflection of her personality. It has a very smiley sound. It’s warm and sexy and full of life.”
During World War II, Shore became famous for her USO overseas tours, and by the late 1940s she had become the most popular female singer in the country.
In 1951, Chevrolet began sponsorship of Shore’s new 15-minute TV show, which ran until 1957. Her spirited rendition of the show’s theme song, “See the USA in your Chevrolet,” created a unique audience association between artist and sponsor. Shore’s trademark became a sign-off good-bye kiss.
“On the first show we were running long,” Shore remembers, “and I thought I would get off by blowing a kiss. I blew kisses from the time I was a child. The one on the first show was probably a very juicy one, but it was a natural thing. You see people do that now. I don’t own that. Ours was a very close, family oriented show. My kids would come down to the studio after nursery school and wander in front of the camera. It didn’t matter.
“Then, [in 1956] Chevrolet wanted me to go into hour shows. I said I would do them if I could keep the 15-minute show because I was scared to death that maybe people wouldn’t like the hour show.”
That year, Shore appeared in a number of Sunday-night specials and in 1957 she began a five-year run in The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, a variety show broadcast in NBC’s new “Living Color.”
“The variety show was much more elaborate [than the 15-minute show] and in color. It was a showcase for what NBC could do with new color TV. They could dress up the sets much more beautifully for me than they could for Steve Allen or Perry Como because a woman can always have a prettier set than a man. My clothes were also glamorous. Whatever we worked on was just exquisite. It was the best.
“I became the first woman to do a big variety show, and I was shameless. I would do comedy and dance routines, but basically I was a singer. I didn’t have any fears about the things I would do.”
Shore won nine Emmys, a Peabody Award and numerous other honors.
Between 1961 and 1965, Shore hosted 23 one-hour specials, and for the next five years guest-starred on several shows, including The Jack Benny Program, The Ed Sullivan Show and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In. She also began to appear regularly on talk shows.
“I had done Mike [Douglas]’s show and Merv [Griffin]’s show, and I thought, “Hey, that might be fun.” I really enjoyed it. There weren’t so many talk shows then. It was kinda fun.”
From 1970 to 1974, NBC’s weekday-morning lineup included Dinah's Place. “It was a ‘do’ show,” Shore recalls of the half-hour series.
“I love to cook, and we did some cooking demos. Guests would talk and then do something that you didn’t expect them to do or demonstrate their hobby. We would also get somebody on who could sew or garden.”
Art Buchwald, a longtime friend of Shore and a guest on several of her shows, says, “Dinah has the skill and ability to make all the men she knows fall in love with her. She has that quality that makes people automatically like her. And she’s nonthreatening, so women like her as much as men.”
Noting that Shore’s career has evolved over four decades as singer, talk-show hostess and driving force behind the annual Nabisco Dinah Shore Ladies Professional Golf Association tournament in Palm Springs, Buchwald says, “The magic of Dinah is how long she’s survived as a personality. Today, she’s as well known as she was 40 years ago. She has created a lot of different worlds for herself. She was a singer, and a very good one. Then, as time went on, she became a talk-show host. And now she is the only lady I know who has a golf tournament named after her.
Another thing that makes Dinah so sought after is that she’s always writing a cookbook. That means her friends are always experimenting with the great food she cooks, and it is truly a free meal. The bottom line is that she loves people. And everybody likes her because she’s a really nice person.”
In 1974, Shore created a 90-minute, syndicated daily show called Dinah! which was produced for six years. Shore currently hosts a series of specials on the Nashville Network called A Conversation with Dinah, which she originated in 1989.
“I always worked very hard on my interview shows,” Shore says. “I never interviewed anybody who wrote a book without reading the book. I never talked about anybody’s movie that I hadn’t seen. But doing a talk show is not that hard if you listen. I really enjoyed those conversations and made lifelong friends.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Dinah Shore's induction in 1992.