Patti Page, the apple-cheeked, honey-voiced alto whose sentimental, soothing, sometimes silly hits like “Tennessee Waltz,” “Old Cape Cod” and “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” made her one of the most successful pop singers of the 1950s, died on Tuesday in Encinitas, Calif. She was 85.
Her death was confirmed by Seacrest Village Retirement Communities, where she lived.
Ms. Page had briefly been a singer with Benny Goodman when she emerged at the end of the big band era, just after World War II, into a cultural atmosphere in which pop music was not expected to be challenging. Critics assailed her style as plastic, placid, bland and antiseptic, but those opinions were not shared by millions of record buyers. As Jon Pareles wrote in The New York Times in 1997, “For her fans, beauty and comfort were one and the same.”
“Doggie in the Window,” a perky 1952 novelty number written by Bob Merrill and Ingrid Reuterskiöld, featured repeated barking sounds and could claim no more sophisticated a lyric than “I must take a trip to California.” It is often cited as an example of what was wrong with pop music in the early ’50s, a perceived weakness that opened the door for rock ’n’ roll. But if that is true, and if the silky voice of “the singing rage, Miss Patti Page,” as she was introduced during her heyday, was mechanical or sterile, she had significant achievements nonetheless.
“Tennessee Waltz,” from 1951, sold 10 million copies and is largely considered the first true crossover hit; it spending months on the pop, country and rhythm-and-blues charts.
Ms. Page was believed to be the first recording artist to overdub herself, long before technology made that method common. Mitch Miller, a producer for Mercury Records at the time, had her do it first on “Confess,” in 1948, when there were no backup singers because of a strike.
The height of her career predated the Grammy Awards, which were created in 1959, but she finally won her first and only Grammy in 1999 for “Live at Carnegie Hall,” a recording of a 1997 concert celebrating her 50th anniversary as a performer. Her career was also the basis of recent, short-lived Off Broadway musical, “Flipside: The Patti Page Story.” In the early days of television Ms. Page was the host of several short-lived network series, including “Music Hall” (1952), a 15-minute CBS show that followed the evening news two nights a week, and “The Big Record,” which ran one season, 1957-58, on the same network. “The Patti Page Show” was an NBC summer fill-in series in 1956.
Ms. Page defended her demure, unpretentious style as appropriate for its time. “It was right after the war,” she told The Baton Rouge Advocate in 2002, “and people were waiting to just settle down and take a deep breath and relax.”
She was born Clara Ann Fowler on Nov. 8, 1927, in Claremore, Okla., a small town near Tulsa that was also the birthplace of Will Rogers. She was one of 11 children of a railroad laborer.
Having shown talent as an artist, Clara took a job in the art department of the Tulsa radio station KTUL, but an executive there had heard her sing and soon asked her to take over a short country-music show called “Meet Patti Page” (Time magazine called it “a hillbilly affair”), sponsored by Page Milk. She adopted the fictional character’s name and kept it.
The newly named Ms. Page broke away from her radio career to tour with Jimmy Joy’s band and was shortly signed by Mercury Records. She had her first hit record, “With My Eyes Wide Open, I’m Dreaming,” in 1950. Other notable recordings were “Cross Over the Bridge,” “Mockin’ Bird Hill,” “Allegheny Moon” and her last hit, “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” which she recorded as the theme for the Bette Davis movie of the same name. It was nominated for an Oscar, and Ms. Page sang it on the 1965 Academy Awards telecast.
Ms. Page briefly pursued a movie career in her early ‘30s, playing an evangelical singer alongside Burt Lancaster and Jean Simmons in “Elmer Gantry” (1960), David Janssen’s love interest in the comic-strip-inspired “Dondi” (1961) and a suburban wife in the comedy “Boys’ Night Out” (1962), with Kim Novak and James Garner. She made her acting debut in 1957 on an episode of “The United States Steel Hour.”
In later decades her star faded, but she continued to sing professionally throughout her 70s. Early in the 21st century, she was doing an average of 40 to 50 concerts a year. In 2002 and 2003, she released an album of children’s songs, a new “best of” collection and a Christmas album.
Ms. Page married Charles O’Curran, a Hollywood choreographer, in 1956. They divorced in 1972. In 1990 she married Jerry Filiciotto, a retired aerospace engineer, with whom she founded a New Hampshire company marketing maple syrup products. He died in 2009. Survivors include her son, Danny O’Curran; her daughter, Kathleen Ginn; and a number of grandchildren.
Ms. Page’s nice-girl image endured. In 1988, when she was 60, she told The Times: “I’m sure there are a lot of things I should have done differently. But I don’t think I’ve stepped on anyone along the way. If I have, I didn’t mean to.”