Never mind that Debbie Reynolds’ run of actual Billboard hits in the late ‘50s was a short one. Even without making many records outside of her movie career, she still stood out as one of the 20th century’s preeminent songbirds, thanks to a happy overlap of her filmmaking youth with the last days of the golden age of movie musicals. Even as that era waned, producers were still looking to find a way to sneak a tune or two into Reynolds’ non-musicals. As fine as her strictly dramatic chops turned out to be in her post-ingénue years, there was a turbo boost of joy that came only when she opened her mouth in song to reassure us that it was morning in America.
Reynolds had plenty of standout musical moments in her breakthrough film, 1952’s Singin’ the Rain — heck, she should’ve, given that her character’s entire purpose is to represent vocal purity in an age of image (speaking of themes that never go away). But if there is a standout among standouts, it’s “Good Morning,” the song where, at 19, she managed to outshine all-time song-and-dance men Gene Kelley and Donald O’Connor. They all sing, but it’s her dulcet part of the paean to the pre-dawn that stuck in your head. Her voice was the very personification of “wide-eyed and bushy-tailed” in a tune that millions of parents have since sung their kids awake with… even though the song was really kind of the “Rock and Roll All Nite” of its day with the message of "it's great to stay up late."
It was a different actress who sang “Cockeyed Optimist” in the movies, but that was Reynolds’ role as a leading lady in musicals. She shared that territory to some degree with Doris Day and Shirley Jones, but they were arguably more recessive in comparison to the feistiness that Reynolds increasingly brought to her musical roles. To look and listen again to her singing “I Ain’t Down Yet” at the outset of The Unsinkable Molly Brown is to experience the same gene that links that character with her daughter’s Princess Leia.
The movie songs she left us with run the gamut of life experience from the cradle (“Lullaby in Blue,” from Bundle of Joy) to the grave (“Mother Earth and Father Time,” from Charlotte’s Web)… with a nice stop along the way for the teen infatuation of “Tammy,” her biggest Billboard hit. Here’s a look back at 10 of Reynolds’ most memorable moments in song:
“Aba Daba Honeymoon” (1951)
Most of the world may not have heard of her till Singin’ in the Rain came out shortly later, but Reynolds actually had a Billboard chart smash in ’51 with this duet with Carleton Carpenter, her co-star in Two Weeks With Love. It reached No. 3 on the Best-Selling Pop Singles ranking. Describing love in the simian kingdom, the song’s appeal lies mainly in the ineffable adorability of Reynolds repeating the phrase “Abba dabba dabba dabba” (eat your heart out, Fred Flintstone).
“Good Morning” (1952)
Unlike “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” this movie song was not released as a single… as most of her songs would not be, with rock n' roll about to render movie-musical songs moot on the charts. No matter: It was a hit in any format. Despite having almost no dancing experience prior to being put through her arduous paces for this number, Reynolds managed to look like she’d been tapping as long as the two greatest dancers in movie history -- while making staying up all night with a couple of older men seem like the most wholesome thing ever.
“Where Did You Learn to Dance” (1953)
The movie I Love Melvin quickly reunited her with Singin’ co-star Donald O’Connor, with some musical numbers that don’t deserve to be relegated to mere afterthought status. This ecstatic showstopper proves she was as good gliding around and across a coffee table as over a couch in the previous movie… and that “Where Did You Learn to Sing” would have been just as apt a song title.
“Lullaby in Blue” (1956)
Ironic value trumps all in this number from Bundle of Joy, as Reynolds sings to both a baby and would-be beau Eddie Fisher… while, in real life, married to Eddie and pregnant with Carrie. At the end of the number, after Fisher has begged off a possible date to leave for a meeting, Reynolds foreshadows her own problems with Fisher by telling the infant, “He wouldn’t stay for coffee and I’m just a little bit upset/I wonder if the board of directors is a blonde, redhead, or brunette.”
The song is far more remembered than the movie from which it sprang, Tammy and the Bachelor. It topped Billboard’s primary chart at the time, the Top 100, for five weeks. The film was not a musical, but that didn’t stop the producers from framing a scene in which Reynolds sits at her bedroom window, singing about her teen crush to the sound of a full orchestra. The success of the single led to an oddball LP by Reynolds, Tammy and 11 Other Great Folk Hits, featuring such non-smash album cuts as “The Frozen Logger” and “I Had a Mule.”
“A Very Special Love” (1958)
For a very brief period, Reynolds recorded a handful of non-soundtrack singles, in a vein that straddled easy listening and the countrypolitan sound that was au currant in country at the time (although they never charted in that format). This one hit No. 20 on the Most Played by Jockeys chart, followed by “Am I That Easy to Forget” and “City Lights,” which reached No. 25 and 55, respectively, on the Hot 100, both in 1960.
“Home in the Meadow” (1962)
When does a sprawling Western become a musical? For the length of time that Reynolds is in it. She had several period-sounding songs in the Cinemascope epic How the West Was Won, including this adaptation of “Greensleeves” that she performs on stage in a riverboat music hall. Hearing strains of the song come through the walls as he plays poker in an adjacent room, Gregory Peck becomes entranced and says “I’m checking out,” and what card shark could blame him?
“Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” (1963)
Reynolds would never score any points for how comically she mimed her piano playing in this number from The Unsinkable Molly Brown, but this raucous performance as a nightclub entertainer — and other irrepressibly brassy anthems from the Broadway show — helped unshackle her from the strictly-innocent image that may have kept Doris Day and Shirley Jones in more of a box.
Movie musicals were all but over by this point, and decades away from rediscovery. But Reynolds could still sing on screen by playing a singer — in this case, a fictionalized version of Sister Ann, who’d had a big hit three years earlier with “Dominique,” as commemorated in the film named after her nom de plume, The Singing Nun. A soundtrack of folk-mass songs credited to Reynolds charted at No. 23 on the Billboard 200.
“Mother Earth and Father Time” (1972)
By the early ‘70s, movie musicals really were almost strictly the province of animation. Reynolds took on the title vocal role in the original movie version of Charlotte’s Web, singing several numbers by Disney’s favorite songwriter sons, the Sherman brothers, in this non-Disney project. “Chin Up” and “Deep in the Dark (Charlotte’s Lullaby)” are well remembered by ‘70s kids, but the one that has the most resonance in the wake of Reynolds’ death is the ballad that has the philosophical spider finding the up side in the bittersweet circle of life: “How very special are we/For just a moment to be/Part of life’s eternal rhyme.”