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Beyond the Stage: Doris Duke, Jazz Musician

Doris Duke (1912-1993) was a tobacco heiress, generous philanthropist, savvy businesswoman, discerning collector, visionary preservationist—and amateur musician.

She was a private woman who stayed away from the scrutiny of the spotlight, so it can be difficult to get a look at the woman behind the fortune and the name. This season’s special exhibition at Rough Point, Beyond Fortune: The Life & Legacy of Doris Duke attempts to do just that.

Although Doris did not leave many scrapbooks, letters, or a diary, she did leave a record of her passions and interests through the causes she supported, photographs, and the objects with which she surrounded herself.

Doris Duke was passionate about jazz both as a supporter of musicians and as a musician herself.

She was friends with some of jazz’s greats—including Teddy Wilson (1912-1986), Kitty White (1923-2009), Duke Ellington (1899-1974), and Anita O’Day (1919-2006).

Doris was also dedicated to developing her musical talents. She reportedly practiced daily and took lessons to hone her craft. In the 1950s and 1960s, for example, Doris took piano lessons in New York City from musician Hall Overton (1920-1972).

One of the longest-lasting and significant relationships she had was centered on music. Doris met Joseph “Joey” Armand Castro (1927-2009) in Hawaii in 1951 when she saw him perform with his band, 3 Bees and a Queen. As he recounted, she asked him for private piano lessons and their relationship developed from there.

When Doris purchased Falcon Lair, the former Los Angeles estate of dashing actor Rudolph Valentino (1895-1926), she designed a “playhouse” within the home to have a practice and performance space. After years of preparation, she and Joey Castro launched Clover Records in 1964. The label (along with their relationship) ended in 1966 after only a few projects. Although the relationship ended acrimoniously, there are reports that Doris reached out to Joey before her death.

Although she did not formally become a member of a band, Doris often performed incognito. Besides singing with gospel choirs, Doris also joined Joey Castro’s band on stage and played the piano.

For example, between late 1953 and early 1954, Doris Duke toured Europe with an ensemble including saxophonist Phil Benson, drummer Chick Moncayo, Paul Castro on Bass, and Joey Castro on vibraphone. Doris wore a black wig as a disguise and played piano under the stage name “Dolly Strayhorn.”

While the sound of Doris’s public performances will have to be left up to the imagination (there are no known recordings or photographs of “Dolly Strayhorn”), there do exist recordings of Doris practicing songs and performing with friends. Today, you can hear recordings of Doris Duke playing piano and singing popular 20th-century songs in the Pine Room at Rough Point Museum.


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