Paper Doll (song)

“Paper Doll” was a hit song for the Mills Brothers. In the United States it held the number-one position on the Billboard singles chart for twelve weeks, from November 6, 1943, to January 22, 1944. The success of the song represented something of a revival for the group, after a few years of declining sales. It is one of the fewer than forty all-time singles to have sold 10 million (or more) physical copies worldwide.

Harry Mills recalled that he and his brother Herbert did not initially like the song, although his brother Donald did. However, he said, “as we went along rehearsing it, we got to feeling it”.

The song has been named one of the Songs of the Century and has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It appeared in the films The Execution of Private Slovik, The Majestic, Hi Good Lookin, and Two Girls and a Sailor and in the British television miniseries The Singing Detective. Four lines of it are sung by Rodolfo in the first act of Arthur Miller’s play A View from the Bridge. It is also referenced in stage directions of the third scene of Tennessee Williams’ play A Streetcar Named Desire. Two Girls and a Sailor presented an unusual situation of Lena Horne’s singing “Paper Doll”, in which the lyrics express a man’s regret that his girlfriend has left him. Gail Lumet Buckley wrote in her book about the Hornes, “Lena … sang ‘Paper Doll’ and ‘hated it’ (‘It’s a ‘boy’s song,’ she complained)

The song was written in 1915 (although it was not published until 1930) by Johnny S. Black,whose greatest success would come with his song “Dardanella”, which sold 5,000,000 copies in a recording by bandleader Ben Selvin in 1920, and a further 2,000,000 copies of sheet music. Black died in 1936, six years before his second greatest success, “Paper Doll”, swept the country.

Black was apparently inspired to write the song after he was jilted by a girlfriend. The author Jack London Riehl wrote that Black was “a pianist, who augmented his income by boxing. His girlfriend ran off with another boxer, and he wrote this song, which began, ‘I’d like to buy a paper doll that I can call my own …’ and ended ‘I’d rather have a paper doll to call my own than have a fickle-minded real live girl.'”