Calamity Jane was a 1954 motion picture starring Doris Day and Howard Keel. The film score was composed by the very successful team of Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster. It received an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Doris Day also recorded the best-selling rendition of the song, and peaked at #1 on both the Billboard and Cash Box charts in 1954. Originally released on Columbia Records, it stayed at #1 for the month of March.
A country/western cover version of the song was released almost immediately by Slim Whitman. It rocketed up the country charts, also hitting the top spot in most US markets. As good as Whitman’s version was, no cover could possibly match the original in this case. Day managed to vocalize longing, heartache and lost love and somehow blend it with a trademark “Doris Day naivete.” Her vocal still grabs the listener.
Add to Day’s vocal an orchestral arrangement that is simply second to none. The interplay of a rich, full sound doing counterpoint with a staccato bridge is, in a word, perfect. The crescendo and key change late in the song is also stunning, setting a standard for movie themes that would not be matched until Andy Williams’ version of “Moon River” some eight years later. Simply put, Doris Day’s performance of “Secret Love” paints a vivid, dramatic story in the listener’s mind. It is one of the greatest pop recordings of all time; it’s hard to imagine how successful the song would’ve become if it hadn’t been so closely associated with such a goofy movie visual.
“Secret Love” got an interesting and unexpected second life on the country charts in the mid 1970s when the quirky cajun/tex-mex/country star Freddy Fender took a turn with it. Fender’s performance doesn’t rival Day’s in terms of its importance to the history of pop music, but it is excellent in its own right. Fender’s poignant, sincere vocal and unique stylings worked very well with the tune. Rather than compete with Day’s version, Fender’s recording simply adds to the song’s resume. It went to number one on the country charts in 1975, and climbed into the top 20 on the Billboard pop charts.