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july/august 2007

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By Marc Leepson
Does the name “Ding-a-Ling” ring a bell? It should, if you were just a casual viewer of the Dean Martin TV variety show in the early seventies. The Ding-a-Lings were four gorgeous, talented young women plucked by the show’s producer in 1970 from the ranks of Dean’s Golddiggers—the dancing, singing troupe of women who clustered around their appreciative host—to serve as hipper, younger versions of their singing sisters on the show.

“The producer Greg Garrison took four of us out of the Golddiggers and made us the Ding-a-Ling Sisters,” said Michelle DellaFave, one of the original fab four. “He soon dropped the ‘sisters,’” fellow original Ding-a-Ling Wanda Bailey added. “He wanted to have a group that could do more funky music than the Golddiggers,” added Susie McIver, who also was there from the start. “The Golddiggers sang mostly regular pop. We did songs like ‘Proud Mary,’ kind of more funky, wild stuff, with the hope of appealing to the younger generation.”

DellaFave, Bailey, and McIver will make a special appearance getting together—for the first time in nearly 37 years, in fact—at VVA’s National Convention in Springfield, Illinois, in July. They will perform one of their old numbers at the Saturday night Awards Banquet and earlier in the day will take part (with Nancy Sinatra) in the autograph session, signing copies of photos taken when they were part of the 1970-71 Bob Hope USO Christmas tour that included many stops in Vietnam.

“We are thrilled and honored that VVA remembers us and has asked us to come to Convention,” DellaFave said. “We were happy to do something back then for our country. We will be in Springfield to thank all of the Vietnam veterans who served. We’re very excited and honored.”

What’s in a Name?

Nineteen seventy was a part of another era—how else to explain the name that producer Greg Garrison chose for the group? “He thought the name would be catchy because it would be something people would remember,” DellaFave said. “We did a lot of skits on the show and we were— or at least I was—very dingy.” We “were young and crazy and dingy,” McIver added.

Not long after the group formed, Bob Hope chose the Ding-a-Lings to take part in his annual Christmas tour entertaining the troops overseas. The tour was a grueling, around-the-world excursion that began in England, and then went to West Germany, Crete, Thailand, South Vietnam, South Korea, and Alaska. “It was the hardest working experience you could imagine,” Bailey said. “We went from the icy cold of Korea to the jungles of Vietnam. We made hard landings on aircraft carriers. We had little or no sleep. But it was also the most rewarding experience you can possibly imagine.”

As for the Vietnam segment of the trip, Hope had decreed back in 1968 that it was too dangerous for his entertainers to spend nights in country. So the troupe—which that year also included the Golddiggers, Ursula Andress, Lola Falana, Miss World Jennifer Hosten, baseball star Johnny Bench and, of course, Les Brown and his Band of Renown—flew in and out of the country every day on Chinooks and C-130s from their base in Thailand.

They experienced more than a few rough times on those in-country excursions. “Every time we landed, it was like, ‘Are we going to make it?’” Bailey said. “We never knew where we were going until we got there. We did three bases a day and didn’t find out where we were till after we hit the ground.”

The Ding-a-Lings played before thousands at some venues in Vietnam and they played before much, much smaller groups of GIs. “We once did a show off the balcony of a PX,” DellaFave remembered. “We did them off the backs of Jeeps and the backs of buses.” Wherever “we were and saw a group of guys, we would do a show,” McIver added. The entire troupe would end each show, big or small, with a version of “Silent Night” that never failed to reduce them to tears. They also visited field and evac hospitals to pay their respects to the wounded.

“Those were very powerful moments,” Bailey said. “But I wouldn’t trade that experience for a million dollars.” Added DellaFave: “Everyone who performed with Bob Hope would say the same thing, that it was the highlight of their careers, no matter what they’d done before or since.”

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