Memories of a Girl Singer
"It was very hard," recalls Renay, now 50 and business manager for her husband's Las Vegas company, Chris Eagan Inventions. "Rehearsing, recording, traveling, performing. You have to be a gypsy at heart to enjoy it. I wanted a normal life."
Renee Diane Kushner had grown up in Philadelphia, where her parents owned a jewelry store. She enjoyed singing and at 15 entered a local beauty pageant. Though she finished as second runnerup, she won the talent competition singing "Honey Bun." A-family friend helped her get a deal with Atlantic Records, and at 16 she made her first record, "Little White Lies." That's when she decided to drop her last name and jazz up the spelling of her first. When the single came out, though, the names were reversed. Her second record, "Tender," generated fewer sales, and Atlantic released her, but she left with a manager-producer, Bob Crewe, writer of "Music to Watch Girls By," who got her a deal with 20th Century-Fox.
In late 1963, Renay released the single "Navy Blue." The tune's refrain, "My steady boy said, 'Ship Ahoy!' and joined the Navy," was timely with the Vietnam War heating up. "I heard it on the radio wherever I'd go," recalls Renay, who was a mediocre high school student when her song hit the charts. "I was amazed." Her success escalated, putting her in fast company. Though she remembers herself as "a squeaky-clean little kid" chaperoned by her parents, she toured with such older stars as Bobby Rydell and Lou Christie and mingled at social gatherings with the likes of Candice Bergen and Richard Burton. "Peter, Paul and Mary were at one party," she recalls. "Peter was chasing me around. I don't know what he wanted, but I didn't want to find out!"
Renay remembers turning down a chance to open for the Beatles during their historic '64 tour. "They needed a female artist, and they approached me," she says. But she feared that audiences would yell during her set. "I was sensitive," she says. "I wanted everybody to listen to me." Soon few were listening to her. Despite such followups as "Kiss Me, Sailor"—and the less thematic "Watch Out, Sally!"—she never had another hit.
In 1969, Renay married a graphic arts executive and moved to New Jersey. Her daughter Heather was born in 1971, but the marriage didn't last. She relocated to Vegas, where she met and married Eagan in 1992. Renay seldom goes out and has turned down nostalgia shows. "I didn't want to live in the past," she says. Still, if she should want to mount a comeback, she has one potential fan in David Lasley, who produced a dance pop version of "Navy Blue" in 1987. "Some singers don't age well," he says, "but Diane has the same exact voice."