Kyser, Kay (actually, James King Kern)

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Kyser, Kay (actually, James King Kern)

Kyser, Kay (actually, James King Kern), American bandleader and actor; b. Rocky Mount, N.C., June 18, 1905; d. Chapel Hill, N.C., July 23, 1985. Kyser was among the more successful big band conductors of the Swing Era, especially in the 1940s. His radio program, Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge, employed a humorous quiz-show format, and his music was given over largely to novelty material. His major hits include “Jingle Jangle Jingle/’ “Woody Wood pecker” and “Ole Buttermilk Sky.” He also starred in seven motion pictures between 1939 and 1944.

Kyser’s parents were Paul Bynam and Emily Royster Howell Kyser; both were pharmacists. Kyser was expected to enter the same profession, and he also considered a law career, but while attending the Univ. of N.C. at Chapel Hill he formed a six-piece dance orchestra that found work at colleges around the South. After he graduated in 1928, he expanded the band and continued to perform. By 1929 he had a contract with Victor Records. His break came in September 1934, when he gained a residency at the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago and began broadcasting his comic music program, initially called Kay Kyser’s Kampus Klass, on WGN. In July 1935 he had his first entry in the hit parade, the instrumental “Star Gazing” (music by Jerry Livingston, lyrics by Marty Symes and Al J. Neiburg), released on the Brunswick label.

In 1938, Kyser gained a sponsor, the American Tobacco Company, and launched Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge on the NBC radio network. His popularity grew quickly. He scored his first major hit with “The Umbrella Man” (music by Vincent Rose and Larry Stock, lyrics by James Cavanaugh) featuring vocalists Ginny Simms and Harry Babbitt. The tune spent 11 weeks in the hit parade. Another big hit, starting in May, was “Three Little Fishies” (music and lyrics by Horace Kirby [Saxie] Dowell), with a vocal by Merwyn Bogue, also known as Ish Kabibble; it was in the hit parade nine weeks. In November, Kyser and his band appeared in their first film, RKO’s That’s RightYou’re Wrong. Other bandleaders of the period had only cameo roles in the movies, but Kyser’s films were star vehicles in which he displayed his engaging, comic persona and re-created his radio show decked out in cap and gown.

After switching to Columbia Records, Kyser scored his next big hit in July 1940 with “Playmates” (music and lyrics by Saxie Dowell). The title, though not the song, would be used for his third film, released in December 1941. His second film, released in November 1940, was You’ll Find Out. After the United States entered World War II, Kyser tried to enlist, then performed exclusively on military bases for the duration. His next major hit came in April 1942 with the million-selling “Who Wouldn’t Love You” (music by Carl Fischer, lyrics by Bill Carey). My Favorite Spy, his fourth film, was released in May 1942. His recording of “Jingle Jangle Jingle” (music by Joseph J. Lilley, lyrics by Frank Loesser) topped the charts in July and sold a million copies. “He Wears a Pair of Silver Wings” (music by Michael Carr, lyrics by Eric Maschwitz) was a big hit in September, while “Strip Polka” (music and lyrics by Johnny Mercer) and “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition!” (music and lyrics by Frank Loesser) both hit in October and went on to become million- sellers.

Unable to record during the musicians union ban of 1942-44, Kyser appeared in the all-star films Stage Door Canteen (June 1943) and Thousands Cheer (September 1943), as well as his own films, Around the World (November 1943), Swing Fever (January 1944), and Carolina Blues (December 1944). His male vocalist of the mid-1940s was Michael Douglas, who as Mike Douglas later became a successful talk-show host; his female vocalist was Georgia Carroll, whom he married in 1944. They had three children.

Kyser’s next major hit was “Ole Buttermilk Sky” (music and lyrics by Hoagy Carmichael and Jack Brooks), which topped the charts in December 1946. “Woody Woodpecker” (music and lyrics by George Tibbles and Ramez Idriss) went to #1 in July 1948 and sold a million copies. In the fall, Kyser scored his last hit, the million-selling “On a Slow Boat to China” (music and lyrics by Frank Loesser).

Kyser took his radio program to television when Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge premiered as a one-hour weekly show on NBC-TV on Dec. 1, 1949. It ran until Dec. 28, 1950, after which Kyser retired from the entertainment business and went to work for the Christian Science Church. He died of a heart attack in 1985.

—William Ruhlmann