If Academy Awards were given for transition from one vocal style to another, Kay Starr would win every year with her delivery of country, jazz, blues and popular music. She was born July 21, 1922 in the small rural community of Dougherty, Oklahoma, to Harry and Annie CollStarks. Harry wasafull blooded Iroquois Indian born on a reservation near Buffalo, New York and Annie, a native of Oklahoma, was of Cherokee, Choctaw and Irish descent. Contrary to other stories, Starr was not born on an Indian reservation. When she was three, the family moved to Dallas, Texas where Harry worked at the Texas Automated Sprinkler Company as an installer and Annie raised chickens at their home. When Kay was small she would go to the hen house and standing atop an apple box sing to the chickens that had been gathered in rows at different levels similar to an amphitheater. Her aunt, Nora, heard her singing and entered her in a yo yo contest at radio station WRR where she sang and yo yoed; she won third prize. Starr later competed in a series of talent contests at the Melba Theater and won three times, triggering the station manager to offer her a fifteen minute program of her own, three times a week.
In 1935, her father’s work uprooted the family again and they moved to Memphis, Tennessee where she soon landed on country radio station WMPS’s Saturday Night Jamboree. She sang with Grand Old Opry legend Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys; she was only fifteen. WMPS frequently received fan mail addressed to names like Kathryn Stokes, Starch, Stairs and even Kathryn Stinks and eventually WMPS’s management asked Starr and her father to meet with them for the purpose of changing her name to one that listeners could easily remember. They explained the reason to her father and eventually came up with the name“Star”. Her parents felt it was inappropriate because God made the star. It was Starr herself who came up with the idea of adding another“R”and the name Kay was chosen after Kathryn was shortened to“Kay.”
While attending Technical High School in Memphis, her radio program was heard by Joe Venuti, a popular orchestra leader, who was slated to perform at the famous Peabody Hotel. Venuti’s contract called for a girl singer, which he did not have. Venuti visited her parents to obtain permission for her to appear with his orchestra; they agreed, provided she would be accompanied and returned home before midnight since she was only fifteen years old. That same year she briefly appeared with Bob Crosby and his Bobcats on the syndicated Chesterfield Supper Clubin Detroit, and she also toured Canada with her mother, who posed as her sister. In July of 1939, she also replaced ailing singer, Marion Hutton, who collapsed with exhaustion on the bandstand. The seventeen year old Starr was considered to be a better
Born Kathryn La Verne Starks on July 21, 1922 in Dougherty, OK; daughter of Asa Starks, (an employee of the Texas Automatic Sprinkler Company) and Annie, (an employee of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Made singing debut on Radio Station WRR, 1932 in Dallas, TX; began singing on Radio Station WREC, 1935 in Memphis, TN; served as a staff vocalist at the station throughout high school; joined Joe Venuti and his orchestra, 1937 at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis; eventually led to assignments with Bob Crosby and Glenn Miller, where she made her first recordings; rejoined Venuti; sang with Wingy Manone’s band and later with Charlie Barnet and his orchestra.; joined Capitol Records, 1946 and had a number of top ten hits including“Wheel of Fortune”her theme song; left Capitol in the 1950s; joined RCA and had a number one hit in“Rock and Roll Waltz;”today Starr performs when she wants to have fun and makes appearances from FL to CA.
Awards: Hit Parade Number One Female Performer of the Year; Oklahoma Hall of Fame.
Address: Management —Henry Miller, P. O. Box 195 Encino, CA 91426, (818) 905-9077.
She moved to Los Angeles and rejoined Joe Venuti his orchestra in California, and and later began singing with trumpeter Wingy Monone’s band. Bandleader Charlie Barnet hired her away from Monone, replacing vocalist Lena Home, and she remained with Barnet until 1945. During that time she toured military hospitals and installations around the world and also performed at posh nightclubs in the Los Angeles area, including Mocambo’s, Ciro’s and El Rancho Vegas. During this time she developed pneumonia and spent six months in an Army hospital. She would eventually lose the use of her voice due to fatigue, overwork, and pneumonia. She was ordered by the doctor to cease talking, whispering, and to abandon singing until she healed. When her voice returned, it was much huskier and tighter.
In 1946 she went solo and was signed on to the newly formed Capitol Records by Dave Dexter after he had heard her sing in a local nightclub. Capitol had a stable of the finest female vocalists in America including Peggy Lee, Jo Stafford, Ella Mae Morse and Margaret Whiting. There Starr met Tennessee Ernie Ford and they recorded duets together. She remained with Capitol and produced such hits a “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” “Wheel of Fortune,” “I’m the Lonesomest Gal in Town,” “Half a Photograph,” “Allez Vous En,” “Crazy,” and “Kay’s Lament.” “Bonaparte’s Retreat” was originally an instrumental written by Pee Wee King, the co-author of the Tennessee Waltz. Its lyrics occurred when Starr visited her family in Dougherty, Oklahoma, and her cousin took her to a new “Juke joint” in town. She had a “fiddle song” and asked the manager to pull the record from the juke box. She called Roy Acuff in Nashville, who was the country and western singer and country music publisher, asking that lyrics be added. Acuff subsequently enlisted King’s aid and lyrics were added to his instrumental composition. It rose to number four on the charts and nearly a million dollars in records were sold in 1950.
Starr described “Wheel of Fortune” as her favorite of all pieces because it allowed her to have a lovely home in California It also provided an education for her two daughters, Kathy and Donna and the opportunity to sing all over the world and before Presidents. She described recording “Wheel of Fortune” as difficult since the wheel had to emit the right sound to correspond to the lyrics and music that were easily recorded. This 1952 introduction to the pop music field became her theme song and her first gold record.
Other hits followed including “Allez Vous En,” the Cole Porter composition from “Can-Can,” “Half a Photograph,” and her first hit released single “I’m the Lonesomest Gal In Town.” In 1952, she recorded a late 1920’s song written by Harry Woods, a former Cape Cod, Massachusetts farmer, who had gone to New York after successfully writing “When the Red Red Robin Goes Bob Bob Bobin Along.” Wood’s song, “Side by Side” had been written in the 1920’s depression era and was inspired as a result of the hard times he and his wife had endured while working at the songwriter’s Brill Building in New York. The song became a big hit when Starr revived it in 1953.
Starr indicated in an interview that Capitol often treated her as a utility singer and songs were offered to other female singers before being offered to her, and that she was assigned offbeat selections. On one occasion she submitted a list of songs she wanted to sing and the list was given to Peggy Lee and the other female vocalists. When it was returned a line had been drawn through all of them and she felt she was finding songs for them. Othertop twenty hits include “Changing Partners,” “Man Upstairs,” “So Tired,” and “If You Love Me.” Starr also recorded an English version of Edith Piaf’s song “Hymn L’Amour”, written for her lover, French boxing champion Marcel Cerdan.
In 1955, she moved to RCA Records, which had a large stable of top male vocalists including Perry Como and Eddie Fisher. The following year she was presented with the sheet music to a song entitled “The Rock and Roll Waltz.” When she looked at the sheet music, she first thought the song was a joke since she could not read musical scales. It also appeared to sound like a nursery rhyme. However, “The Rock and Roll Waltz” became her first RCA recording and roseto numberone on thecharts in the United States and it made it to the top ten in the United Kingdom. It was also considered the first hit by a female vocalist in the newly issued in“Rock and Roll Era”.
The 1950s saw a reduction in Starr’s musical activities. She wanted to spend more time with herdaughter, Kathy However, she began to book engagements in Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe casinos and made guest appearances on numerous major television shows including those of The Ed Sullivan Show, The Perry Corno Show, The Dinah Shore Show, and others. In 1959 she renewed her relationship with Capitol Records and since that time has appeared in nightclubs and theaters all over the world as well as appearing on television and in the motion picture The Lord Don’t Play Favoriteswith Robert Stack, Buster Keaton and singer Dick Haymes. In recent years she has regularly appeared in revues at Palm Beach, Florida.
All Starr Hits, Capitol.
Big Band Singers, AJAZZ.
Blue Mood, Capitol.
Blue Starr, RCA.
I Cry By Night, Capitol.
In A Blue Mood, Capitol.
Jazz Singer, Capitol.
Kay Starr Country, Crescendo.
Kay Starr in the Forties, Hindsight.
Kay Starr, Jazz Singer, Capitol.
Kay Starr on Stage, Coronet.
Kay Starr Sings, Coronet.
Kay Starr Style, Capitol.
Kay Starr’s Again, Capitol.
Losers Weepers, Capitol.
Movin’ On Broadway, Capitol.
Portrait of a Starr, Sunset.
Tears and Heartaches/Old Records, Capitol.
Them Their Eyes, Rondo.
Back to the Roots, GNP Crescendo.
Christmas Jubilee, Vintage Jazz.
Halloween Stomp, Jass.
Kay Starr, The RCA Years, BMG.
Kay Starr, Collector Series, Capitol.
Moonbeams and Steamy Dreams, Stash.
Spotlight on Kay Starr, Capitol.
Bronson, Fred, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Billboard Publications Inc. 1992.
Feather, Leonard, The Encyclopedia of Jazz, Horizon Press, 1960.
Lax, Roger and Frederick Smith, The Great Song Thesaurus, - Oxford University Press 1989.
Maltin, Leonard, Movie and Video Guide 1995, Penguin Books Ltd., 1994.
McAleer, David, The All Music Book of Hit Singles, Miller Freeman Books, 1994.
Osborne, Jerry, Rockin Records, Osborne Publications 1999.
Simon, George T., Big Bands, MacMillan Company, 1970.
Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Popular Music, St. Martin’s Press, 1966.
Additional information was obtained through an interview with Kay Starr on August 23, 1999; and from liner notes from Gene, Back to the Roots, 1995 and Kay Starr Collectors Series, 1991.
—Francis D. McKinley
"Starr, Kay." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/starr-kay
"Starr, Kay." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 16, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/starr-kay
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