(b. 24 June 1924? in Chicago, Illinois; d. 30 September 1995 in Las Vegas, Nevada), stand-up comedian and impressionist best known for his impressions of stars ranging from John Wayne to Ella Fitzgerald and for his dead-on takes of women.
Born in either 1923 or 1924, Kirby was the youngest son of a musical family. His mother was a singer and his father a musician. Kirby grew up on Garfield Street on Chicago’s South Side, where Louis Armstrong, one of the first voices in Kirby’s act, was his neighbor. He spent much of his childhood on the road with his parents in show business. He was often absent from school and dropped out of Wendell Phillips High School at the end of his sophomore year. He began working as a porter, then as a dishwasher at the Rhum Boogie club on Fifty-fifth Street on Chicago’s South Side. He also worked as a substitute bartender at the famed DeLisa club, where the club’s manager gave him the chance to perform on stage; he was subsequently booked for a year at the DeLisa.
Kirby served in the U.S. Army during World War II in Europe and the South Pacific, where he was wounded and received the Purple Heart. After serving in the army for three years, he returned to the DeLisa as a featured performer. He then left Chicago and headed to New York City, where he became a regular performer at the 845 club. In 1948 he performed in London at the London Casino with Sophie Tucker. Upon returning to the United States, he was managed by Charles Carpenter, who helped him to tour with other performers such as Cab Calloway, Earl Hines, Sarah Vaughan, and Billy Eckstine. In 1948 Kirby made his debut on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town program. For the remainder of the 1940s, he was a regular guest on many variety and talk shows, which gave him the name recognition he needed to perform at some of the best clubs and theaters in the country. He was one of the first African Americans to break long-standing racial barriers and perform in these places. By the end of the 1940s, Kirby’s act had made the transition from black audiences to white audiences.
In 1952 Kirby, performing as a part of the Count Basie show, became one of the first black acts to play Las Vegas. During this time black entertainers were not allowed to sleep, gamble, or even change clothes in the hotels where they performed. At the peak of his success in the mid-1950s, Kirby began headlining in Las Vegas and began appearing on more television programs than any other African American comedian. This may have been because he did not have a risqué act and was more of a song-and-dance man. Near the end of the decade, Kirby developed a heroin addiction that halted his successful career. In 1958 he was arrested in a drug raid and was given three years’ probation. Unable to kick the heroin habit, Kirby asked to be committed to the drug rehabilitation center at the U.S. Public Service Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky, for treatment.
In 1960, after being released from the rehabilitation center, Kirby began a comeback by performing for black audiences at places such as the famous Apollo Theatre in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood. The club’s owner Art Braggs and Sarah Vaughan were instrumental in helping Kirby resume his career. Braggs, owner of the Idlewild Review in Michigan, sent Kirby a plane ticket and pocket money while he was still in the hospital at Lexington to get to Michigan to appear at his club; Vaughan invited Kirby to New York City and surrendered her featured spot at the club Basin Street East on a night when a couple of dozen booking agents whom she had invited were at the club. In the early 1960s Kirby expanded his nightclub routine by incorporating his talents of singing, playing the piano, and telling anecdotes into his act. Kirby married his wife, Rosemary, in 1961; their marriage lasted until Kirby’s death.
During the 1960s Kirby became a favorite in such places as Caesar’s Palace and the Riviera in Las Vegas, Harrah’s in Reno, Nevada, the Beverly Hills Motor Hotel in Los Angeles, the Shamrock in Houston, and the Americana Royal Box in New York City. William Rice wrote in the Washington Post (3 November 1967) that Kirby’s “singing voice is excellent, his impressions are nearly flawless, his material is in perfect taste. As a Negro, he uses racial stories deftly and with a bemused eye for foibles of both whites and Negroes.” Kirby made his motion-picture debut in A Man Called Adam (1966), and in 1967 he appeared in Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad. Neither film fared well with audiences or critics. During this decade he made appearances on most of the major television variety shows. He also made a second trip to Australia, performing in Sydney and Melbourne clubs, entertained troops at army posts in Germany, and made six appearances at the famous Copacabana nightclub in New York City.
In 1972 Kirby was a regular on the television program the Copycats, a weekly show for established impressionists. He starred in his own variety series, Half the George Kirby Comedy Hour, which lasted for only part of the 1972–1973 season. He continued with club dates and television appearances and in 1975 starred in a situation comedy, Rosenthal and Jones, with Ned Glass, which lasted only a few episodes. With the call for more cutting-edge comedy that blended social satire with off-the-wall storytelling and sardonic jokes, it became harder for Kirby to get club bookings and television appearances. The lack of work caused Kirby to turn to drug dealing in an effort to save his home and catch up on bills. In 1977 he was convicted of selling drugs to an undercover police officer in Las Vegas. He was sentenced to ten years in a federal prison but served only three and a half years at Terminal Island, outside Los Angeles. After his release, he toured schools with an antidrug message to warn young people about the damage drugs can do. In 1982 Kirby again renewed his career on stage, this time performing at the Dangerfield’s nightclub in New York.
Kirby was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the early 1990s. In 1995 an all-star tribute, “Friends of George Kirby,” was held on 22 May 1995 at the Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas to help pay for his medical expenses after his insurance ran out. Paralyzed for several months, Kirby died in a nursing home at the approximate age of seventy-one. He is buried at the Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside, Illinois.
The multitalented Kirby, the man of a thousand voices, was instrumental in opening doors for many African American comedians. His secret to being a successful impressionist was not “just to try to sound like the other person but to become the other person, to feel the way the person does.”
Good sources for biographical information about Kirby are Current Biography (1977); Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 14 (1997); and Ronald L. Smith, The Stars of Stand-up Comedy: A Biographical Encyclopedia (1986). Information on his career can be found in Coronet (May 1968) and Jet (8 May and 16 Oct. 1995). Obituaries are in the Chicago Sun-Times (1 Oct. 1995) and the New York, Times and Houston Chronicle (both 2 Oct. 1995).
Joyce K. Thornton