July 21, 1922 – Kay Starr:
On my first record I sounded like a jazzed-up alfalfa on that, at the time I didn’t know what a ‘range’ was, besides something you cooked on, or something that cattle grazed on
A long time ago, before the was Rock ‘n’ Roll, pop vocalists flirted around Country, Broadway and Jazz for influences. Many had grown up listening to big bands and Jazz phrasing came naturally. Kay Starr, for instance performed and recorded with Jazz musicians before finding real success with Pop songs.
Her early recordings have the kind of bluesy warmth and a distinctive swing sense that suggest she might have had a career like Peggy Lee or Ella Fitzgerald had she chosen to stay closer to Jazz. Instead, she became a jukebox favorite the Number One jukebox artist of the early 1950s, first with the single Bonaparte’s Retreat (1950) and then with Wheel Of Fortune two years later, a gigantic hit that became her signature song. A jukebox, for you kids to know, was like a mechanical DJ that you slipped coins in to listen to music in an eatery or club.
Starr was born Katherine Starks in Dougherty, Oklahoma, of Native American heritage: her father was Iroquois, and her mother was Choctaw, Cherokee and Irish. The family moved to Dallas when Starr was three, where her father found work installing sprinklers in buildings and her mother raised chickens. Her aunt noticed the pleasure Starr had while singing around the house and encouraged her to enter a talent contest at the local radio station. At nine-years-old, Starr won a prize for singing while operating a yo-yo. She continued to win so many talent contests, that radio station WRR, Dallas, gave her a 15-minute program of her own, making three dollars a show.
Her family then moved to Memphis, where she landed her own Starr Time show on WREC and appeared on the station’s popular Saturday Night Jamboree. This was when tshe changed her name to Kay Starr.
In 1937, when Jazz violinist Joe Venuti arrived in Memphis to play a residency at the Peabody Hotel, he needed a female singer. He hired 15-year-old Starr for the three-week gig, and then she toured with his band for the next two years during her summer vacations. Venuti recommended Starr to the Bob Crosby Band when they needed a female vocalist for their radio show. Starr went to New York City, but lasted only two weeks because the radio show’s sponsor thought her ”too earthy”. Glenn Miller snatched her up for a short stint at the legendary Glen Island Casino, making her first recordings with Miller on the Bluebird label.
Starr completed high school and then moved to California to work again with Venuti. After two years, the draft had left Venuti’s band without players and Starr moved on to work with Wingy Manone, the testy one-armed jazz trumpeter from New Orleans, with whom she later recorded.
She then joined the Charlie Barnet swing band, replacing Lena Horne. Starr’s recording of Share Croppin’ Blues received plenty of radio play before she caught pneumonia and she lost her voice completely. After her vocal nodes were frozen for three months, Starr recovered only to discover that her voice was deeper and huskier, and altogether more distinctive.
As a solo performer, and building on her success with Barnet, Starr appeared in all the best Los Angeles nightclubs to great acclaim. She also made her celebrated recordings for Capitol records with Jazzmen Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter and Nat King Cole in 1945.
Starr started to concentrate on popular material, looking for Top 10 chart success, first striking it lucky with Bonaparte’s Retreat, an old Oklahoma fiddle tune that sold a million records with her version. She sang at Harry S. Truman‘s presidential inauguration, flying straight to DC from her engagement at the Casbah club in Los Angeles. In 1952, Wheel Of Fortune went platinum and earned her a fortune.
Starr could sing anything, recording Jazz and Country, Pop songs and Spirituals, Broadway and Standards.
She moved over to RCA-Victor in 1955 with a contract for $250,000 a year, Starr scored big with Rock And Roll Waltz, the first song to have ”Rock and Roll” in the name. Starr laughed at this claim, saying:
It sure wasn’t Rock.
Back with Capitol in 1959, she recorded notable ”concept” albums, including the Jazz-influenced Movin’ as well as the conventional Just Plain Country. Despite her flexibility and popularity, Starr was dropped by Capitol in 1966, but she continued to tour the USA and Europe, and play Las Vegas. She recorded the album Back To The Roots with Count Basie in 1968. Starr lived for a while in London in the 1980s, where she played clubs with a trio.
Then, Starr gradually faded from view, when, despite much praise from the press, Starr failed to secure a new recording contract. She continued to perform with other singers of her era in nostalgic hit-song revues such as 3 Girls with Helen O’Connell and Margaret Whiting, and to sing for trade shows. She was much admired by her peers, especially by Dinah Washington, whose sound hers resembled, who said: ”Starr has zest and savvy blues-colored phrasing”. Billie Holiday called her “…the only white woman who could sing the blues”.
Don’t forget her Wheel Of Fortune, it is an iconic recording; it’s really good and also really camp. Written by Bennie Benjamin and George David Weiss, the song was originally recorded in 1951 by Johnny Hartman. Several hit versions were released in 1952, including the one by the Eddie Wilcox Orchestra featuring Sunny Gale, whose version reached Number Two on the R&B chart and Number 13 on the Pop chart, but the most successful version was Starr’s, whose recording reached Number One in March 1952 where it remained for the next 10 weeks, staying in the Top Ten for 22 weeks. Amazing! The only song that was bigger in 1952 was Cry by gay singer Johnnie Ray.
In later years, Starr devoted herself to Native American issues.
Starr died in 2016 at 94-years-old from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.
Starr has always considered herself a “saloon singer” who told a story with each song. She was critically recognized for the power and emotion of her singing style, a truly a gifted and unique performer who has made a success of every musical genre she has took on. I’m a fan, can you tell?
She recorded 25 albums, and we have those, but Kay Starr was among hundreds of artists whose original material was destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire. I feel that she makes the grade for Gay Icon, and certainly a drag inspiration.