Kay Starr

Kay Starr was born Katherine LaVerne Starks, Oklahoma on July 21, 1922. Her father Harry, an Iroquois Indian full-blood, was her mother Annie who was Irish. Kay’s family moved from Dougherty (a small town of about four hundred) to Dallas when Kay was three. Her father worked installing sprinkler systems in buildings. Kay began singing when she was nine years old, as a result of the tight financial times during the Depression. Mrs. Starks started raising chickens in their henhouse. Every day, she gave concerts to the chickens from her home after school. Kay’s aunt Nora, who was not a fan of this behavior, suggested that Kay’s mother enter her in the weekly talent contest at WWR-Dallas. After performing “Now’s the Time to Fall in Love” at Dallas’ Melba Theatre, she won each week until the station retired Kay. Kay received her own weekly 15 minute radio program. Kay earned three dollars per night and received a lot of fan mail. She sang “hillbilly” music until her family moved to Memphis three months later. Kay was soon able to land her own show, Starr Time on WREC Memphis. She also performed on Saturday Night Jamboree. The program was known as “The Kid” and would take requests. Management would then say “Aw, let’s the kid do it!” This was also when Katherine Starks changed her name from Starks to Kay Starr after constant misspellings in fan mails. Kay got her first break in 1937, when Joe Venuti, a bandleader and violinist, visited Memphis to perform at the Peabody Hotel. Venuti was required by his contract to have a girl performer with his band. He didn’t have one. Venuti and Venuti met Kay when Venuti’s road director heard her on the radio. They then went to Kay’s home to talk about hiring her. Venuti was so impressed that after their three-week engagement at the Peabody Kay continued to sing with the band every summer until school ended. Kay was just fifteen years old when Venuti took Kay along. Kay also received an intensive training in stage presence and showmanship from her mother. Joe Venuti, a Joe Crosby’s Orchestra manager, pitched Kay’s talents in June 1939 to Gil Rodin. Crosby was looking for a female singer to perform on his Camel Caravan radio show. Kay was offered the job and she traveled to New York, where she sang “Memphis Blues” on network radio. However, Helen Ward replaced Kay when the management decided that a “seasoned” performer was needed. Kay was offered the chance to perform with the most well-known band in the country within a matter of days. Kay joined the Glenn Miller Orchestra in July 1939 to replace Marion Hutton. Kay spent two weeks with the Miller Orchestra and did several radio broadcasts from Glen Island Casino. She also recorded her first Bluebird recordings singing “Love With A Capitol YOU” as well as “Baby Me.” However, Kay is still proud of the recordings. The arrangements were written in Marion Hutton’s key which was beyond her reach. Kay had never learned music and was not aware of the musical range. Kay recalled them and said that she sounded like a jazzed-up Alfalfa. After her two weeks with Miller Orchestra, Kay and her mom returned to Memphis, where Kay had finished high school. Kay graduated in 1940 and moved to California to return to Joe Venuti’s job. This continued until 1941, when Venuti was forced to disband his band due to the general draft call-up in World War II. Kay sang briefly with Wingy Manone’s New Orleans Jazz Band during this period, until she was fired by Charlie Barnet in late 1943 to take over Lena Horne’s place. Kay also recorded V-Discs during her time with Charlie Barnet. These were distributed to the U.S. Armed Forces. She also recorded five sides with Charlie Barnet on the Decca label, including a bluesy version of “Share Croppin’ Blues,” which earned her both critical acclaim as well as recognition. Kay’s association to the Barnet Orchestra was cut short in 1945 after she contracted pneumonia while performing at an Army camp performance. After recovering, Kay realized that she had lost her voice. She decided to treat her vocal cords instead of risking a surgery which could have changed her whole singing style. Kay returned to work after a professional hiatus with a deep and more husky voice. This has been her trademark. Kay settled in Los Angeles and began her career as an independent performer. She was able to find work due to the goodwill she gained from Charlie Barnet’s Orchestra. Kay made a name for herself at Hollywood’s Streets Of Paris, and other nightclubs. In March 1945, Dave Dexter of Capitol Records invited Kay to perform two songs in the label’s all-star Volumes of Jazz series. She went on to record singles of jazz classics for small independent labels such as Standard, Lamplighter and Jewell in 1946. Capitol Records signed Kay to a contract in 1947 after her work was part of the Volumes of Jazz series. The label wasn’t looking for female talent at that time, so Kay had difficulty finding good material that didn’t overlap with other Capitol stars. At the time, Capitol Records featured big names such as Jo Stafford, Ella Mae Morse and Margaret Whiting. Her first recording, “I’m the Lonesomest gal In Town”, was a success. She also had a hit on the west coast Top Thirty Chart. In January 1949, her cover of Russ Morgan’s “So Tired” became her first top ten single. Kay’s next hit was her cover of Perry Como’s polka, “Hoop-Dee-Doo”, which reached number 2 on the charts in spring 1950. Kay fell in love with the simple tune while visiting Dougherty. Capitol released Kay’s single April 1950, after having the words for the tune written. It quickly rose up the charts, becoming Kay’s first big hit. Kay recorded many other country songs after the success of Bonaparte’s Retreat. She also performed duets with “Tennessee Ernie Ford” several times. Kay was then awakened by Capitol’s Melrose studios on January 17 1952 to record a rush release. Kay’s song, “Wheel Of Fortune,” was immediately a hit and was published on two other labels in February 1952. Kay Starr’s biggest hit and her first gold record, “Wheel Of Fortune”, was the song that became most associated with Kay Starr. It went on to be the second-most popular single in 1952. Kay recorded a variety of hits in different genres over the next two-years. Jazz, country, pop and spirituals. Broadway tunes.

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