Vocalist Harry Babbitt’s smooth baritone voice is most associated with Kay Kyser’s orchestra. Born in St. Louis, Babbitt studied singing and played drums as a youth. He led his own band in the early-1930s but gave it up to sing and do emcee work in theaters and nightclubs in his hometown and in Texas. In 1935, he took a job as announcer and singer on radio station KWK in St. Louis.
Babbitt sent an audition record of himself to Kyser in early 1937 and was hired sight unseen, making his debut on the band’s popular College of Musical Knowledge radio series in February. Over the next seven years, he was featured on several hit records, sometimes paired with female vocalist Ginny Simms or as part of a group number. He also appeared with the orchestra in several films and led the band whenever Kyser was absent. He was an extremely popular vocalist, placing fourth in Billboard magazine’s 1941, 1942 and 1943 college polls as best male band vocalist. He placed second best male vocalist in their 1945 high school poll, behind Bing Crosby and ahead of Frank Sinatra. He became famous for voicing the laugh of Woody Woodpecker on Kyser’s 1944 song of the same name, much to his chagrin. He often used a falsetto voice on novelty tunes, though he typically sang ballads.
Babbitt left Kyser for the Navy in May 1944. Upon his discharge in early 1946, he had no trouble lining up work, signing a contract with the Mercury label and appearing on both NBC and Mutual radio programs. In 1946 and 1947, he released a number of sides for Mercury, backed by Richard Maltby and Jimmy Hilliard, which included duets with Connie Haines.
In January 1947, Babbitt rejoined Kyser, though he also continued working solo as well, obtaining special permission from Mercury to record on Columbia with Kyser’s band. Mercury dropped Babbitt completely in May, and that same month he signed with Decca’s newly-revived Vocalion imprint. In December, he signed with Decca’s new Coral label, where he sang both solo and with other artists, including Martha Tilton, the Allen Sisters, and the Heart Beats. In 1949, he also recorded on Columbia as part of their line of children’s records, which he continued to do into the mid-1950s.
In early 1949, CBS radio considered teaming Babbitt with fellow former bandmate Simms, putting together an audition record, but they never followed through on the project. Babbitt became a regular on Kyser’s NBC radio program in October 1949. He starred in his own five-day-a-week CBS radio program starting in late 1949 which ran through at least 1958.
Babbitt also appeared on several early television shows. In late 1948, he joined singer Trudy Erwin on an evening television program on Los Angeles station KTTV. In the early 1950s, he served as emcee of the television programs Bandstand Review and Hollywood Opportunity over Los Angeles station KTLA. The former program featured Frank DeVol’s orchestra and, starting in fall 1951, that of Les Brown. He also did emcee work for NBC’s daily Glamour Girl program. In an interview, Babbitt said he preferred emcee work to endless one-night stands in clubs and theaters. He continued on television through at least the mid-1950s. In 1955, he also became head of the Lucky Pop Beverage Company, which made soft drink tablets. In 1957, Babbitt was singing emcee for the CBS radio program Matinee, with Marion Morgan as the show’s female vocalist. He and Morgan teamed up again in 1963 for the short-lived game show Sing Ahead produced by Los Angeles television station KTLA.
Babbitt left show business in 1964 to sell real estate. When Kyser died in 1985, he obtained rights to the band’s name and catalog from the orchestra leader’s widow, Georgia Carroll, and formed a new band under Kyser’s name, touring until the mid-1990s. In 1997, he appeared at the University of New Mexico’s “Battle of the Big Bands II,” where he competed with Frank DeVol, Rex Allen and Irv Kluger leading the Big Band Alumni Orchestra. Harry Babbitt passed away in 2004.