Popular vocalist Harry Babbitt’s smooth baritone voice is most associated with the Kay Kyser Orchestra. Born in St. Louis, Babbitt studied singing and played drums as a youth. He led his own band in the mid-1930s but gave it up to 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 1937 and was hired sight unseen. He appeared on the band’s popular College of Musical Knowledge radio series and was featured on several of their hit records, sometimes paired with female vocalist Ginny Simms. He also appeared with the orchestra in several ﬁlms and led the band whenever Kyser was absent.
Babbitt joined the Navy in 1944, returning to Kyser after the war ended. He remained with the Ol’ Professor until going solo in 1946. 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.
As a single, Babbitt played mostly small clubs. He made several recordings over the next few years, his ﬁrst on Columbia, Kyser’s label. 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 the late 1940s and early 1950s, he moved to Coral Records, singing both solo and working with Martha Tilton, the Allen Sisters, and the Heart Beats. During the early days of television, he appeared with both Steve Allen and as part of Bandstand Review. He also did emcee work for NBC’s daily Glamour Girl program.
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.