Kay Davis

Photo of Kay Davis
  • Birth Name

    Kathryn McDonald
  • Born

    December 5, 1920
    Evanston, Illinois
  • Died

    January 27, 2012 (age 91)
    Apopka, Florida
  • Orchestras

    Duke Ellington

Classically-trained so­prano Kay Davis was one of the more un­usual band vo­cal­ists of the 1940s. Born in Evanston, Illinois, in 1920, Davis at­tended Northwestern University, where she earned a B.A. in mu­sic in 1942 and an M.A. in 1943. At a time when African-American stu­dents weren’t al­lowed to live on cam­pus, Davis dar­ingly sang a love song duet with a white male part­ner dur­ing one of the uni­ver­si­ty’s an­nual shows.

After col­lege, Davis au­di­tioned for Duke Ellington on a dare from a friend. Ellington liked what he heard and at­tended one of her recitals, where he of­fered her a job. Lacking big band ex­pe­ri­ence, she spent a week with Lionel Hampton’s or­ches­tra at the Apollo in New York be­fore be­com­ing part of Ellington’s band in November 1944, where she joined Joya Sherrill and Marie Ellington as fe­male vo­cal­ists.

As Davis had no train­ing in jazz, Ellington made use of her tal­ent in a unique way, of­ten writ­ing spe­cial com­po­si­tions for her. She sang with­out words, us­ing her voice as an in­stru­ment to pro­vide coun­ter­melody. Her vo­cals came across as both el­e­gant and haunt­ing, and her per­for­mances on such songs as The Creole Love Call” and Transblucency” are among the most mem­o­rable in Ellington’s reper­toire. She per­formed the for­mer at Ellington’s December 1945 Carnegie Hall con­cert. Though she had lit­tle ad­vanced no­tice to pre­pare, it be­came the high­light of the show.

During Ellington’s European tour of 1948, Davis and trum­peter/​singer Ray Nance were the only two or­ches­tra mem­bers to ac­com­pany Ellington on a four-week tour of Britain. British law at the time for­bid jazz bands from en­ter­ing the coun­try, and Ellington was only able to cir­cum­vent the re­stric­tion by ap­ply­ing for en­try as a pi­anist and cabaret per­former, tak­ing Davis and Nance with him un­der the same guise.

Davis re­mained with Ellington through the sum­mer of 1950, when, by then only a stand-by singer, she re­tired from show busi­ness to marry Edward Wimp. The cou­ple even­tu­ally set­tled down in Florida, where she be­came a trained Cordon Blue chef. Kay Davis passed away in 2012.


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  • I Ain't Got Nothin' but the Blues
    Duke Ellington (Al Hibbler, Kay Davis), Victor (1944)
  • Beautiful Indians (Minnehaha) Part 2
    Duke Ellington (Kay Davis), Musicraft (1947)
  • The Creole Love Call
    Duke Ellington (Kay Davis), Columbia (1949)

All recordings are from the Internet Archive's 78rpm collection. Copyright owners, please see our removal policy.


  1. Stratemann, Klaus. Duke Ellington, Day by Day, Film by Film Jazz Media, 1992, p. 259.
  2. “Philly Earle Turnstiles Click 37G Tune for Duke.” Billboard 15 Sep. 1945: 37.
  3. “Music as Written.” Billboard 19 Jun. 1948: 21.
  4. “Vaudeville Reviews: Palladium, London.” Billboard 3 Jul. 1948: 44.
  5. “R & B Blue Notes.” Billboard 23 Sep. 1950: 39.
  6. Voce, Steve. “Kay Davis: Singer who worked with Duke Ellington.” Independent 28 Fed. 2012. Accessed: 29 Mar. 2018.