Though well remembered today as one of the top female vocalists of the 1950s, Kay Starr had only mediocre success as a band singer. Born in rural south-central Oklahoma, Starr’s father worked for a sprinkler company and her mother raised chickens. She began singing at a young age, practicing in her family’s chicken house, and after winning several local radio talent competitions the station offered her a 15-minute program of her own three times a week. Her family later moved to Memphis.
Details about Starr’s early career are sketchy. She reportedly began singing for Joe Venuti’s orchestra in 1937, at age 15. In summer 1939, she temporarily filled in for Marion Hutton in Glenn Miller’s orchestra after Hutton collapsed on stage from exhaustion and had to be hospitalized. Though she only appeared a short time with Miller, she recorded with the band and appeared on their Chesterfield radio program.
While touring military camps during wartime, Starr developed pneumonia and required surgery to remove nodes on her vocal chords, leaving her unable to talk for six months and causing an 18-month absence from band work. The surgery also left her with a huskier voice, which became an asset for the gutbucket type of songs by which she later came to be identified.
By September 1943 Starr had begun singing with Venuti’s band again. Before the end of the year, though, she had joined Bob Crosby’s orchestra, appearing on their radio program. She remained with Crosby’s show into 1944. That same year, she also made a soundie for RCM, Stop That Dancin’ Up There, with future Mousketeer Jimmie Dodd.
By August 1944, Starr had joined Charlie Barnet’s orchestra, staying with the bandleader until spring 1945 when she signed with a new band organized by saxophonist Dave Mathews. That group, though, had trouble from the start and never got off the ground, with Mathews eventually bringing in former Miller vocalist Ray Eberle as partner in a failed attempt at gaining more interest.
Without a band contract, Starr decided to go solo. In July 1945, she signed with Jewel, a new independent label founded by former bandleader and agent Ben Pollack. Pollack promised to promote Starr, but after initially releasing four sides with no build-up, resulting in poor sales, he did little else. Though she toured and continued singing, without support her career began to quickly falter.
In early 1946, Starr was courted by Lamplighter, a small label owned by Los Angeles entertainment columnist Ted Yerxa, and she filed suit against Pollack and Jewel in a bid to be released from her contract. Pollack filed a countersuit against Yerxa, claiming he had induced her to commit breach of contract. After signing with Lamplighter, however, Starr found Yerxa no better than Pollack in keeping his promises. Though she recorded several sides for the label, only two were released. During that year she also recorded with Wingy Manone’s band on ARA and vocalized on Capitol Record’s International Jazzmen series.
In late 1946, Starr briefly retired from singing and went home to Memphis. By spring 1947, however, she had returned to Hollywood, where she auditioned for Benny Goodman’s radio show. Back in court, she voided her Lamplighter contract and signed with Capitol’s Americana division in September. With a major label finally behind her, Starr’s career quickly took off, immediately resulting in her first big hit with “I’m the Lonesomest Gal in Town.” That year, she also dubbed for Adele Jergens in the Rita Hayworth musical Down to Earth.
Starr’s contract with Capitol was non-exclusive. She recorded with Manone again in 1948 on Metro and for Standard Transcriptions that year as part of their Mexican sessions designed to get around the American Federation of Musician’s recording ban. In early 1949, Lamplighter declared bankruptcy and sold its masters at auction to the Coast label, who finally released all of Starr’s Lamplighter sessions. That same year, Starr recorded for Crystallette and also appeared in Columbia Pictures’ Make Believe Ballroom, singing “I’m the Lonesomest Gal in Town.”
In mid-1949, Starr and her management company sued Modern Records after they released unauthorized recordings of her performances at the Just Jazz series of concerts put on by disc jockey Gene Norman, who had sold them the masters. The two sides, “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “Good for Nothin’ Joe” received a great deal of attention when several prominent disc jockeys banned them from airplay for “bad taste,” as Starr had sung the line “he beat the hell out of me” in the latter. The controversy resulted in increased sales, with Starr and Modern finally reaching an agreement. Modern paid her $750 plus a royalty of two cents per record. A new version of the banned recording was also cut from the masters, removing the offending word. Ironically, in 1953, Modern legally re-released the songs as part of an EP set for which they had no royalty agreement with her under the settlement.
In October of that year, Starr was back in court again, this time as a defendant, when the same management company that had represented her against Modern sued her for breach of contract.
1950s and Beyond
The 1950s proved to be a big decade for Starr and Capitol, starting in 1950 with two major hits. “Bonaparte’s Retreat” became the 12th highest selling record of 1950 and the 19th biggest on jukebox plays. A series of crossover duos with country star Tennessee Ernie Ford also resulted in the hit song “I’ll Never Be Free,” which ended the year at 20th in sales and 30th in jukebox plays on the pop charts and 15th in sales and 21st in jukebox plays on the country and western charts. Starr herself finished 10th on that year’s list of most sales by pop artists. She also appeared that year in the low-budget Columbia musical “When You’re Smiling.”
Starr had another big hit in 1952 with “Wheel of Fortune,” which became her signature tune. In 1955, she switched labels to RCA. The first song given her to by the label was the novelty tune “Rock and Roll Waltz,” which puzzled Starr, who didn’t want to record it. It was completely different to the types of songs she typically sang. RCA insisted, however, and “Rock and Roll Waltz” became her biggest hit ever, reaching number one on the pop charts in February 1956. RCA was so proud of the song’s success that they bought a full page ad in Billboard announcing that the tune had hit 350,000 sales in four weeks.
“Rock and Roll Waltz" finished at first place in Billboard’s 1956 DJ poll for most played record of that year, with Starr finishing first as most play female vocalist. The song was so different to Starr’s usual fare, though, that her long-time fans of the day never requested it at concerts. It wasn’t until later in her career that the song began to be requested, and she eventually grew to appreciate it herself.
Starr continued singing through the 1990s, though her chart success diminished after the rise of the rock and roll era. She also owned her own music publishing firm, Vesta Music, during the 1950s. Kay Starr passed away in November 2016 at the age of 94.