Kay Starr

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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.

Post-Band Career

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.


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  • Baby Me
    Glenn Miller (Kay Starr), Bluebird (1939)
  • What a Difference a Day Made
    Charlie Barnet (Kay Starr), Decca (1944)
  • You Always Hurt the One You Love
    Charlie Barnet (Kay Starr), Decca (1944)
  • Honey
    Kay Starr, Jewel (1945)
  • Love Me or Leave Me
    Kay Starr, Lamplighter (1946)
  • I'm the Lonesomest Gal In Town
    Kay Starr, Capitol (1947)
  • Good For Nothin' Joe
    Kay Starr, Modern (1949)
  • Bonaparte's Retreat
    Kay Starr, Capitol (1950)
  • I'll Never Be Free
    Kay Starr and Tennessee Ernie Ford, Capitol (1950)
  • Wheel of Fortune
    Kay Starr, Capitol (1952)
  • Rock and Roll Waltz
    Kay Starr, RCA (1955)

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Select a video to play
  • Stop That Dancin' Up There
    "Stop That Dancin' Up There"
    Kay Starr and Jimmie Dodd
    RCM (1944)
  • I'm the Lonesomest Gal In Town
    "I'm the Lonesomest Gal In Town"
    Kay Starr
    Columbia (1949)
  • Momma Goes Where Papa Goes
    "Momma Goes Where Papa Goes"
    Kay Starr
    Columbia (1950)

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  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. Bronson, Fred. The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits. 5th ed., Billboard Books, 2003, p. 7.
  3. “Kay Starr.” IMDb. Accessed 5 May 2017.
  4. The Online Discographical Project. Accessed 5 May 2017.
  5. “Kay Starr.” OTRRpedia. Accessed 5 May 2017.
  6. “Vaudeville Reviews: National, Louisville.” Billboard 11 Sep. 1943: 18.
  7. “Venuti, Boswell $17,000 in Omaha.” Billboard 16 Oct. 1943: 17.
  8. “Popular Record Reviews: Charlie Barnet.” Billboard 21 Sep. 1944: 21.
  9. “Vaudeville Reviews: Palace, Cleveland.” Billboard 16 Dec. 1944: 26.
  10. “Dave Mathews Sets New 18-Piece Ork.” Billboard 14 Apr. 1945: 24.
  11. “Ray Eberle Joins Dave Matthews in New Band Set-Up.” Billboard 28 Apr. 1945: 18.
  12. “Jewel Disks Promise July Release of Eight.” Billboard 14 Jul. 1945: 16.
  13. “Music As Written.” Billboard 24 Nov. 1945: 21.
  14. “Pollack, Yerxa Tiff Over Kay Star Paper.” Billboard 16 Mar. 1946: 20.
  15. “New Records.” Billboard 22 Jun. 1946: 33.
  16. “New Records.” Billboard 24 Aug. 1946: 33.
  17. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 7 Sep. 1946: 114.
  18. “Music As Written.” Billboard 12 Apr. 1947: 34.
  19. “Night Clubs-Vaudeville: Circus Room, Ambassador Hotel, Santa Monica, Calif.” Billboard 5 Jul. 1947: 42.
  20. “Cap's Red Label Pacts 3 Artists.” Billboard 13 Sep. 1947: 35.
  21. Advertisement. Billboard 3 Apr. 1948: 35.
  22. “Standard Treks to Mexico for Wax-Cutting Session.” Billboard 3 Jul. 1948: 37.
  23. “Music As Written.” Billboard 11 Sep. 1948: 21.
  24. Notice. Billboard 12 Mar. 1949: 48.
  25. “Coast Records Adds 200.” Billboard 17 Apr. 1949: 16.
  26. "Modern & Starr Dress Beef
  27. To Cut New Platter." Billboard 4 Jun. 1949: 21.
  28. “Vera Fanning Wins Exam Before Trial.” Billboard 29 Oct. 1949: 16.
  29. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 26 Nov. 1949: 164.
  30. “Modern Into EP's With Starr Disk.” Billboard 30 May. 1953: 48.
  31. “The Year's Top Popular Records.” Billboard 13 Jan. 1951: 18.
  32. “The Year's Top Popular Artists.” Billboard 13 Jan. 1951: 18.
  33. “Everyone in the Act On 1954 Hit Songs.” Billboard 1 Jan. 1955: 9.
  34. Advertisement. Billboard 17 Dec. 1955: 47.
  35. “The Billboard Ninth Annual Disk Jockey Poll.” Billboard 10 Nov. 1956: 22.

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