Though well remembered today for her work in the 1950s, Kay Starr had only minor 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. After winning an amateur contest on a Dallas radio station at age 13, she sang with the Lightcrust Doughboys, a Western swing band. Her family later moved to Memphis, where she worked with another Western swing outfit, the Jewel Cowboys, and had her own fifteen-minute sustaining program on WREC. By early 1937, she was singing in theaters around the Memphis area and across the Mid-South.
Bandleader Joe Venuti, in Memphis and needing a girl vocalist, heard Starr on the radio in late 1937 and hired her. She remained with Venuti until June 1939 when she left for Bob Crosby’s band, where she replaced Marion Mann. Starr sang on Crosby’s first Camel Caravan radio program but stayed only two weeks before exiting to fill in for Marion Hutton in Glenn Miller’s orchestra after Hutton collapsed on stage from exhaustion and had to be hospitalized. Though Starr only worked a few months with Miller, she appeared on their Chesterfield radio program and made her first recordings with the band in September. Starr was unhappy with the recordings and later recalled that “Marion’s key was two notes highter then mine. I guess I’m lucky though to even be on wax with the great Miller band.”
After Hutton had recovered and rejoined Miller, Starr returned to Memphis to finish high school. She kept busy singing, appearing on her own program on radio station WMPS and with Richard Diggons at the Casino night club. She turned down offers from five other bands before rejoining Venuti, who had come back through Memphis, in February 1940, saying “I’ll stay with Uncle Joe as long as he’ll keep me.” Part of her reason for rejoining Venuti was bassist George Butterfield, to whom she had become engaged. The couple married on March 2 but later divorced.
Starr continued singing with Venuti for almost four years. She and the bandleader were both featured on the cover of Down Beat magazine for July 15, 1943. That same year, she also made a soundie for RCM, Stop That Dancin’ Up There, with future Mousketeer Jimmie Dodd. When Venuti’s band broke up in 1944, she followed the bandleader and his wife to the West Coast. She was singing locally with Wingy Manone’s band when Charlie Barnet heard her and hired her in August. She remained with Barnet until March 1945 when she left after developing throat trouble. While recovering, she signed with a new band being fronted by Barnet saxophonist and arranger Dave Matthews. The new orchestra had trouble gaining interest, and Matthews eventually tried to bring in former Miller vocalist Ray Eberle as partner, but Eberle’s impending draft put a stop to the deal. The band opened at the Casa Manana in Los Angeles on May 18 but soon fell apart.
On her own now, Starr signed in June 1945 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. Also in June, Starr was back singing with Venuti at the Palladium in Los Angeles, but by August she had rejoined Barnet, where she remained until developing a severe case of strep throat in October, putting her in the hospital and forcing her to take a break. Her return to Barnet prompted another cover appearance on Down Beat for October 1, 1945. That same year she also recorded for Capitol Records’ International Jazzmen series, working with such artists as Nat King Cole and Benny Carter.
Starr had returned to active singing by January 1946. Negotiations were underway for her to join Harry James, but salary issues ended up killing the deal. She was also 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 a V-Disc with Venuti and the Les Paul Trio.
In the late 1940s, Starr changed her vocal style and began to sing in a more traditional blues manner, lamenting that she couldn’t make money as a jazz singer. Her change in voice to a more gutbucket type of singing prompted many to wonder if she’d had an operation on her throat, which she denied. Some compared her new style to that of Bessie Smith.
In late 1946, Starr temporarily retired from singing to have a daughter and went home to Memphis. By May 1947, however, she had returned to Hollywood, where she sang at Charlie Foy’s Supper Club and 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 Crystalette label, who finally released all of Starr’s Lamplighter sessions. That same year, Starr appeared in Columbia Pictures’ Make Believe Ballroom, singing “I’m the Lonesomest Gal in Town.” Starr also earned her own ABC sustaining radio program in summer 1948, which was to feature new feminine talent each week. Venuti was a guest on the program in early 1949, an occasion which prompted a second Down Beat cover in June with the two of them together. Starr’s show had ended by May due to scheduling conflicts and promises of a commerical show. Down Beat featured Starr for a fourth time on their cover on December 16, 1949, along with Frankie Laine.
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 1954, 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 switched back to Capitol in 1959 and 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.
Starr was married seven times. Her second marriage was to Woody Gunther. She married trumpet player Roy Davis in January 1946, with whom she had a child, and divorced him in August that same year, charging him with non-support and complaining that he drank frequently and called her names. In late 1948, she married Howard Stanley. The couple were estranged after four months and officially divorced in 1951. She then married orchestra leader Vic Schoen that same year. They divorced in 1954. In 1957 she married George Mellen, divorcing in 1959. Her last marriage was to Earl Spence Callicutt in 1962. They divorced in 1964. ↩︎
Matthews would later become Starr’s musical director. ↩︎
Starr was paid $100 each for the four sides with no royalty stipulation. ↩︎