Kay Starr

Photo of Kay Starr

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 Venutis or­ches­tra in 1937, at age 15. In sum­mer 1939, she tem­porar­ily filled in for Marion Hutton in Glenn Millers 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 Crosbys 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 Barnets 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 Goodmans 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 Billboards 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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  • Screenshot
    "Stop That Dancin' Up There"
    Kay Starr and Jimmie Dodd
    RCM (1944)
  • Screenshot
    "I'm the Lonesomest Gal In Town"
    Kay Starr
    Columbia (1949)
  • Screenshot
    "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 To Cut New Platter.” Billboard 4 Jun. 1949: 21.
  27. “Vera Fanning Wins Exam Before Trial.” Billboard 29 Oct. 1949: 16.
  28. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 26 Nov. 1949: 164.
  29. “Modern Into EP's With Starr Disk.” Billboard 30 May. 1953: 48.
  30. “The Year's Top Popular Records.” Billboard 13 Jan. 1951: 18.
  31. “The Year's Top Popular Artists.” Billboard 13 Jan. 1951: 18.
  32. “Everyone in the Act On 1954 Hit Songs.” Billboard 1 Jan. 1955: 9.
  33. Advertisement. Billboard 17 Dec. 1955: 47.
  34. “The Billboard Ninth Annual Disk Jockey Poll.” Billboard 10 Nov. 1956: 22.