Kay Starr

Photo of Kay Starr

Though well remembered today for her recordings of the 1950s, Kay Starr had only minor success as a band vocalist. Starr began singing professionally in the mid-1930s and spent most of her orchestra career with Joe Venuti. As a solo artist in the late 1940s, she developed a strong reputation as a blues vocalist, but in the 1950s she took a turn towards popular music, scoring several hit songs, including “Rock and Roll Waltz,” which became one of the best-selling records of 1956.

Born in rural south-central Oklahoma, Starr began singing at a young age, practicing in her family’s chicken house.[1] After winning an amateur contest on a Dallas radio station at age 13, she sang with the Light Crust 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.

Bandstand Years

During a stop in Memphis in late 1937, bandleader Joe Venuti heard the 15-year-old Starr on the radio and, needing a girl vocalist, hired her for his orchestra. 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 higher 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 in February 1940 as he came back through Memphis, 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.[2]

Starr continued singing with Venuti for almost four years. Down Beat magazine featured both on the cover of their July 15, 1943, issue. That same year, Starr made a soundie for RCM, Stop That Dancin’ Up There, with future Mouseketeer Jimmie Dodd. When Venuti’s band broke up in early 1944, she followed the bandleader and his wife to the West Coast. She was singing locally with Wingy Manone’s band in August when Charlie Barnet heard her and hired her. 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 Mañana in Los Angeles on May 18 but soon fell apart.[3]

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.[4] That same year she also recorded for Capitol Records’ International Jazzmen series, working with such artists as Nat King Cole and Benny Carter. Additionally 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.

Post-Band Career

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 and went home to Memphis to give birth to a daughter. 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 an American Federation of Musician 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 another 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 commercial 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 twelfth highest selling record of 1950 and the nineteenth 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 numbers 20 in sales and 30 in jukebox plays on the pop charts and 15 in sales and 21 in jukebox plays on the country and western charts. Starr herself finished tenth 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 played 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.


  1. Starr’s father worked for a sprinkler company and her mother raised chickens. ↩︎

  2. 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. ↩︎

  3. Matthews would later become Starr’s musical director. ↩︎

  4. Starr was paid $100 each for the four sides with no royalty stipulation. ↩︎


  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. Advertisement. “Roxy Theatre.” Blytheville Courier News [Blytheville, Arkansas] 26 Mar. 1937: 2.
  7. “On the KSVO Mike.” The Daily Ardmoreite [Ardmore, Oklahoma] 22 Aug. 1937: 4.
  8. “In Limelight With Dixie Crew.” Down Beat Jul. 1939: 1.
  9. “Memphis Casino to Bennett for 10 Years.” Billboard 21 Oct. 1939: 9.
  10. “I'll Stay With Uncle Joe.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1940: 19.
  11. “Kay Starr Gets a Job and a Ring.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1940: 21.
  12. “I'll Stick to Cab.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1940: 22.
  13. “Tied Notes.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1940: 10.
  14. “Biagini Managing New Venuti Band.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1941: 1.
  15. Advertisement. “Joe Venuti.” The Delta Democrat-Times [Greenville, Mississippi] 1 Feb. 1942: 5.
  16. Advertisement. “Centennial Terrace.” Adrian Daily Telegram [Adrian, Michigan] 11 Jun. 1942: 2.
  17. “Venuti and Band Aid Red Cross Campaign.” Down Beat 1 May 1943: 8.
  18. “Kay and Joe On the Cover.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1943: 1.
  19. “Vaudeville Reviews: National, Louisville.” Billboard 11 Sep. 1943: 18.
  20. “Venuti, Boswell $17,000 in Omaha.” Billboard 16 Oct. 1943: 17.
  21. “Venuti Sent By Home on Range.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1944: 7.
  22. “Popular Record Reviews: Charlie Barnet.” Billboard 21 Sep. 1944: 21.
  23. “Barnet Fetes Anniversary.” Down Beat 1 Oct. 1944: 1.
  24. “Vaudeville Reviews: Palace, Cleveland.” Billboard 16 Dec. 1944: 26.
  25. “Dave Mathews Sets New 18-Piece Ork.” Billboard 14 Apr. 1945: 24.
  26. “Matthews Fronts High Powered Ork.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1945: 1.
  27. “Ray Eberle Joins Dave Matthews in New Band Set-Up.” Billboard 28 Apr. 1945: 18.
  28. “Casa Manana Signs Basie and Lunceford.” Down Beat 1 Jun. 1945: 6.
  29. Holly, Hal. “Los Angeles Band Briefs.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1945: 6.
  30. “Jewel Disks Promise July Release of Eight.” Billboard 14 Jul. 1945: 16.
  31. “Pollack, Starr On Jewell Label.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1945: 3.
  32. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 15 Aug. 1945: 1.
  33. “Kay Starr On The Cover.” Billboard 1 Oct. 1945: 1.
  34. “Fran Warren Takes Barnet Spot.” Down Beat 15 Oct. 1945: 1.
  35. “Music As Written.” Billboard 24 Nov. 1945: 21.
  36. “Strictly Ad Lib.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1946: 1.
  37. Ehrlich, Evelyn. “Here's News Capsule of Music World for 1945.” Down Beat 1 Jan. 1946: 3.
  38. “Los Angeles Band Briefs.” Down Beat 14 Jan. 1946: 6.
  39. “Tied Notes.” Down Beat 25 Feb. 1946: 10.
  40. “Kay Starr and Jewel Clash.” Down Beat 11 Mar. 1946: 1.
  41. “Happy Pair.” Down Beat 11 Mar. 1946: 1.
  42. “Pollack, Yerxa Tiff Over Kay Starr Paper.” Billboard 16 Mar. 1946: 20.
  43. “Jewel's Starr Not Kiddin'.” Down Beat 25 Mar. 1946: 17.
  44. “Yerxa Pays Off for Kay Starr, Signs Her.” Down Beat 17 Jun. 1946: 6.
  45. “New Records.” Billboard 22 Jun. 1946: 33.
  46. “New Records.” Billboard 24 Aug. 1946: 33.
  47. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 7 Sep. 1946: 114.
  48. “Diggin' the Discs.” Down Beat 16 Dec. 1946: 20.
  49. “Music As Written.” Billboard 12 Apr. 1947: 34.
  50. “Kay Starr Out Of Retirement.” Down Beat 7 May 1947: 1.
  51. “Night Clubs-Vaudeville: Circus Room, Ambassador Hotel, Santa Monica, Calif.” Billboard 5 Jul. 1947: 42.
  52. “Kay Starr Freed.” Billboard 10 Sep. 1947: 15.
  53. “Cap's Red Label Pacts 3 Artists.” Billboard 13 Sep. 1947: 35.
  54. “California Grooms Vocalist For National Recognition.” Billboard 3 Dec. 1947: 13.
  55. Advertisement. “Idessa Malone Distributors.” Billboard 3 Apr. 1948: 35.
  56. “Standard Treks to Mexico for Wax-Cutting Session.” Billboard 3 Jul. 1948: 37.
  57. “Kay Starr Gets Own Radio Spot.” Down Beat 11 Aug. 1948: 1.
  58. “Music As Written.” Billboard 11 Sep. 1948: 21.
  59. Notice. “Bankrupt Sale Of Masters.” Billboard 12 Mar. 1949: 48.
  60. “Starr Masters To Crystalette.” Billboard 26 Mar. 1949: 45.
  61. “Starr Tries To End Pact.” Down Beat 6 May 1949: 1.
  62. “Starr, Venuti On The Cover.” Down Beat 3 Jun. 1949: 1.
  63. “Modern & Starr Dress Beef To Cut New Platter.” Billboard 4 Jun. 1949: 21.
  64. “Vera Fanning Wins Exam Before Trial.” Billboard 29 Oct. 1949: 16.
  65. “Record Reviews.” Billboard 26 Nov. 1949: 164.
  66. “Kay, Frankie On The Cover.” Down Beat 16 Dec. 1949: 1.
  67. “Can't Make Money As A Jazz Singer: Starr.” Down Beat 15 Dec. 1950: 6.
  68. “Modern Into EP's With Starr Disk.” Billboard 30 May. 1953: 48.
  69. “The Year's Top Popular Records.” Billboard 13 Jan. 1951: 18.
  70. “The Year's Top Popular Artists.” Billboard 13 Jan. 1951: 18.
  71. “Everyone in the Act On 1954 Hit Songs.” Billboard 1 Jan. 1955: 9.
  72. Advertisement. “The Rock and Roll Waltz.” Billboard 17 Dec. 1955: 47.
  73. “The Billboard Ninth Annual Disk Jockey Poll.” Billboard 10 Nov. 1956: 22.