The voice of Kitty Kallen helped sell millions of recordings during the big band era. Though she sang with three of the most popular orchestras in the business, she had a hard time parlaying that into success as a solo artist. When she finally did break out as a major star in the mid-1950s, the stress involved with that transition caused her psychological problems that effectively killed her career.
Growing up in a poor section of Philadelphia, Kallen got her start in show business at a young age on that city’s Horn & Hardart Children’s Hour radio show. As a teenager, she sang on local station WCAU as a staff vocalist and by late 1937 had become part of Gil Fitch’s hometown orchestra. She had joined Jack Teagarden by August 1939,, initially sharing the vocal female duties with Dolores O’Neill, an arrangement that didn’t work out. O’Neill soon left, with Kallen remaining as Teagarden’s sole girl singer.
Kallen married Teagarden clarinetist Clint Garvin and left the group in March 1940 to join him in Nashville, where he had gone to take care of his sick parents. While in Nasvhille, Kallen joined radio station WSM as a staff vocalist. Among other duties she appeared on the nationally broadcast Sunday Down South with Beasley Smith’s orchestra and male vocalist Gene Howard. When Teagarden played Nashville in July 1941, she and Garvin arranged for their return to the band, starting in August. Down Beat featured Kallen and Teagarden on the cover of their January 1, 1942, issue. She remained with Teagarden until March 1942 when the bandleader fired Garvin during an economic purge. She and Garvin later divorced.
After leaving Teagarden, Kallen settled on the West Coast to try her hand at radio and pictures, quickly lining up a sustaining program on NBC, Kitty Kallen Calling, where she sang accompanied by organist Bob Mitchell. Later that year, she recorded with Bobby Sherwood’s orchestra on the Capitol label and made several soundies for RCM.
In January 1943, Kallen joined Jimmy Dorsey, where she replaced the recently-departed Helen O’Connell. Often singing duets with Bob Eberly, she stayed with Dorsey until December, when she took time off from the band due to the flu. She never returned, instead joining Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music Hall show in Los Angeles during January 1944. In May, Kallen joined Harry James, where she reached the height of her popularity. Fans voted her second best female band vocalist in Billboard magazine’s 1944 high school poll and seventh in the 1945 college poll. Kallen place second in Down Beat magazine’s 1945 poll for best female band singer.
Kallen left James in November 1945 to go solo again, heading east for a series of night club and theater dates. Back on the West Coast, Kallen recorded on the Musicraft label in 1946, both as a solo artist and as a vocalist on an Artie Shaw album of Cole Porter songs. That year she also co-hosted the CBS radio program, Holiday for Music, with Curt Massey.
In early 1947, Kallen headed East for club work in New York. In April she was chosen to replace star Ella Logan in the Broadway hit Finian’s Rainbow. She pulled out of the deal, however, after Logan kept delaying her departure from the show, preferring to make other commitments. She appeared with Doris Day on the cover of Down Beat magazine’s April 9, 1947, issue. When Day left Your Hit Parade later that year, NBC offered Kallen the job, but she refused, not wanting to set up permanent residence on the East Coast.
Late 1947 and early 1948 found Kallen doing club work in New York and Chicago. In February 1948, she married New York press agent Bud Granoff, temporarily retiring mid-year after becoming pregnant. The couple had a son in November, and Kallen resumed her career in January 1949, hitting the New York club circuit and signing with Mercury. RKO contracted her for a series of film shorts mid-year, and in late 1949 Paramount made a short musical film based on her life.
Kallen recorded on Mercury into 1951, and in March 1952 she reunited with Harry James to record four songs on Columbia. While she continued to find steady work, by the early 1950s she had mostly fallen out of the public’s eye. In late 1953, she signed with Decca but had to self-fund her first recording session because no producer was willing to take the financial risk. Her luck turned around in late 1954 when she unexpectedly scored a hit with the song “Little Things Mean a Lot.” The tune sold over a million copies, and Kallen suddenly found herself in high demand and earning three times the salary she’d earned before the song’s success. In early 1955, she signed a $100,000 deal with the Riviera night club in Las Vegas for a series of three-week appearances over the next three years. That same year, she also made her only motion picture appearance, a lead role in Universal’s musical western The Second Greatest Sex.
The sudden success experienced by Kallen took its toll on her mentally. Late in 1955, she stopped singing in public due to a paralyzing fear that caused her to lose her voice every time she faced an audience. She remained out of the public eye for four years, though she recorded four sides for Decca in 1956, before finally overcoming the psychological affliction. After resuming her career in 1963, she continued singing through the mid-1960s.
In 1978, reports of Kallen’s death circulated prematurely after a woman who died in a Los Angeles hospital told staff that her stage name was Kitty Kallen. Kitty Kallen passed away in 2016, age 94.
Kallen billed herself as 16 years old when she joined Teagarden, though she was actually 18. ↩︎
According to one newspaper article, Kallen’s marriage and departure upset Teagarden, and he enacted a new rule that girl singers could not date members of the band. ↩︎
Kallen continued to sing solo on the radio during her time with Dorsey. ↩︎
James was rebuilding at the time after having disbanded due to impending military service. Instead, James was reclassified 4-F. ↩︎