Joe Venuti

Photo of Joe Venuti
  • Birth Name

    Giuseppe Venuti
  • Born

    September 16, 1903
    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Died

    August 14, 1978 (age 74)
    Seattle, Washington
  • Featured Vocalists

    Don Darcy
    Kay Starr

Jazz violinist Joe Venuti is best remembered for his recordings of the 1920s and early 1930s. Venuti was classically trained on the violin and had a natural skill unrivaled by his contemporaries. He often used a technique, which he invented, that allowed him to play four-note chords. Venuti lead his own swing band during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Mostly forgotten today, his orchestra made only a handful of recordings and never had major radio time. The most lasting legacy of his band was the discovery of vocalist Kay Starr.

Though it’s often written that Venuti was born on the ocean liner which brought his Italian immigrant parents to the United States, official birth records show that he was born at 1010 Christian Street in Philadelphia. Venuti was boyhood friends with jazz guitar pioneer Eddie Lang. During the mid-1920s, they began an association that lasted until Lang’s untimely death in 1933, recording frequently under several different titles and working together with many of the best artists of their day.

Band Years

Venuti formed his orchestra in 1936, though it wasn’t until 1937 when he hired vocalists Don Darcy and Kay Starr. Venuti was known for his wild sense of humor, and many stories circulated about his antics. Darcy’s hiring was one of them. As Darcy told it, he earned his position with Venuti after approaching the bandstand one night and bragging that he could sing like Bing Crosby, to which Venuti replied that he couldn’t possible sing like Crosby because he had hair and Crosby was balding. Taking it as a challenge, Darcy shaved his head the next day to resemble Crosby’s balding pate and showed up again that night. Venuti hired him. Whether the tale is true or not is unknown, as apparently many stories circulated about pranks played between the two men, including one that told of Venuti trussing up Darcy and suspending him over a theater pit with a tarpon and pole, which Darcy said was untrue.

Starr joined Venuti in late 1937 after the violinist heard her singing on Memphis radio. She was only fifteen years old at the time. In mid-1939, Venuti fired all but two of his band one night in Austin, Texas, hiring the entirety of the Mitt Evans orchestra in their place. Starr left the band around this time, though it’s uncertain if the two events are connected. Starr sang for Bob Crosby and Glenn Miller after leaving Venuti but eventually returned home to Memphis to finish high school. 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.

In mid-1940, Venuti organized a new band with the intention of breaking it big. The orchestra featured former Benny Goodman star trumpet player Ziggy Elman, but it relied on chopped-up stock arrangements that didn’t give musicians the chance to show their talent to the best effect. Both Darcy and Starr remained as vocalists. Venuti revamped the orchestra in May 1941, adding better musicians and better arrangements. This time, both Darcy and Starr were let go, with a vocal quartet hired in their place. Venuti changed his mind on Starr, however, after seeing audience reaction to her one evening, and he decided to keep her. She remained with Venuti until he disbanded in early 1944.

Later Career

After scrapping his orchestra, Venuti settled down on his ranch north of Hollywood and planned only studio and radio work from that point onward. In the latter half of 1944, he became musical director of the popular Duffy’s Tavern radio program. In June 1945, he formed a new orchestra composed of studio and radio musicians who were free to work on weekends or week nights. The band debuted at the Palladium in Hollywood that month, with Starr rejoining him as vocalist. Starr was gone by the next month. It’s unknown how long Venuti kept the new orchestra active.

Venuti kept busy doing studio and radio work into the 1950s. Problems with alcohol led to him virtually dropping out of sight in the early 1960s. He settled in Seattle, Washington, in 1963. Urged back into the limelight, he performed at the 1968 Newport Jazz Festival and experienced a revival in the 1970s. He became extremely active, recording with a slew of jazz and pop stars and appearing on television. His second round of fame was short, however. Joe Venuti succumbed to cancer and died in 1978 at age 74.


  1. Simon, George T. The Big Bands. 4th ed. New York: Schirmer, 1981.
  2. “Eddie Lang Junked Fiddle And Became Greatest of 'Em All.” Down Beat May 1939: 16.
  3. “Stop Press!” Down Beat Jun. 1939: 2.
  4. “Night Club Reviews: Frank Sebastian's, Culver City, California.” Billboard 8 Jan. 1938: 20.
  5. “The Reviewing Stand: Joe Venuti.” Billboard 31 Dec. 1938: 67.
  6. “I'll Stay With Uncle Joe.” Down Beat 15 Feb. 1940: 19.
  7. “Kay Starr Gets a Job and a Ring.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1940: 21.
  8. “I'll Stick to Cab.” Down Beat 1 Mar. 1940: 22.
  9. “The Reviewing Stand: Joe Venuti.” Billboard 16 Mar. 1940: 13.
  10. “Tied Notes.” Down Beat 1 Apr. 1940: 10.
  11. “Venuti Stops Clowning; His New Band Excites.” Down Beat 12 Sep. 1940: 12.
  12. “Vaudeville Reviews: RKO Palace, Cleveland.” Billboard 22 Feb. 1941: 24.
  13. Herzog, Buck. “Reviews of the New Films.” The Milwaukee Sentinel 22 Feb. 1941: 6.
  14. “Vaudeville Reviews: Stanley, Pittsburgh.” Billboard 15 Mar. 1941: 22.
  15. “Andrews Gals Big 24G in Pittsburgh.” Billboard 22 Mar. 1941: 20.
  16. “New Band, New Outlook For Venuti.” Down Beat 15 May 1941: 2.
  17. “Biagini Managing New Venuti Band.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1941: 1.
  18. Advertisement. “Joe Venuti.” The Delta Democrat-Times [Greenville, Mississippi] 1 Feb. 1942: 5.
  19. “Night Club Reviews: Club Gloria, Columbus, O.” Billboard 18 Apr. 1942: 12.
  20. Advertisement. “Centennial Terrace.” Adrian Daily Telegram [Adrian, Michigan] 11 Jun. 1942: 2.
  21. “Venuti and Band Aid Red Cross Campaign.” Down Beat 1 May 1943: 8.
  22. “Kay and Joe On the Cover.” Down Beat 15 Jul. 1943: 1.
  23. “Vaudeville Reviews: National, Louisville.” Billboard 11 Sep. 1943: 18.
  24. “Venuti, Boswell $17,000 in Omaha.” Billboard 16 Oct. 1943: 17.
  25. “Venuti Sent By Home on Range.” Down Beat 15 Apr. 1944: 7.
  26. “Star Duster Selects Stars.” Down Beat 1 Sep. 1944: 1.
  27. “New Venuti Ork On West Coast.” Down Beat 15 Jun. 1945: 1.
  28. Holly, Hal. “Los Angeles Band Briefs.” Down Beat 1 Jul. 1945: 6.