Kay Kyser

Photo of Kay Kyser
  • Birth Name

    James Kern Kyser
  • Born

    June 8, 1905
    Rocky Mount, North Carolina
  • Died

    July 23, 1985 (age 80)
    North Carolina

Though one of the most suc­cess­ful, if not the most suc­cess­ful, of all the big band lead­ers, Kay Kyser has largely been for­got­ten to­day. For thir­teen years, his College of Musical Knowledge was one of the high­est rated pro­grams on ra­dio and on tele­vi­sion. Dubbed the Ol’ Professor,” Kyser also had a suc­cess­ful film ca­reer and was one of the biggest celebri­ties of his day.

Kyser got his start in mu­sic while a law stu­dent at the University of North Carolina. A cheer­leader, he was picked by fel­low stu­dent and fu­ture band­leader Hal Kemp to lead the school’s pop­u­lar Carolina Club Orchestra af­ter Kemp grad­u­ated in 1927. Kyser, who chose to use his mid­dle ini­tial as his stage name, ad­ver­tised for new mem­bers when school re­sumed in the fall. Among those who an­swered his call were singer/​sax player Sully Mason and arranger George Dunning, both of whom re­mained with Kyser through­out the rest of his ca­reer.

After Kyser grad­u­ated, in 1928 the band recorded a few sides for Victor un­der the name Kay Kyser and His Victor Recording Orchestra. Their records went nowhere. The group toured the coun­try for sev­eral years with­out great suc­cess. 1931 saw the ar­rival of trum­peter Merwyn Bogue, later known as Ish Kabibble.

In 1934, Kyser re­ceived his big break, once again cour­tesy of Hal Kemp. Kemp, whose or­ches­tra was fea­tured at the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago, rec­om­mended Kyser’s group as a re­place­ment act. With that en­gage­ment came ra­dio time and added no­to­ri­ety. The band proved pop­u­lar and Kyser soon earned a record­ing con­tract with Brunswick. He hired singer Ginny Simms in 1936. Bill Stoker was male vo­cal­ist. Harry Babbitt took Stoker’s place in 1937. Babbitt and Simms be­came fix­tures in Kyser’s or­ches­tra dur­ing the late 1930s and were of­ten fea­tured in duets.

Kyser ex­per­i­mented with dif­fer­ent mu­si­cal for­mats for his ra­dio pro­gram. He fi­nally hit upon the right for­mula in 1937 when he de­vel­oped a mu­si­cal quiz show, Kay Kyser’s Kampus Klass, which later be­came the College of Musical Knowledge. A big suc­cess re­gion­ally, the show was bought by Lucky Strike in 1938 and moved to New York, where it be­gan air­ing on NBC. It im­me­di­ately be­came a smash hit. Contestants won prizes and mem­bers of the lis­ten­ing au­di­ence could earn diplo­mas.

Though Kyser’s or­ches­tra ex­celled at play­ing straight num­bers, he never shied away from nov­elty tunes. With the tal­ents of Babbitt, who could sing in his high Little Audrey” voice, Mason, who sang scat num­bers, and Ish Kabibble, who would con­stantly in­ter­rupt Kyser to re­cite silly po­ems, the group was armed with a po­tent ar­se­nal, which it used quite of­ten.

In 1939, Kyser starred in his first film, That’s Right, I’m Wrong, with Lucille Ball. That same year, the or­ches­tra played at the pre­mier of Gone with the Wind and had its biggest hit, the nov­elty tune Three Little Fishes.” Simms left in December 1941 and was re­placed by Trudy Erwin, the first in a string of fe­male vo­cal­ists that in­cluded Dorothy Dunn, Julie Conway, and Diane Pendleton.

When WWII broke out in 1941, Kyser was the first star to per­form for the troops. He vowed to per­form no com­mer­cial en­gage­ments un­til the war ended, aside from out­stand­ing con­tracts. He con­tin­ued with his ra­dio pro­gram and his act­ing ca­reer, de­vot­ing his spare time to en­ter­tain­ing ser­vice­men and sell­ing war bonds. Along with ac­tors Bette Davis and John Garfield, he founded the Hollywood Canteen, where stars served and en­ter­tained sol­diers.

In 1942, a bus fire de­stroyed all the band’s arrange­ments. When their li­brary was re­built the or­ches­tra emerged with an up­dated sound that con­tin­ued to prove pop­u­lar with au­di­ences. In 1943, model and ac­tress Georgia Carroll joined the or­ches­tra as vo­cal­ist. Kyser, who had pre­vi­ously been in­volved with Simms, fell in love with Carroll, and the two were mar­ried in June of 1944.

Kyser lost Babbitt to the Navy in 1944. Don Leslie re­placed him. Leslie was fol­lowed by Mike Douglas, who later be­came a pop­u­lar talk show host. Carroll re­tired in 1946 to raise her fam­ily and Dolly Mitchell joined as vo­cal­ist. Jane Russell also recorded two songs with the band. Babbitt re­turned af­ter the war, leav­ing again in the 1946 for a solo ca­reer.

When the war ended Kyser wanted to re­tire, but con­tracts pre­vented it. For the past sev­eral years he had suf­fered from se­vere arthri­tis in his feet. Finding no help in med­i­cine he turned to Christian Science and be­came a de­vout fol­lower. Though the band and ra­dio pro­gram con­tin­ued to be suc­cess­ful, Kyser be­gan de­vot­ing more time to phil­an­thropic work. In 1948, the ra­dio pro­gram ended, but Kyser was talked into do­ing a tele­vi­sion ver­sion with the Ford Motor Company as spon­sor. Though the show was very suc­cess­ful, it was can­celled in 1950, re­port­edly be­cause Mrs. Ford did­n’t like it. Kyser took this op­por­tu­nity to fi­nally re­tire.

Kyser left show busi­ness with­out even a good­bye. Over the years, he re­fused to grant in­ter­views and turned down of­fers to per­form, which un­doubt­edly led to his fade from the pub­lic mem­ory. He de­voted the rest of his life to Christian Science, first as a prac­ti­tioner in North Carolina and later as head of the church’s film and tele­vi­sion de­part­ment in Boston. During the 1970s, he be­came a lec­turer and would of­ten agree to talk to ra­dio sta­tions about his mu­sic ca­reer if they plugged his tours. In 1983, he was elected pres­i­dent of the world­wide Christian Science church. Kay Kyser died in 1985 af­ter suf­fer­ing a heart at­tack.

Music

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  • You'd Be Surprised
    Kay Kyser (Ish Kabibble), Brunswick (1936)
  • Fit to Be Tied
    Kay Kyser (Ginny Simms), Columbia (1939)
  • Three Little Fishes
    Kay Kyser (Ish Kabbible, Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason, Ginny Simms), Brunswick (1939)
  • Hello, Mr. Kringle
    Kay Kyser (Ginny Simms, Harry Babbitt, Sully Mason, Ish Kabbible), Columbia (1939)
  • Chatterbox
    Kay Kyser (Harry Babbitt, Ginny Simms), Columbia (1940)
  • Blue Lovebird
    Kay Kyser (Ginny Simms), Columbia (1940)
  • Friendship
    Kay Kyser (Ish Kabbible, Ginny Simms, Jack Martin, Harry Babbitt), Columbia (1940)
  • I'd Know You Anywhere
    Kay Kyser (Ginny Simms), Columbia (1940)
  • You've Got Me This Way
    Kay Kyser (Harry Babbitt), Columbia (1940)
  • Who's Yehoodi?
    Kay Kyser (Sully Mason, Harry Babbitt), Columbia (1940)
  • Why Don't We Do This More Often
    Kay Kyser (Harry Babbitt, Ginny Simms), Columbia (1941)
  • Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me Again
    Kay Kyser (Georgia Carroll), Radio (1944)
  • There Goes That Song Again
    Kay Kyser (Georgia Carroll), Columbia (1945)
  • Mission Bells and Wishin' Wells
    Kay Kyser (Bob Carroll), Columbia (1949)

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Films

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  • Screenshot
    "I've Got a One Track Mind"
    Kay Kyser (Harry Babbitt, Ginny Simms)
    from the film You’ll Find Out, RKO (1940)
  • Screenshot
    "Like the Fella Once Said"
    Kay Kyser (Sully Mason, Harry Babbitt, Ginny Simms, Ish Kabbible)
    from the film You’ll Find Out, RKO (1940)

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Radio

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  • College of Musical Knowledge (Partial Program)
    1942 (NBC) 17:42