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 twelve years, his College of Musical Knowledge was one of the highest rated programs on radio. Dubbed the “Ol’ Professor,” Kyser also had a successful film career and dedicated much of his time to entertaining troops during the war.
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 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 most 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. By January 1935, he had hired singer Ginny Simms as female vocalist. 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, which often proved to be the band’s most popular songs. 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 World War II 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 1944.
Kyser lost Babbitt to the Navy in 1944. Don Leslie replaced him. Leslie was followed in 1945 by Mike Douglas, who later became better-known as a popular talk show host. Ish Kabibble also fell victim to the draft. As part of his Army duties, however, he was assigned to Kyser’s band, performing with them on their camp tours.
The Town Criers vocal group joined the band in mid-1944 and remained through the end of 1946, dividing their time between Kyser and Bob Crosby. Carroll, expecting a child, retired at the end of 1945, and Kyser made Town Crier Lucy Ann Polk his featured female vocalist, billing her as “Lucyann Polk.” She remained with the orchestra through at least the end of 1946.
Kyser went through a profound change while playing for troops during the war:
After I came back from entertaining the boys in the Pacific, I was so impressed with the difference between service audiences and those who had paid to be entertained or had come in free. After 1945, I never again played before a paying audience. All the appearances were for hospitals, service camps, etc.
Loosing interest in his career, Kyser attempted to retire in 1946, but contractual obligations ultimately prevented it. For the past several years, he had also 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.
After the war, Kyser kept busy with his radio program and frequent appearances at military camps and hospitals, mostly using studio bands rather than maintaining his own orchestra. Upon his discharge, Ish Kabibble rejoined Kyser’s radio show and touring unit, followed by Babbitt in January 1947, though with little to do outside of those obligations both men continued to tour as solo artists. Actress and singer Jane Russell recorded two songs with the band in 1947, and Georgia Carroll came out of retirement to record one song in 1949. After Babbitt dropped out in 1948, Bill Darnell became the band’s male vocalist. Bob Carroll recorded with the band in the following year.
In 1949, 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, moving to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Over the years, he rarely granted interviews and turned down offers to perform, which undoubtedly led to his fade from the public memory. After retiring, he helped establish, without pay, the University of North Carolina’s educational television station and worked on a statewide traffic safety program. He then devoted the rest of his life to Christian Science, first as a practitioner 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.