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.


Previous <<
Play > Pause ||
Next >>
0:00 / 0:00
Select a song to play
Play All
  • 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)

All recordings are from the Internet Archive's 78rpm collection. Copyright owners, please see our removal policy.


Select a video to play
  • 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)

We embed media from YouTube and the Internet Archive. Items may disappear on those services without notice. If you run across something that's no longer available, please let us know so we can remove the embed.

Copyright owners, please see our removal policy.


Previous <<
Play > Pause ||
Next >>
0:00 / 0:00
Select a program to play
Play All
  • College of Musical Knowledge (Partial Program)
    1942 (NBC) 17:42