Kay Starr - Biography

By Jonny Whiteside


            While Kay Starr, the big-voiced singer best known for her hit 1952 , ”Wheel of Fortune”, is nominally designated as a pop vocalist, it is important to remember that she got her start as straight-up, legitimate jazz singer; Starr herself always characterized herself as "saloon singer who tells a story with each song." Starr's vibrant phrasing, rich tone and phenomenal sense of rhythm made her one of the biggest singing stars in post-war America, but her origins were pure country.


            Born Katherine LaVerne Starks in Dougherty, Oklahoma, on July 21, 1922, she used to perform solo recitals as a child--using an empty crate as a 'piano' to an audience of chickens. After the family relocated to Texas, Starr entered radio station WRR weekly talent contest in Dallas, and after she started winning it every time, the station gave her (now billed as Katherine Starr) a fifteen minute show, where she sang country and pop hits. By thirteen, now living with her parents in Memphis, Tennessee, Starr had already landed her own fifteen minute radio show on WREC, plus she was also regularly featured on the more big-time WMPS Saturday Night Jubilee.


            In 1937, the great violinist-bandleader Joe Venuti, a legitimate jazz musician who made his bones in the roaring twenties playing in a variety of bands alongside the likes of Bix Beiderbecke and the Dorsey Brothers, had dispatched his road manager to the musician's union in search of a contractually required girl singer (no easy task, considering that Venuti would accept only a top flight talent). No one who met the bill was available, but driving back from the union hall, he caught Starr's broadcast on the car radio, found a pay phone and called the radio station. Although unfamiliar with Venuti, when Starr learned they were booked for two weeks at the prestigious Peabody Hotel, she knew it was the proverbial big break, but, she told him, "you're going to have to talk to my mom and dad."


            "How old are you?"


            "I'm almost 15!"


            Despite her parents misgivings, Starr got the job--at hefty fifty dollars a week, and the two week gig turned into a two and a half year association with Venuti. Starr's mother--introducing herself as the singer's sister--went on the road with them, and Starr gained invaluable experience ("If you make a mistake," he told her, "make it so loud that everybody else sounds wrong"), actively burnishing her formidable natural gift over the course of innumerable dance jobs and club dates with the Venuti band. The violinist was also generous; when he learned that Bob Crosby's Bobcats, a hot Dixieland outfit led by Der Bingle's brother, needed a female singer, Venuti knew it was the logical next step for Starr and recommended her to Crosby's manager. After a stint with Crosby, she was drafted by swing overlord Glenn Miller (to replace the ailing Marion Hutton), with  whom she made her first recordings. Starr went out as a "single" and arrived in Hollywood during WWII.  There she sang with the wild one-armed cornetist Wingy Malone, and later, with the hard-charging swing bandleader, Charlie Barnet. She had such an artfully aggressive style that belter Frankie Laine would use her as substitute when circumstances called him away from an engagement . By 1947, she had a contract with Capitol Records, the fast-rising company founded four years earlier by Johnny Mercer and Glenn Wallichs.


            The label already had Jo Stafford, Peggy Lee, Margaret Whiting, Ella Mae Morse, June Christy and Nellie Lutcher, but Starr presented a new breed, with a harder sound and irresistible mix of force and subtlety that set her apart from the pack. It was all instinct; Starr never took a voice lesson, but did attempt to learn music--once. "It got in the way of  my trying to 'tell the story' . . I can hear something once and know it," she said, "I may not know all the words but I know where the notes go." This method, based on spontaneous interpretive prowess rather than following a chart, resulted in spectacular performances, but often left musicians scratching their heads. "I have a tendency to change the melody--I carry phrases over or let words go loose, let the band play and then I come in."  As her bandleader at Capitol, Van Alexander, told her, "I make arrangements for singers all the time, and when there's a hole, they sing. You sing and where there's a hole, I get to arrange--it's backwards, but it's wonderful. Don't change a thing."


            Starr's debut "You've Got To See Mamma Ev'ry Night," didn't set the world on fire, but her next single, "You Were Only Foolin' (While I Was Falling in Love)," climbed to #16 on Billboard's pop chart; shortly after that, her "So Tired" single made the Top Ten and over the next eight years she had more than two dozen Top Forty hits. But it was "Wheel of Fortune" that really put her on the map, staying at number one for almost a month, establishing her as a major force in pop music and supplying her with an instantly recognizable signature song.


            When her contract expired with Capitol (she felt they did not devote enough time to her), she moved to RCA in 1956, and there managed another number one hit with her first single, novelty romp, "The Rock & Roll Waltz."  She had temporarily outsmarted the big beat--on Elvis' own label--and her touring schedule was rewarding, but the market's shift away from pop vocals made it tougher to chart a hit. Starr returned to Capitol, and recorded some of her best albums, starting with the choice, jumping jazz platter Movin' (1959 Capitol) followed by the blues-tinged torch sets Losers, Weepers…(1960 Capitol) and I Cry By Night (1962 Capitol) and a return to her hillbilly roots with Just Plain County (1962 Capitol).


            By 1966, she and the label parted ways again, and as Starr joked "When they brought in rock, hard rock and acid rock, I thought God was trying to tell me it was my turn to get off stage." Of course she did the opposite, working regular engagements in Las Vegas and around the world, and recording one-off albums on a series of independent labels. In the 1980s she teamed with colleagues Rosemary Clooney, Helen O'Connell and Martha Raye, touring as The New 4 Girls 4, and in 1997 the inclusion of  "Wheel of Fortune" on neo-noir flick LA Confidential soundtrack gave her a bump in recognition. Starr recorded "Blue And Sentimental" as a duet with Tony Bennett on the singers Playin' with My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues  (2001 Columbia), but is essentially retired.





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