Kay Starr (Katherine Laverne Starks) July 21, 1922 – November 3, 2016
As a teenager in the 1950’s, I’m pretty sure that I didn’t catch on to the fact that a revolution was occurring in popular music. (Come to think of it, I missed a lot of things in those days — but that’s another story.) Early rock and roll was evolving, merging the sounds from rockabilly, R&B, and other musical genres into something new and exciting.
But the changing atmosphere in pop music sometimes created an awkward fit for established stars, and many of them floundered when they tried to dip their toes into new waters. Others sort of went with the flow and even poked a little fun at the whole thing, and that was the route taken by Kay Starr, who ended up with a huge hit from her clever novelty tune, “Rock And Roll Waltz.”
By that time in her career, Kay was a veteran jazz singer with a solid background in radio and as a singer for the big bands. She’d also had a number of record hits, including her biggest, “Wheel Of Fortune.” (Video below.) It was quite a life for a girl born on a reservation in Oklahoma, the daughter of an American Indian father and part-Indian mother.
She’d grown up singing, and while still a teenager in the 1930’s began to attract some attention by appearing in local shows and on radio. She soon found herself entering the world of the songbirds – female band vocalists – by being recruited into Joe Venuti’s group, then moving on to sing briefly with Glenn Miller before returning home to finish high school!
During the war years Kay sang with Venuti again and also some other bands, including those of Charlie Barnet and others. During that period she began making some waves with many of her songs, but her career hit a snag in 1945 when she became very ill with pneumonia, and although she eventually recovered her voice was not the same. She took some time off, decided not to chance surgery, and finally began singing again but with a huskier and deeper sound.
It apparently worked out pretty well for her, because in the post-war years she had some of her best selling records, including “You Were Only Foolin’ (While I Was Falling in Love),” “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” and “Hoop-Dee-Doo.” It was a period of solid success for her, and it seemed as if she was everywhere for a while, including appearing as part of a successful duet with Tennessee Ernie Ford.
She continued to thrive into the mid-1950’s and sold a lot of records with “Rock And Roll Waltz,” but it was to be her last big hit, although she remained a popular and respected entertainer for decades. In fact, she’s still around and has a website dedicated to her. Kay Starr — one of the best.