The enduring, versatile voice of Kay Starr

Created date

April 29th, 2019
A headshot of a young Kay Starr

A headshot of a young Kay Starr

She had a voice that could belt out any tune from any musical genre. Whether pop, blues, jazz, or country, Kay Starr’s vocals poured honey into the ears of television-watching, record-buying audiences for decades.

Starting from early childhood, she was a gifted singer. Born Katherine Laverne Starks in Oklahoma in 1922, Starr grew up in a humble, middle-American family.

Her father worked installing sprinkler systems; her mother raised chickens. Starr would often visit the coop to sing to the birds.

Although her parents don’t appear to have encouraged her talent, she did not go unnoticed by other relatives. When Starr turned seven, her aunt got her niece a gig singing on a radio station in Dallas, where the family had relocated.

WRR radio gave Starr a 15-minute show after she won first place in multiple talent contests. On her program, she sang a range of music from country to pop.

At just ten years old, she was earning as much as $3 per night (about $55 today), and this during the Great Depression, no less. National fame surely loomed on the horizon.

Starr’s father switched jobs a short time later, moving his family to Memphis, Tenn. Here, his daughter picked up where she left off in Dallas, regularly performing on the radio.

Singing mostly swing music, she’d amassed a fan club through local station WMPS. Thanks to numerous misspellings in letters from her admirers, the rising vocalist known to family as Katherine Starks officially changed her name.

And thus, Kay Starr was born.

Foray into jazz

Only 15 years old, the newly branded Starr was a lead singer with jazz pioneer Joe Venuti’s orchestra. While a significant steppingstone in her career, she truly hit the big leagues in 1939, singing with greats Glenn Miller and Bing Crosby.

Her success notwithstanding, Starr, much to her credit, completed high school before relocating to Los Angeles, Calif. Soon thereafter, she took up with jazz trumpeter Joseph “Wingy” Manone’s band, then, in 1943, saxophonist Charlie Barnet.

Starr kept a grueling schedule that eventually affected her health. In 1945, she took a year-long hiatus after developing pneumonia as well as strain-induced vocal nodules.

This respite did her much good, and in 1946, she came back swinging as a soloist, signing a deal with Capitol Records.  The problem, however, was the existing roster of already-famous female recording artists like Jo Stafford, Peggy Lee, and Ella Mae Morse, who had first dibs on the hottest songs.

This left Starr with the B-side scraps that wouldn’t sell. So she adapted her own version of an A-side track based on a nineteenth-century fiddle tune called “Bonaparte’s Retreat.”

With reworked lyrics and a jazz/swing-infused score, Starr recorded the song, which Capitol released in 1950. It sold nearly a million copies.

She had another smash with “Wheel of Fortune” (1952).

Five years later, Starr signed with RCA Victor Records, recording numbers distinctive for their unusual blend of styles. For instance, her cut “Rockin’ Chair” (1958) was a unique concoction of blues, jazz, pop, and rock.

In her final year at RCA, she reached the top 10 in the charts with “My Heart Reminds Me” (1959). But not even her exceptional voice could stem the rising tide that was rock ‘n’ roll.

Shift to television

Small, guitar-driven ensemble bands like Bill Haley and the Comets and Buddy Holly and the Crickets quickly dominated the airwaves and shelf space in neighborhood record shops. Nonetheless, Starr rejoined Capitol Records around 1960 but shifted her focus to television.

Throughout the decade, she frequently guest-starred on variety shows like The Red Skelton Hour and Club Oasis.

By the late 1960s, Starr had become more of a cult favorite than a chart topper, and yet she stayed busy, touring the United States and Great Britain and partnering with Count Basie on the album How About This (1969).

Over the next 30 years, she continued to perform at home and abroad, releasing a live album and accompanying acts that included Pat Boone and Tony Bennett. She never lost her sterling reputation as a versatile vocalist.

Legendary singer Billie Holiday once remarked that Starr was “the only white woman who could sing the blues.”

Admired and imitated by many, she kept on performing until Alzheimer’s silenced her voice and ultimately ended her life in 2016. She was 94.

Select albums

Songs by Kay Starr, 1950

The Kay Starr Style, 1953

In a Blue Mood, 1955

The One—The Only, 1955

Blue Starr, 1957

Rockin’ With Kay, 1958

Movin’, 1959

Losers, Weepers, 1960

Jazz Singer, 1960

I Cry by Night, 1962

When the Lights Go On Again, 1968

How About This, 1969

Back to the Roots, 1975

Kay Starr, 1981

Live at Freddy’s, 1997