Kay Starr, Hillbilly Singer With Crossover Appeal, Dies at 94
By DAVID BELCHERNOV. 3, 2016
Kay Starr, around 1945. Metronome/Getty Images
Kay Starr, the self-described hillbilly singer who crisscrossed jazz, country, pop, blues and rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s with hits like “Wheel of Fortune” and “Rock and Roll Waltz,” died on Thursday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 94.
The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, her daughter and only immediate survivor, Katherine Yardley, said.
Ms. Starr, whose career began when she was a teenager and continued into her 80s, was a rarity: a singer who blossomed in the big-band era of the 1930s and 1940s, hit it big as a pop and country artist, and scored one of her biggest hits in the emerging rock scene of the mid-1950s.
When her style eventually faded from the pop charts, she continued to tour for decades, performing, to her surprise, to devoted crowds.
“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 the stage,” she once told an interviewer. But she never did.
She was born Katherine Laverne Starks on July 21, 1922, in Dougherty, Okla., to an Irish-American mother and an Iroquois father. (She also claimed Cherokee and Choctaw heritage on both sides of her family.)
Her singing career began in childhood. After she moved to Dallas with her family, she began singing to the chickens in the backyard, catching the ear of an aunt, who entered her in a local radio talent contest. Kay became a local radio sensation at age 7 and eventually had her own 15-minute show twice a week, earning $3 a performance.
Ms. Starr in 2006. Fred Prouser/Reuters
She changed her last name to Starr because, she said, too many fans misheard it that way.
When she was 15 her family moved to Memphis, where she was chosen to sing with the violinist Joe Venuti’s orchestra during an extended engagement at the Peabody Hotel. Her parents agreed but insisted that she be home by midnight.
“In those days you couldn’t bring a child into a place that sold mixed drinks,” she recalled in an interview with the Seattle radio station KUOW in 2006. “I’d go and get my evening gown and shut my mouth up until it was time to sing, so they didn’t know what age I was. Joe Venuti told everyone that my mother was my sister. She loved that.”
Starr’s first records were “Baby Me” and “Love With a Capital ‘You,’” made with the Glenn Miller Orchestra when she was 16 after Miller had hired her to fill in for an ailing Marion Hutton. The records weren’t a huge success. Ms. Starr had had to sing arrangements written in a key too high for her, making her sound like a “jazzed-up Alfalfa,” as she once put it — a self-mocking reference to the child actor known for his earnest but off-key singing.
Ms. Starr moved to Los Angeles after high school and sang with the trumpeter Wingy Manone’s band, then with the saxophonist Charlie Barnet’s. While performing for World War II soldiers one night, she fainted in the wings and was hospitalized for pneumonia. Many, including Ms. Starr herself, felt the infection lightened her voice.
Ms. Starr took a year off to recuperate, and when she resumed her career her voice had returned to its old, huskier self. After going solo in 1946, she signed with the newly formed Capitol Records the next year.
For a while she was overshadowed by two more successful female singers on Capitol, Margaret Whiting and Peggy Lee. That changed when Ms. Starr had a breakthrough hit with “You Were Only Fooling (While I Was Falling in Love)” in 1948, followed by two songs tinged with country and folk, “Oh, Babe!” and “Hoop-Dee-Doo.”
Her big break came with her recording of the country song “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” shortly after Pee Wee King’s instrumental version became a Top 10 country hit in 1950. Her rendition sold a million copies, and her crossover into country music continued when she recorded four duets with Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Ms. Starr flanked by Louis Armstrong and Tony Bennett in a television appearance. Frank Carroll/NBCU Photo Bank, via Getty Images
“Ernie sang the kind of music I grew up on,” Ms. Starr once said. “He talked the way I did and phrased a song the way I did.”
The hits continued: “Come On-a My House” (which had already been a hit for Rosemary Clooney) reached No. 8 on the pop chart in 1952, and that same year she released what is probably her best-known song, “Wheel of Fortune,” which was No. 1 for 10 weeks. The next year brought another hit, “Side by Side,” which went to No. 3.
Ms. Starr signed with RCA Victor in 1955 and recorded “Rock and Roll Waltz” (“A-one, two, and then rock, / A-one, two, and then roll …”), which became a huge hit in the early years of rock ’n’ roll, spending six weeks at No. 1. Ms. Starr often said that she never really cared for the song but “liked it because everyone else liked it.”
Her last big hit was “My Heart Reminds Me” in 1957.
Still, she retained enough of a following to keep the work coming. She played Las Vegas and Atlantic City and toured the country off and on from the 1960s through the 1990s. In the 1980s she was part of the touring show “4 Girls 4” (sometimes known as “3 Girls 3”), whose often-changing cast variously included Ms. Clooney, Helen O’Connell, Ms. Whiting, Rose Marie and Kaye Ballard.
Ms. Starr stayed intermittently active, and her fans stayed loyal, into the 21st century: She recorded a duet with Tony Bennett on his 2001 album “Playin’ With My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues.”
Ms. Starr had six husbands (she rarely talked about them in interviews), including, briefly in 1953, the bandleader and composer Vic Schoen.
“I am a firm believer that a singer is no more than an actor or an actress set to music,” Ms. Starr once said. “They learn the story, they tell the story, and if they don’t tell the story right, people are not going to like it no matter what the melody is.”