Kay Starr: a true Star(r) right to the end

July 9, 2017 at 2:29 pm (good people, jazz, posted by JD, song, The blues, United States)

Katherine Laverne Starks (aka Kay Starr) July 21 1922 – Nov 3, 2016

One of my favourite singers, Kay Starr, died last November almost unnoticed, despite the fact that she’d had some big hits (Wheel Of Fortune, Rock And Roll Waltz, etc) in the 50’s.

Kay came up in the late thirties and sang with the big bands of Joe Venuti, Bob Crosby, Glenn Miller and Charlie Barnett, but was equally at home with hillbilly music, small group jazz and the blues. Legend has it that Billie Holiday said Kay (whose dad was Native American and mum Irish) was the only “white gal” who could really sing the blues.

I meant to write something at the time of her death, but somehow didn’t get round to it. However, this month’s Just Jazz magazine carries a delightful reminiscence by US bandleader Jim Beatty that deserves a wider readership. It’s not altogether politically correct, but exudes affection, respect and a little bit of sadness.

Remembering Kay Starr
By Jim Beatty

When I was a young guy in high school Kay Starr was one of the most popular singers on the United States pop charts. But she covered all the bases and sang all styles from Country, Swing, to jazz. Not only that, she was cute and good looking — the kind of girl that my friends and I would love to have a date with.

She was born in Dougherty, Oklahoma in 1922, her father was a full blown Iroquois Indian and her mother was Irish. Kay’s family did not make a lot of money, but raised chickens at home and every day when Kay got out of school she came home and sang to the chickens. Her parents entered her into a talent contest: she won, and that led to a 15-minute record show at three dollars a show. They later moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and she went into radio there as well. Jazz violinist Joe Venuti was passing through town with his band and listened to her sing on the radio and offered her a job. She was only 15 years old and still in school, but she sang with Joe and his band in the summertime when school was out. Joe Venuti was very protective of her and on top of that her mother came with her to all her jobs. She was with the Glenn Miller Orchestra for two months before going with Charlie Barnett and his band in 1945. She later went on her own as a featured singer and in 1956 recorded the number one hit in the United States and UK – The Rock And Roll Waltz. Kay followed that with more smash hits, such as Side By Side and Wheel Of Fortune.

David Christopher had booked Kay into his Lyons English Grille showroom on Memorial Day weekend 2010, and asked me if I’d like to play the show. Of course I was there with bells on. I met Kay in the musicians’ room so we could all run over the show together. She was wonderful to talk to and surprised that I knew so much about her early life singing jazz with Joe Venuti. We had a packed house that night and Kay sang many of her favourites, along with a beautiful rendition of If You Love Me. That night turned out to be Kay Starr’s last public appearance.

Following the show, Katie (that’s what her friends called her), her assistant Ann, along with David Christopher and I, sat down and relaxed with some drinks. I noticed that my scotch and water was disappearing rapidly and I didn’t remember even having a sip. What was happening was Katie chugalugging her scotch and water and switching her glass with me when I wasn’t looking, putting her empty glass in front of me and taking my full one. We later heard from her assistant Ann, that Katie loved her scotch and you had to keep an eye on her at all times.

David Christopher and I went to a restaurant and got some cold sandwiches which we brought back to Katie’s hotel room. So there I was, sitting on a bed with Kay Starr, eating a sandwich and drinking a glass of white wine. My childhood dream came true and I was in bed with Kay Starr. The only trouble was that I was 76 years old and Kay was 88, plus we were accompanied by Kay’s assistant and David Christopher. Katie hadn’t lost her sense of humour and when we opened the sliding door onto the hotel patio to leave —  she said, very loudly so everyone could hear — “Thanks for the business, boys!”

Below: Kay Starr with Les Paul in New York, five years before the final gig with Jim:

 

2 Comments

  1. Les said,

    wow, jim, thanks for posting this. i remember hearing her songs on the radio back when i was a little kid, in, of all places, oklahoma. in fact, that one song, “it’s a good day” really evokes memories of my childhood.

    • Jim Denham said,

      Glad you liked it, Les: I thought it was a lovely little reminiscence and I hope Jim Beatty doesn’t mind me republishing it without permission.

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