Of Kay Kyser and His Kollege of Musical Knowledge

Some little attention today to big bandleader Kay Kyser (James Kern Kyser, 1905-1985), a major pop culture figure of the 1940s whose early retirement in 1950 robbed fans of his ebullient personality, but who fostered careers of others who outlasted him by decades. Though Kay is customarily a woman’s name, in his case it is the first initial of his middle name, which by the way is not in honor of Jerome Kern, who in any case was not yet famous at the time of Kyser’s birth.

Though no musician, Kyser was a popular kid (class president, in fact) at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where fellow student Hal Kemp had a band. When Kemp left the area to pursue his career in the ’20s, he handed the band over to Kyser. Kyser and his orchestra crisscrossed the midwest for years playing nightclubs, restaurants and the like, eventually settling into a popular long term engagement at The Blackhawk in Chicago. Though he delegated musical chores, such as charting and arrangements, Kyser led his band with pep and humor in the tradition of Ted Lewis and Ben Bernie. His nickname was “The Ol’ Perfessor” and he was known for a number of catchphrases delivered in his native North Carolina twang. His most popular gimmick was a musical quiz he would give to involve audience members, and this became his Kollege of Musical Knowledge.

1939 was his breakthrough year, when he got his national radio show (which would be broadcast on all three major networks over the next decade), had a #1 hit the song “Three Little Fishes”, and starred in the film That’s Right — You’re Wrong (named after one of his catchphrases), which also featured Adolphe Menjou, Lucille Ball, May Robson, Edward Everett Horton, Dennis O’Keefe, Roscoe Karns, and Hobart Cavanaugh. He also appeared in the films You’ll Find Out (1940), Playmates (1941), My Favorite Spy (1942), Stage Door Canteen (1943), Thousands Cheer (1943), Swing Fever (1943), Around the World (1943) and Carolina Blues (1944). Meantime he continued to have hit records, such as “Playmates” (1940), “Why Don’t We Do This More Often?” (1941), “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition” (1942), “I’ve Got Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle”, “The Old Lamp Lighter” (1946), and the “Woody Woodpecker” theme song (1948). From 1949 through 1950 he hosted a TV version of his Kollege of Musical Knowledge.

Then, in 1950, Kyser abruptly retired from show business, some think because of his severe arthritis. Circa 1945 he became a Christian Scientist, a fact which many find ironic since both of his parents were pharmacists. He later worked for the church and even headed it for a year. But as we say, he left a legacy. Comedian/musician Ish Kabibble came from the ranks of his band, as did singers Georgia Carroll (who became Kyser’s wife) and Mike Douglas, who later became a popular talk show host. Jane Russell also recorded a couple of songs with Kyser in the late ’40s. In 1962, many of his former bandmembers recorded an LP of the band’s former hits, when Stan Freberg doing his imitation of Kyser as announcer, Kyser was also pals with fellow North Carolina bandleader Tal Henry.

To find out more about show business history please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.