The Kay Starr Centennial

Born 100 years ago on this day, Native-American singer Kay Starr (Catherine Starks, 1922-2016).

Starr was part Iroquois and had some other other Native American blood as well. Born on an Oklahoma reservation, her family later moved to Dallas and to Memphis. In both towns, she sang on local radio as a child. Later as a teenager she moved up to dates with the bands of Joe Venuti, Bob Crosby, Glenn Miller, and others.

In 1946 Starr became a solo performer on record and in live performance, singing in that brassy late-swing, proto-rock style we associate with artists like Peggy Lee and Johnny Ray, often striking it biggest with novelty songs. “Wheel of Fortune” was her biggest hit, going to #1 in 1951 — a big enough hit that I recognize it (I don’t always). Her 1953 cover of the old Tin Pan Alley tune “Side by Side”, double tracked so she could harmonize with herself, went to #3. She had a #8 hit with “Come on-a My House” in 1951, three years before Rosemary Clooney’s better known version. Her first big hit “Hoop-de Doo” went all the way to #2 in 1950, despite the fact that Perry Como had recorded it two weeks earlier and had a hit at the same time. She also recorded several duets with Tennessee Ernie Ford, several of which were top 20 or close to it. One of her last hits “The Rock and Roll Waltz”, which went to #1 in 1956, speaks to the changes in the industry that would soon make her chart successes a thing of the past.

During her peak years, Starr was also frequent TV presence. She appeared on the All Star Revue ten times, Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall eight times, Colgate Comedy Hour four times, and also appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Milton Berle Show, The Ed Wynn Show, Max Liebman Presents, Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium, etc. She’s the singer of “The Hucklebuck” in that famous episode of The Honeymooners. She continued to appear frequently on talk and variety shows through circa 1980, and performed live and on record for years after that. One notable example was a 2001 duet with Tony Bennett on the album Playin’ with My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues.

For more on variety entertainment, including TV variety, please consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.