In the pre-rock’n’roll era, popular vocalists often flirted with jazz. Many grew up surrounded by the music of the big bands and felt at home with jazz phrasing. Some, like Kay Starr, who has died aged 94, performed and recorded with jazz musicians before finding wider success with pop songs and novelties.
Starr’s early recordings have the kind of bluesy warmth and distinctive swing sense that suggest she might have emulated the likes of Peggy Lee or Ella Fitzgerald had she chosen to stay closer to jazz. One trade paper of the time called her a “deep-voiced brunette thrush”. Instead, she became a jukebox favourite, first with Bonaparte’s Retreat in 1950 and then with Wheel of Fortune two years later, a major hit that became her “signature” song.
Katherine Starks was born in the small town of Dougherty, Oklahoma, of Native American stock: her father, Harry, was an Iroquois and her mother, Annie, part Choctaw, Cherokee and Irish. The family moved to Dallas when Starr was three, where her father found work installing sprinklers in buildings while her mother raised chickens. An aunt noticed the nine-year-old’s pleasure in singing around the house and encouraged her to enter a talent contest at the local radio station. Starr won a prize for singing and operating a yo-yo simultaneously, and continued to win contests, so much so that the radio station WRR, Dallas, gave her a 15-minute programme of her own, paying her three dollars a show.
This process continued when the family moved to Memphis, where she landed her own Starr Time segment on WREC and appeared on the station’s popular Saturday Night Jamboree. It was at this time that she changed her name to Kay Starr, supposedly because fans consistently misspelled her name in their letters.
Starr’s first foray into the wider world of show business came in 1937, when the jazz violinist Joe Venuti arrived in Memphis to play a season at the Peabody hotel. Needing a female singer, he hired the youngster for the three-week season, and she toured with his band for the next two years during her summer holidays, her mother acting as chaperone. She praised Venuti for “teaching me to sing with authority”. It was Venuti who recommended Starr to the Bob Crosby band when they needed a female vocalist for their radio show. Starr travelled to New York, but lasted only two weeks because the show’s sponsor thought her “too earthy”. She was then engaged by bandleader Glenn Miller for another short stint at the legendary Glen Island Casino, making her first recordings with Miller for the Bluebird label.
Returning to Memphis, Starr completed high school and then moved to California to resume her association with Venuti. After two years the draft had stripped the Venuti outfit of its players and Starr moved on to work with Wingy Manone, the testy one-armed jazz trumpeter from New Orleans (with whom she later recorded).
She was enticed away to join the nationally prominent Charlie Barnet swing band, replacing Lena Horne. Starr’s recording of Share Croppin’ Blues with Barnet pleased the critics before a severe bout of pneumonia laid her low and she lost her voice completely. After her vocal nodes were frozen for three months, Starr recovered to find that her voice was deeper and huskier, and altogether more distinctive.
Now set up as a solo performer, and building on her success with Barnet, Starr appeared in all the best Los Angeles clubs to great acclaim. She also made her celebrated recordings with the Capitol International Jazzmen (including Coleman Hawkins, Benny Carter and Nat King Cole) in 1945, adding others for smaller labels with Venuti, Carter and the veteran jazz drummer Ben Pollack.
Contracted to Capitol from 1947, Starr concentrated on popular material, looking for Top 30 chart success, first striking lucky with Bonaparte’s Retreat, an old Oklahoma fiddle tune that sold just short of a million copies. She sang at Harry Truman’s presidential inauguration, flying straight from her engagement at the Casbah in Los Angeles. In 1952, Wheel of Fortune went gold and earned her a fortune. With this, Starr was made, recording prolifically as a “utility singer”, handling jazz and country, pop songs and spirituals.
When she moved to RCA-Victor in 1955 for a guarantee of $250,000 a year, Starr scored again with Rock and Roll Waltz, the first song to have “rock and roll” in the name, although Starr laughed at this claim, saying: “It sure wasn’t rock.”
Back with Capitol in 1959, she recorded a number of notable albums, including the jazz-influenced Movin’ as well as the more conventional Just Plain Country. Despite her flexibility and popularity, Starr was dropped by Capitol in 1960, but continued to tour the US and Europe, playing Las Vegas and recording an album with Count Basie in 1968 before visiting London in 1983 with a small group.
She had largely faded from view when an appreciative profile penned by the Village Voice critic Gary Giddins in 1985 brought her back into the spotlight. He especially liked her “brassy fusion of urban swing and country twang” and placed her among the “very small pantheon of great working jazz singers”.
Despite such praise, Starr failed to secure a new recording contract, but continued to perform with other singers of her era in nostalgic hit-song revues and to sing for corporate functions. She was much admired by her peers – including Dinah Washington, whom she resembled – for what Giddins described as her “zest and savvy blues-coloured phrasing”. In later years, she devoted herself to Native American affairs.
She was married six times, and is survived by her daughter, Katherine.
• Kay Starr (Katherine Laverne Starks), singer, born 21 July 1922; died 3 November 2016
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