Kay Starr, photographed for L.A. Weekly in 1997
Kay Starr, photographed for L.A. Weekly in 1997
Debra DiPaolo

R.I.P. Big Band–Era Legend Kay Starr, Who Was Much More Than a "Hillbilly Singer"

Singer Kay Starr, who died Thursday at her L.A. home at the age of 94, was a down-to-earth country gal, sure. But the style she began developing as a teenager after renowned jazz fiddler Joe Venuti discovered her in mid-1930s Memphis was a hip, very progressive and madly swinging one — and for The New York Times’ obituary headline to characterize her as a "Hillbilly Singer With Crossover Appeal" was a graceless disservice.

Starr’s gleaming, communicative pipes and coolly driving dynamism, deftly underscored with a purring vibrato, was a distinct and appealing approach quite unlike that of any of her contemporaries.

The Oklahoma-born, Cherokee/Irish-blooded song stylist may have begun her musical life playing a toy piano to the chickens on her family farm, but her first formal recording session, at age 17, was with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. Her association with Venuti, after a happenstance two-week stand blossomed into an almost three-year gig, provided the singer with invaluable experience.

“The wonderful thing about Joe Venuti is that he never, not once, tried to make me somebody I wasn’t,” she said in 1997. “I’d never had anybody to mold myself after — I just sang, I just flat-footed sang.”

After brief stints with Miller and Bob Crosby’s Bob-Cats, Starr arrived in Hollywood circa 1943 and, working with one-armed bandleader Wingy Manone, immediately distinguished herself as a singer with a tremendous sense of rhythm that could launch any tune into orbit. She joined hard-charging saxist Charlie Barnet’s big band and by 1947, when she was with Red Nichols, was offered a deal with Capitol Records.

At the time, Capitol was already home to some of the biggest female singers in the business — Jo Stafford, Peggy Lee, Margaret Whiting, Ella Mae Morse, June Christy, Julia Lee, Nellie Lutcher — and Starr initially balked. But one night after a show at Hollywood’s Club Hangover, Nichols convinced her she’d be nuts to blow the chance. Within five years of signing, she rose to the top of the stack, charting numerous Top Ten hits and finally nailing the No. 1 spot with “Wheel of Fortune” in 1952, followed by another No. 1, 1954’s “Rock and Roll Waltz” — an absolutely godawful piece of crap that cemented her undeserved rep as a mainstream square.

But Starr had so much going on artistically that conventional pop song structures could barely contain her high-voltage approach. “I have a tendency to change the melody because of my style of singing,” she said. “I carry phrases over or let words go loose. Let the band play and then I come in. The first time I ever did anything with Van Alexander’s band, we were doing a record date for Capitol and we’ve got the key set, and I’m singin’ it my way and he starts to laugh. I stopped and said, ‘What is so funny?’ He was such a sweet man, he put his hand over mine and said, ‘I didn’t mean to laugh. I make arrangements for singers all the time, and when there’s a hole, they sing. You sing, and where there’s a hole, I get to arrange! It’s backwards, and it’s wonderful — don’t change a thing.”

Starr was always true to herself, burning through half a dozen husbands, touring the globe and never losing her irresistibly upbeat, fun-loving attitude. She continued performing up until the century’s turn, and her numerous local appearances during the ’90s, whether big, swinging affairs with Les Brown & His Band of Renown or intimate club dates at the Cinegrill with a small jazz combo, were invariably exhilarating, no-two-alike demonstrations of her spontaneous, combustible creativity.

Starr’s pure musicality was more than instinctive — it was the proverbial force of nature. “I never really auditioned for anything in my life,” she said. “And I never had a lesson. I did try to learn how to read music once, but it got in the way of my trying to tell the story. If I have to think about all that, then I forget what I came for.”

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