It’s been said that music soothes the savage beast. But who would have ever thought that the savage beast would be chickens and that the musical performer would be a 9 year-old girl from Dougherty, Oklahoma? While chickens sat in their roosts during the Great Depression, little did they know that the little girl entertaining them with songs would someday be a Memphis Music Hall of Fame honoree.

Kay Starr Photo courtesy Bill Lorance Personal Collection

Radio Starr

Katherine LaVerne Starks, born in 1922 to a full-blooded Iroquois man and an Irish woman, began her singing career at the age of nine in Dallas, Texas on a local radio station in a weekly talent contest. That contest eventually became her very own 15-minute program where she sang pop-tunes and hillbilly music, earning three dollars a night and a lot of fan mail, as well.

Kay Starr’s family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where she got her own radio show on WREC called “Starr Time.” She was also a featured singer on the station’s “Saturday Night Jamboree,” which was one of its most popular shows at that time. It was at that time she changed her named to Kay Starr, due to the constant misspellings in fan letters. Her first big break came in 1937 at age 15, singing for bandleader and violinist Joe Venuti at the Peabody Hotel. He was so impressed with Starr that the gig lasted for three weeks and even some summer dates.

Taking Off

It was Starr’s turn to see the world, and see the world she did. In June of 1939, she received an offer to sing with The Glenn Miller Orchestra, the most famous band in the country at that time. She replaced ailing vocalist Marion Hutton and made her first recordings “Love With A Capitol You,” and “Baby Me” on the Bluebird label. Starr graduated from high school in 1940 and moved to California, where she continued to work with Venuti until 1941.

By 1943, Starr was hired to replace Lena Horne in the Charlie Barnet Band and then signed to Decca Records, which recorded her bluesy rendition of “Share Croppin’ Blues”. Starr’s singing career was abruptly interrupted in 1945 when she caught pneumonia and collapsed during an Army camp show. She lost her voice and refrained from speaking and singing for six months.

shadow behind Kay Starr Kay Starr Photo courtesy Kay Starr

“The only white woman that could sing the blues”

— Billie Holiday

Kay with The Jones Boys Kay and Gregory Peck Kay and Jimmy Dean
Top: Starr and The Jones Boys perform in Reno, NV
Gross Photo, Reno, Oct 1954

Photo courtesy photo archives, Delta Haze Corporation
Middle: Starr and Gregory Peck
Photo courtesy Bill Lorance Personal Collection
Bottom: Starr and Jimmy Dean
Photo courtesy Bill Lorance Personal Collection

Finding Her Voice

After her brief hiatus, Starr returned to the music scene with a deeper and huskier voice, which is became known as her trademark. Starr had no trouble in finding work. She moved to Los Angeles and her solo career began to take off. After making a name for herself in several Hollywood nightclubs, Starr was invited to sing on the Capitol Records label with Dave Dexter on the “Volumes of Jazz” series in 1945.

She was then signed to a contract with Capitol Records in 1947, joining the likes of Peggy Lee, Ella Mae Morse, Jo Stafford, and Margaret Whiting. In 1950, her cover of Perry Como’s “Hoop Dee Doo” reached the number two spot on the charts, and the hits kept on coming with the 1952 release of “Wheel Of Fortune” which became the number two top-selling single of that year, earning Starr her first gold record.

In 1956, RCA Records signed Starr and produced “The Rock And Roll Waltz", a million-selling gold record, the number two top selling single in the U.S., and the number one single on the U.K. charts. That hit made Starr the first female with a top hit in the rock'n'roll era.

promotional postcard from Harrah's Tahoe Starr was a regular performer at Harrah’s Casinos in Reno and Tahoe
Photo courtesy Bill Lorance Personal Collection

As a solo artist, Starr returned to Capitol Records where she recorded jazz, blues, and even country. She toured the world with her unique style of singing, captivating audiences across the United States and England with her bluesy jazz repertoire. Starr was known for wowing the crowds in Las Vegas at big hotels like the Sands, Riveria, and Fremont Hotels, and at Harrah’s in Reno, Nevada. Count Basie took a liking to Starr, and the two paired up to record an album in 1968.

Kay Starr

Gaining Respect

Starr has a number of classic jazz recordings that are still overlooked which highlight her unique, powerful voice and the blend of emotion and substance in her singing style that allow her to tell a story which each song she belts out. Kay Starr has long been respected by the jazz community.

Her musical style, which is still a favorite of yesterday’s generation, is now being enjoyed by up-and-coming artists today. Whether the genre is jazz, pop, country, or even R&B, Kay Starr has done it all, and has done it with style and class.

The late, great jazz singer Billie Holiday once said that Kay Starr was “the only white woman that could sing the blues”.

Photo courtesy Kay Starr

What Others are Saying

  1. I first heard Kay about 1961, when her solo remake of I’ll Never Be Free was issued in the UK. Her thrilling vocals blew me away then, and still does today when I have just about every record she made. Hardly a day has gone by in the past fifty years that I haven’t been lifted by Kay’s life-affirming vocals. The Memphis Music Hall of Fame rightly acknowledges her great and lasting contribution to popular music.

    Jim Brooks
  2. She gave me goosebumps when I was 7, now I am 67 and she still does when I listen to her music.
    Growing up in Holland, Kay Starr’s music was played a lot on the radio, Sometimes I get the feeling that she was more appreciated in the Netherlands than at home. Her music is still played frequently over there. Thanks to Bill L for keeping in touch with me and thank God that she is still with us.


  3. The most memorable time of hearing Kay Starr was when I was at an open-door market near Harar, Ethiopia and hearing her great voice via the market loudspeakers.

    (Mr.) Kaye Corbett
  4. My mom and dad were born and lived in Memphis, Tennesee. They loved to dance to the big band sounds of their day, especially at the famous Peabody Hotel. They were big fans of Kay Starr. In fact, my mother left me a “Teddy Bear” that Kay Starr and a few of her band members signed including John Venuti (who she worked with until 1941). She loved her autographed Teddy Bear that often brought back so many fond memories. Looking at those signatures today, I wonder if the bear was some type of club promotion or what it’s worth. It’s a great keepsake.

    Terry W. Bomar
  5. Kay was my idol. I am a singer/performer in New Orleans, La. I had the chance to meet with her when she was appearing at the Roosevelt Hotel. One of the best moments of my life. She was so sweet. I have never forgotten that meeting, and I was horrified to learn that she had passed away in Nov., 2016. She made such an enormous impact on pop music, was so ahead of her time vocally, and had so many big hits. Ms. Starr is the reason I started singing as a young girl. I owe her so much. One of the greatest!!!!

    Bradlee Carter Walthall

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