Tue June 21, 2011
Kay Starr: Queen of Rock and Roll
By Rob Grayson
Memphis, TN – Now, it's a given that rock and roll music was born in Memphis. If you're a student of pop culture and music, you wouldn't be surprised if I told you one of the earliest chart-topping singles of the rock-and-roll era had a distinct Memphis connection. You wouldn't be surprised to learn that it was recorded by a Memphian who was born elsewhere but relocated to the Bluff City as a teenager. You might be surprised to find out it wasn't recorded by a boy named Elvis, or even a guy at all for that matter.
As we know, 1956 was Elvis Presley's year to take the world by storm. Already a star in the Mid-South and across the southeastern United States, Elvis would hit the number one spot nationally with Heartbreak Hotel in April of that year; the first of 17 singles that would make it to the top during his career. But eight weeks before this, another transplant to Memphis would hold the top spot, with her rock-and-roll record.
Billboard magazine first published a "Music Popularity Chart" July 20, 1940. The first number one was Tommy Dorsey's I'll Never Smile Again. That's Frank Sinatra doing the singing. Since that point, weekly charts have chronicled the musical mileposts that made up the soundtrack of our lives. Through the war years and into the 50's the top spot was graced by the likes of Bing Crosby, Perry Como, The Andrews Sisters, Patti Page and Rosemary Clooney. In March, 1952, knocking singer Johnny Ray's Cry out of its 11-week run at the number one slot on the "Best Sellers In Stores" chart was a song called Wheel Of Fortune by Kay Starr.
Let me give you a little look into Starr's life. Born in Oklahoma, Katherine Laverne Starks showed an aptitude for singing at a young age when she would come home after school and serenade the chickens in their coops. When the family relocated to Texas, Katherine entered a radio station talent contest, and won so often that she was given her own show. The Starks settled in Memphis when Katherine was 15, and she moved her talents to WREC radio, with a new stage name, Kay Starr, and a weekly show called Starr Time. Starr was on her way to discovery when band leader Joe Venuti came to Memphis to play the Peabody.
Venuti's contract stated he would have a female singer, which he didn't, so when his road manager heard Starr singing on the radio, they signed her up for the three-week run. For the next two summers, when school would let out, Starr hit the road with Venuti's band, chaperoned by her mother.
Starr's national network debut came in 1939 with Bob Crosby's band, singing Memphis Blues on the Camel Caravan program. That appearance led to a two-week stint with the Glen Miller Orchestra, and her first recordings, Baby Me and Love With A Capital You.
Mind you, all this happened before she came back to Memphis to finish high school in 1940.
Upon graduation, Starr headed for a career performing and recording in California. She sang again with Joe Venuti, and when the draft broke up that band, replaced Lena Horne in Charlie Barnet's orchestra. A bout with pneumonia literally silenced Kay for six months, but she returned as a solo artist, recording for Capitol Records. During those years, Starr had over two dozen top 40 smashes, including the million selling number one, Wheel Of Fortune.
Signing with RCA Records in 1956, Starr would beat that label's rising new star Elvis Presley to the top of the charts with this song, Rock And Roll Waltz. Along the way, Starr set a number of firsts: first number one single by a female singer during the rock and roll era, first number one to have "rock and roll" in the title, the first number one single for RCA Records, and the first Memphian to rock the nation. This girl who grew up singing for the chickens had a lot to crow about.