Kay Starr, a ferociously expressive singer whose ability to infuse swing, pop and country songs with her own indelible, bluesy stamp made her one of the most admired recording artists of her generation, died Nov. 3 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 94.
Annie Boddington, who held Ms. Starr’s power of attorney, confirmed the death but did not disclose the cause.
In a career spanning seven decades, Ms. Starr was primarily a solo act, but she also accompanied hard-swinging jazzmen such as Coleman Hawkins, Nat “King” Cole and Count Basie, the folksy country and western entertainer Tennessee Ernie Ford and the clean-cut pop crooner Pat Boone, among many others.
She made her professional debut at 7, singing what she called “hillbilly” music for a Dallas radio station. She was a teenage thrush in 1939 for Glenn Miller, who led the most popular big band in the country, and replaced Lena Horne with Charlie Barnet’s swing orchestra in the early 1940s.
With Capitol Records and RCA, she became a jukebox queen in the late 1940s and 1950s with such hits as “Wheel of Fortune,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” “Side by Side” and “The Rock and Roll Waltz.” They cumulatively sold millions of records.
Those hits, for better or perhaps mostly for worse, defined her in the public mind as an empress of schlock pop, an impression that overshadowed a vast amount of high-quality, less commercial work that was widely revered among reviewers and her musical peers.
Although Ms. Starr was never a jazz singer, strictly speaking, critic Will Friedwald rated her “one of the very best ever” and wrote that she possessed a strong command of the form and had a rhythmic drive that he called “positively spiritual.”
She also was widely considered a master of the blues, drawing praise for her authenticity from Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Lester Young and Basie singer Jimmy Rushing, who once exclaimed that she had “so much soul!” Along with Peggy Lee, she was one of the few non-black vocalists who emphasized a blues repertoire at the time. (Ms. Starr was three-quarters American Indian and one-quarter Irish.)
Her talents converged in a 1962 recording of “I Really Don’t Want to Know,” an electrifying mélange of gospel, country and blues that jazz critic Gary Giddins called “a five minute tour de force.”
Her most fervent devotees included Patsy Cline and Elvis Presley, both of whom grew up listening to her. But Presley’s rise, in particular, also heralded a change in musical tastes that diminished Ms. Starr’s mainstream appeal.
She persevered in concert halls and on small independent labels and lived to see her sprightly jazz recordings of “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” and “It’s a Good Day” remixed or revived for TV commercials. She duetted with Tony Bennett on “Blue and Sentimental,” a selection on his 2001 release “Playin’ With My Friends.”
“When music became rock, then hard rock, then acid rock, and all kinds of things I didn’t understand, I thought maybe God was telling me it was time to get lost,” she told the New York Times. “But people kept calling me and asking me to do things, and I realized I just wasn’t happy not singing.”
Katherine Laverne Starks was born in Dougherty, Okla., on July 21, 1922. Her upbringing in Dallas and Memphis helped instill in her a deep appreciation of the blues. Despite her abstinence from alcohol, she said she was told more than once that she sounded as if she had “been raised on bathtub gin.”
Ms. Starr, as she soon became known, won a string of amateur talent contests and sang with a western swing band on the radio in Tennessee. Her breakthrough came in 1937, at age 15, when the popular jazz violinist Joe Venuti, then leading a dance band, came to Memphis and hired her for his dates at the city’s premier hotel.
He mentored the young singer, sometimes in unorthodox ways.
“If you didn’t know the words, you’d better make them up, because he’d hit you across the butt with that violin bow, and when I tell you that thing stings, I kid you not,” Ms. Starr told the Los Angeles Times. “I made up more lyrics than Johnny Mercer.
“If I have any style, any presence on the stage,” she continued, “I’m sure Joe Venuti is responsible for it. Joe once told me if you’re going to make a mistake, make it so loud everybody else sounds wrong, and I really and truly believe that’s why I sing so loud.”
Her work with Venuti over the next three summers — she attended high school the rest of the year — led to a short engagement on radio in 1939 with Bob Crosby and His Bobcats, a rising Dixieland-inflected big band, and then with the Miller big band to fill in for its ailing singer, Marion Hutton.
Ms. Starr, who said she never learned to read music, was perplexed when Miller asked a technical question about how high or low she could sing.
“They would ask me, ‘Is that in your range?’ and I didn’t know so I just said yes because I only knew two kinds of ranges — one of them you cooked on and the other was where the cows were,” she later told Friedwald.
She left the band in 1945, depleted after an exhausting tour. She also was treated for nodes that had formed on her vocal cords and emerged with a raspier sound that was put to exceptionally good use on jazz recordings with small labels.
Highlights included “Stormy Weather” with Cole on the piano, “Honeysuckle Rose” with saxophonist Willie Smith, “There’s a Lull in My Life” with Venuti and guitarist Les Paul, “If I Could Be With You One Hour Tonight” backed by saxophonists Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins, and “Sweet Lorraine” with the underrated but propulsive pianist Calvin Jackson.
In 1947, Capitol Records signed Ms. Starr to a contract. Over the next seven years, she moved further from jazz into more commercial pop music, a decision motivated in part by her need to support her daughter as a single mother.
Survivors include a daughter from her first marriage, Katherine Yardley of Sunland, Calif., and a grandson. Her six marriages ended in divorce.
At Capitol, she cut some terrific sides, such as the bluesy lament “I’m the Lonesomest Gal in Town” and the ballad “So Tired,” but mostly she was relegated to the second tier, taking the numbers that the label’s biggest names — Peggy Lee and Jo Stafford — rejected.
When Ms. Starr ascended the charts, it was with novelty songs such as the polka homage “Hoop Dee Doo” and the ballad “Wheel of Fortune,” which became her signature. Her other major hits at Capitol included “Allez-Vous-En,” written by Cole Porter, and “If You Love Me,” based on a French song popularized by Edith Piaf.
Saying she felt like an underappreciated “utility” player, she left the label after her contract expired in 1954. She soon joined RCA and initially was aghast at being handed what seemed like a real dog, “The Rock and Roll Waltz.” She quipped to Giddins that she needed a Dramamine before going into the recording studio. But the song zoomed up the pop charts, selling a million copies.
Back at Capitol in 1959, she poured out a run of compelling jazz, country, spiritual and blues albums, culminating in “Just Plain Country,” which contained “I Really Don’t Want to Know” and what Friedwald called a “smoldering” version of the country hit “Singing the Blues.”
She recorded an album with Basie in 1968 and made a lucrative living over the next four decades performing in Las Vegas hotels and at lounges from Florida to California. She spent years touring with a nostalgia revue called 4 Girls 4 with Rosemary Clooney, Martha Raye and Helen O’Connell.
“We were stretching the word ‘girls’ a bit,” she told the Toronto Star in 1987.
She added that she never wearied — even decades later — when aging audiences requested that she trot out “Wheel of Fortune.”
“ ‘Wheel of Fortune’ has been good to me. How could I get tired of it? That’s like saying you get tired of the person who gives you everything in the world,” she said. “And when I see the expressions on the faces of the audience, as they remember, maybe, the first time they heard the song . . . the pure, unadulterated pleasure it gives them makes it all worthwhile.”
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