Kay Starr, the popular big band and jazz singer of the late ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, known for her major hits “Wheel of Fortune” and “If You Love Me,” has died. Starr was 94.
As a young girl, her talent for singing was noticed early on, in so much as she had her own 15 minute weekly radio show on Dallas station WRR by the time she was seven years old. She sang pop and “hillbilly” songs with piano accompaniment. By age ten, she was making three dollars a broadcast, which was quite a salary for a ten year old during the Great Depression.
By age fifteen, Starr had moved with her parents to Memphis, and was offered an opportunity to sing with violin great Joe Venuti and his orchestra. Venuti had a contract to play the Peabody Hotel, which called for the band to feature a girl singer. Venuti’s road manager heard Starr on the radio and recommended her to Venuti- although Starr was was still in junior high school and her parents insisted on a midnight curfew.
Her exposure with the Venuiti band led to brief performance contracts in 1939 with Bob Crosby and later Glenn Miller (who hired her when Miller’s regular female vocalist, Marion Hutton, came down sick). It was with the Miller organization that Starr recorded her first two commercial recordings, “Baby Me” and “Love With A Capital You”. Unfortunately the recordings never became Miller ‘hits’, largely because they were arranged in a key that, while appropriate for Marion Hutton, were not ideal for Kay’s vocal range.
Following her brief stint with Glenn Miller, Starr spent most of the next few years with Venuti until he dissolved his band in 1942.
When Starr turned nineteen, she relocated to Los Angeles where she first sang with Wingy Manone’s band, then later with Charlie Barnet’s orchestra until the end of the war, leaving music for a year after contracting pneumonia and damaging her vocal cords as a result of fatigue and overwork.
In 1947, Starr signed her first “solo” contract with Capitol Records, where six of her recordings earned million-record status including “Wheel of Fortune,” “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” “Side by Side,” “If You Love Me” and “My Heart Reminds Me.”
Kay continued singing professionally well into her eighties, making regular concert and television appearances, including performances with fellow big band era stars Helen O’Connell, Margaret Whiting, Rosemary Clooney, as well as Tony Bennett.
Kay Starr is survived by a daughter, Katherine Yardley, and a grandson, Paul Yardley.