On this day three years ago, one of our earliest chart-toppers passed away: Kay Starr, smoky voiced pre-rock chanteuse.
Born in 1922, on a Native-American Reservation, Katherine Laverne Starks parents were a sprinkler fitter and a chicken raiser, and she was singing with bands in Texas from the age of ten, to earn a few extra dollars for her family. (Sounds like the sort of story you might invent, were you challenged to invent a story from Depression-era America…) She sang with big bands through the thirties and forties, before going solo and recording two of my favourite pre-rock n roll #1 singles.
Back when I was working my way through the first fifty or so UK chart-toppers, before Elvis, Buddy, Jerry Lee et al came along, I did find it a bit of a slog at times. Painfully earnest crooners (Eddie Fisher, David Whitfield), irritating novelties (‘That Doggie in the Window’, ‘I See the Moon’) and staid instrumentals (Eddie Calvert, Mantovani) plodded by, one after the other. It was the hidden gems, such as Kay Starr, that made the journey more bearable.
She popped up as early as chart-topper number three, in January 1953, with the sprightly, sassy ‘Comes A-Long A-Love’ – a record that was a whole lot of fun, and one that proved a lot of my preconceptions about the pre-rock era wrong.
And then we had to wait a while for her second, and final, #1. A record that Starr was, apparently not too keen on, but that gave her a hugely unexpected hit: ‘Rock and Roll Waltz’. The story of a teenager (though Starr was thirty-two when she recorded it) who comes home to find her parents trying to waltz to one of those new-fangled rock ‘n’ roll discs. It hit the top in the spring of 1956, just before Elvis went stratospheric with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, and can perhaps be counted as one of the first rock ‘n’ roll chart-toppers, even if it is poking slight fun at the genre…
(I’ve linked to an 1980s TV performance, as it’s a lot of fun and shows Ms Starr still swinging in her sixties. Follow the link above to hear the original.)
And that was that for Kay Starr on the UK charts. She only ever charted five singles here, though she would have presumably had more had the charts begun before November 1952. In the US she was much more prolific, with fifteen Top 10 hits between 1949 and 1957. ‘Wheel of Fortune’ was the biggest, but she also had big duets with fellow UK chart-topper Tennessee Ernie Ford. In later years she toured with Pat Boone, and Tony Bennett.
I think the reason that Kay Starr stood out amongst the other pre-rock stars is that there is such a sparkle in her voice – it flirts, flitters and then suddenly goes all husky-sexy. Billie Holiday apparently claimed that Starr was the only ‘white woman who could sing the blues’. It’s a great voice, but not ‘proper’ like her cut-glass contemporaries. She could have succeeded as a rock ‘n’ roll singer like Connie Francis or Brenda Lee, had she been born a decade later.
Kay Starr, July 21st 1922 – November 3rd 2016