Remembering Kay Starr

On this day three years ago, one of our earliest chart-toppers passed away: Kay Starr, smoky voiced pre-rock chanteuse.

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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.

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Kay Starr, July 21st 1922 – November 3rd 2016

44. ‘Rock and Roll Waltz’, by Kay Starr

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Rock and Roll Waltz, by Kay Starr (her 2nd of two #1s)

1 week, from 30th March to 6th April 1956

You remember how, in my last post, I single-handedly invented a new era in popular music – ‘The Post-Pre-Rock Age? You do? Excellent.

Well, the 44th UK #1 single perfectly encapsulates this brave new age. The Rock and Roll (New! Exciting! Sexy!) Waltz (Old! Boring! Not very sexy!) And it’s a fun little record. A record that tells a story:

One night I was late, came home from a date, slipped out of my shoes at the door…          Then from the front room, I heard a jump-tune, I looked in and here’s what I saw…

What is it that she sees…? Well…

There in the night, was a wonderful scene… Mom was dancing with dad, to my record machine… And while they danced only one thing was wrong… They were trying to waltz to a rock and roll song!

Mum! Dad! You silly old squares! All the cool cats know you can’t waltz to a rock ‘n’ roll song!

This, lyrically at least, is rock and roll. Old people not getting this hip new music. Young people rejecting the music of their parents. The chorus is a simple cluster of catchphrases: 1, 2 and then rock… 1, 2 and then roll… It’s good for your soul… It’s old but it’s new… And what is rock ‘n’ roll but a load of nonsensical catchphrases? 1, 2, 3 o’clock, 4 o’clock rock… Whop Bop a Loo Bop a Whop Bam Boo… Goodness! Gracious! Great Balls of Fire!

Musically, though, this isn’t rock ‘n’ roll. There are no guitars, there’s a slightly waltzy rhythm, a boogie-woogie bass and a great big jazzy swing. It’s fun, it’s perky and you can certainly dance to it, but it ain’t rock. It’s a novelty, and Kay Starr sings it in manner that suggests she knows exactly what a piece of throwaway fluff it is.

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I mentioned in her last entry, the flirty and fun ‘Comes A-Long A-Love’, that Starr has a magnetic voice. You can tell that ‘Rock and Roll Waltz’ isn’t perhaps the type of record that she’s used to singing – it’s easy to imagine that she wasn’t impressed by the suggestion that she move away from her usual style – but she sells it with warmth and with playfulness. It feels like a long time since I wrote about ‘Comes A-Long A-Love’, and I suppose three years and two months is quite a long gap to have between your two number one hits. Two number ones – the 3rd and the 44th in UK chart history – both spending a solitary week at the top. And both very different records. I’m glad that writing this countdown introduced me to Ms Starr, though, and it’s a shame that we won’t be hearing from her again.

One final thing about this record, though, is very rock ‘n’ roll. At least ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ in a 1956 sense. The song may be a story told through the eyes of a teenager; but Kay Starr certainly wasn’t one. She was, in fact, coming up for thirty-four when this song hit the top spot. As was the similarly decrepit Bill Haley as he rocked around the clock. This new style of music may have been for teenagers, but it wasn’t being recorded by teenagers just yet.

And to finish on a personal note – this was number one on the day my dad was born. Fitting, perhaps, that it’s a song about two uncool parents attempting to dance around their living room. Or not, seeing as my father has never danced a step in his life, I don’t think. Still, it’s not a bad song to have as your birthday #1. OK, it’s a strange little number that nobody has actually listened to for many years; but there are far, far worse songs to have been born under…