Kay Starr was a popular and versatile vocalist of hit songs from the late 1940s and early '60s, as comfortable singing jazz, pop and country as she was with the occasional brush with early rock 'n' roll. But what she treasured most, she said, looking back from her 80s, were the moments she sang with Count Basie's big band.
She was born on an Indian reservation, and her family moved to Dallas when she was a child. Her aunt was impressed with her singing and arranged for her to sing on a local radio station. She was eventually given her own 15-minute show three times a week. Within months, the family moved to Memphis, and Starr landed another radio show and other performing gigs.
She left for Los Angeles after high school and landed jobs singing with various big bands in the early '40s, including Glenn Miller and Charlie Barnet, before establishing herself as a solo act. She signed to Capitol Records in 1947 and enjoyed modest success until she scored her first top-10 hit with 1949's "So Tired." She followed that the next year with the Perry Como polka "Hoop-de-Doo" and a vocal rendition of Roy Acuff's “Bonaparte's Retreat.” Also in 1950 was a hit duet with Tennessee Ernie Ford, "I'll Never Be Free." She had the biggest hit of her career in 1952 with “Wheel of Fortune.”
She moved to RCA Records and in 1956 came another major hit, “The Rock and Roll Waltz,” which spent six weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's pop chart. During that decade, Starr appeared in the films “Make Believe Ballroom” and “When You're Smiling.” After another stint with Capitol Records, she left in 1966 to began recording for independent labels.
In 2001, she appeared in a duet with Tony Bennett on “Blue and Sentimental” for his album “Playin' With My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues.” Starr continues to perform occasionally well into her 80s.
Starr died Nov. 3, 2016, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at her Bel-Air home. She was 94.