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Kay Starr, ferociously expressive singer who had pop hit with ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ dies at 94

Kay Starr in

Kay Starr in "soundies" on PBS. Before television and MTV, there were "soundies." Credit: PBS

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 Thursday at her home in Los Angeles. She was 94.

Her power of attorney, Annie Boddington, confirmed the death but did not disclose the cause.

In a career spanning seven decades, 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 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 worked 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 defined her in the public mind as an empress of schlock pop, overshadowing a vast amount of high-quality, less commercial work that was widely revered.

Although Starr was never a jazz singer, strictly speaking, critic Will Friedwald rated her “one of the very best ever.”

She was considered a master of the blues, drawing praise from Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Lester Young and Basie singer Jimmy Rushing. Along with Peggy Lee, she was one of the few nonblack vocalists to emphasize a blues repertoire at the time; Starr was three-quarters American Indian and one-quarter Irish.

Her talents converged on 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, who grew up listening to her. But Presley’s rise, in particular, also heralded a change in musical tastes that diminished her 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.”

Katherine Laverne Starks was born in Dougherty, Oklahoma, on July 21, 1922. Survivors include a daughter, Katherine Yardley of Sunland, California; and a grandson. Her six marriages ended in divorce.

She said she never wearied when aging audiences requested that she trot out “Wheel of Fortune.”

“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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