June 18, 2015

Happy Birthday, Kay Kyser

Screenshot from the film 
''Stage Door Canteen'' (1943)

In 1906, San Francisco experienced its infamous earthquake. There is another important event that happened that year. James Kern "Kay" Kyser was born on this date, June 18, in 1906. He was better known as the big band leader, Kay Kyser.   

I remember as a kid, I adored his hilarious, Woody Woodpecker Song; it was hot stuff in 1948. Some of my other favorite songs by him are: Managua Nicaragua (1947), the early '40's wartime songs: (There'll Be Blue Birds Over) The White Cliffs Of Dover (1941), There Goes That Song Again (1945), Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition (1942), with The Old Lamplighter (1948) at the top of my list (links to the songs on YouTube below).     

Kyser was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Kyser graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He was also senior class president. Because of his popularity and enthusiasm as a cheerleader, he was invited by Hal Kemp to take over as bandleader when Kemp ventured north to further his career. He began taking clarinet lessons but was better as an entertaining announcer than a musician. He adopted the initial of his middle name as part of his stage name, for its alliterative effect.   

Long before his national success, Kyser recorded two sessions for Victor in the late 1920s (Camden, NJ in November, 1928 and Chicago in early 1929). These were issued on Victor's V-40000 series devoted to country music and regional dance bands.

Following graduation, Kyser and his band, which included Sully Mason on saxophone and arranger George Duning, toured Midwest restaurants and night clubs and gradually built a following. They were particularly popular at Chicago's Blackhawk restaurant, where Kyser came up with an act combining a quiz with music which became "Kay Kyser's Kollege of Musical Knowledge." The act was broadcast on the Mutual Radio network in 1938 and then moved to NBC Radio from 1939 to 1949. The show rose in the ratings and spawned many imitators. Kyser led the band as "The Ol' Perfessor," spouting catchphrases, some with a degree of Southern American English terms: "That's right—you're wrong", "Evenin' folks, how y'all?" and "C'mon, chillun! Le's dance!"   

Kyser had 11 number one records, including some of the most popular songs of the late 1930s and early 1940s. Unlike most other big bands of the era, which centered around only the bandleader, individual members of Kyser's band became stars in their own right and would often receive the spotlight. Some of the more popular members included vocalist Harry Babbitt, cornetist Merwyn Bogue (a.k.a. Ish Kabibble), trombonist Bruce King, saxophonist Jack Martin (who sang lead vocal on the number one hit, "Strip Polka"), Ginny Simms (who had her own successful acting and singing career after leaving Kyser's band), Sully Mason, Mike Douglas (years before he became a popular TV talk show host link below) and Georgia Carroll. Carroll, a blond fashion model and actress whose best-known role was Betsy Ross in Yankee Doodle Dandy, was dubbed "Gorgeous Georgia Carroll" when she joined the group in 1943. Within a year, she and Kyser married.    

Kyser was also known for singing song titles, a device copied by Sammy Kaye and Blue Barron. When the song began, one of the band's lead singers (usually Babbitt) sang the title phrase, and then the first verse or two of the song was performed instrumentally before the lyrics resumed. Several of his recordings spawned catch phrases, such as Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition. His group also had a major hit with the novelty tune, Three Little Fishes.   

Kyser died in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on July 23, 1985. He was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 1999.

Net links:  
Mike Douglas & Kay Kyser, The Old Lamplighter  
Kay Kyser website          
Kyser in the movies     

Kyser songs on YouTube:  
The Old Lamplighter    
Woody Woodpecker Song     
(There'll Be Blue Birds Over) The White Cliffs Of Dover 
Managua Nicaragua 
There Goes That Song Again   
Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition     

Thanks for all the great tunes, Kay!

Styrous® ~ Thursday, June 18, 2015

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