Kay Kyser Biography

James King Kern Kyser, 18 June 1906, Rocky Mount, North Carolina, USA, d. 23 July 1985, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA. A popular band leader in the USA during the 30s and 40s, Kyser was born into an academically excellent family, and he too became a ‘professor’, though hardly in the conventional sense. While at high school he developed a flair for showmanship, and entered the University of North Carolina in 1924 with the intention of studying law. The subject was soon discarded in favour of music, and Kyser took over the leadership of the campus band from Hal Kemp when Kemp departed to form one of the most popular ‘sweet’ bands of the 30s. Kyser was soon on the road himself, and in 1927 he recruited George Duning, a graduate of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, as the chief arranger of what was originally a jazz unit. This turned out to be a smart move, because Kyser could not read or write a note of music. Duning stayed with the Kyser band for most of its life, before going on to write films scores as diverse as Jolson Sings Again and Picnic.

By 1933, when Kyser played the Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica, California, the band had developed a ‘sweeter’ style, and had become a major attraction. Kyser, the showman, also injected several gimmicks. For example, instead of a having a spoken introduction to a song, the vocalist would sing the title at the beginning of each number; and later, just before the vocal chorus, the band would play a few bars of its theme, Walter Donaldson’s ‘Thinking Of You’, while Kyser announced the singer’s name. It was simple, but highly effective. In the following year, Kyser took over from Hal Kemp yet again, this time at the Blackhawk Restaurant in Chicago. The band’s sell-out performances at the venue were supplemented by regular radio broadcasts, and so the renowned Kay Kyser’s Kollege Of Musical Knowledge was born. It was a zany, comedy quiz programme in which the Blackhawk’s patrons’ skill in identifying song titles was rewarded with prizes (there were rarely any losers). NBC’s networked airings brought Kyser (by then known as the ‘old perfesser’), national recognition, and in the late 30s he and the band had several hit records, including ‘Did You Mean It?’, ‘Cry, Baby, Cry’, ‘Music, Maestro, Please’, ‘Ya Got Me’, ‘Two Sleepy People’, ‘I Promise You’, ‘Cuckoo In The Clock’, ‘The Tinkle Song’, ‘The Little Red Fox’, ‘The Umbrella Man’, ‘Three Little Fishes’, and ‘Stairway To The Stars’.

Throughout its life, Kyser’s band had a string of popular vocalists, including Harry Babbitt, Ginny Simms (b. 25 May 1913, d. 4 April 1994, Palm Springs, California, USA), Sully Mason, Gloria Wood, Julie Conway, Trudy Erwin, Dorothy Dunn, Lucy Ann Polk and Ish Kabibble. The latter name was a pseudonym for trumpeter Merwyn Bogue (b. 19 January 1908, d. 5 June 1994, Joshua Tree, California, USA), and he featured on most of the band’s many novelty numbers, and in their series of comedy films which included That’s Right - You’re Wrong (1939), You’ll Find Out, Playmates, My Favorite Spy, Around The World, Swing Fever, and Carolina Blues (1944). Mike Douglas, who later became a popular television talk show host, also sang with the band in the 40s, and for a few months in the 50s. In the early 40s, the recruitment of Van Alexander, who had arranged the Chick Webb - Ella Fitzgerald recording of ‘A-Tisket A-Tasket’, coincided with a critical reappraisal of Kyser’s musical output. As well as winning polls in the ‘corn’ category, the band came to be regarded as a genuine swing unit that also had a way with a ballad. During World War II, Kyser toured extensively for the USO, entertaining troops in over 500 service camps and hospitals over a wide area.

In 1944, he married the blonde Hollywood model, Georgia Carroll, who had appeared in movies such as Ziegfeld Girl and Du Barry Was A Lady. She was a singer, too, and provided the vocals on one of the band’s 1945 hits, ‘There Goes That Song Again’. Throughout the decade the Kyser band was almost permanently in the US Top 20 with a variety of titles such as ‘You, You, Darlin’’, ‘Playmates’, ‘With The Wind And The Rain In Your Hair’, ‘Friendship’, ‘Blue Love Bird’, ‘Tennessee Fish Fry’, ‘Who’s Yehoodi?’, ‘Blueberry Hill’, ‘Ferryboat Serenade’, ‘You Got Me This Way’. ‘Alexander The Swoose (Half Swan, Half Goose)’, ‘(Lights Out) ’Til Reveille’, ‘Why Don’t We Do This More Often?’, ‘(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs Of Dover’, ‘A Zoot Suit (For My Sunday Girl)’, ‘Who Wouldn’t Love You’, ‘Johnny Doughboy Found A Rose In Ireland’, ‘Got The Moon In My Pocket’, ‘Jingle, Jangle, Jingle’, ‘He Wears A Pair Of Silver Wings’, ‘Strip Polka’, ‘Ev’ry Night About This Time’, ‘Praise The Lord And Pass The Ammunition’ (the band’s biggest hit), ‘Can’t Get Out Of This Mood’, ‘Let’s Get Lost’, ‘Bell Bottom Trousers’, ‘One-Zy, Two-Zy (I Love You-Zy)’, ‘Ole Buttermilk Sky’, ‘The Old Lamp-Lighter’, ‘Huggin’ And Chalkin’’, ‘Managua, Nicaragua’, ‘The Woody Woodpecker Song’, and ‘Slow Boat To China’ (1948). During that period The Kollege Of Musical Knowledge continued to delight and amuse American radio audiences who knew that when Kyser welcomed them with: ‘Evenin’ Folks. How y’all?’, in that strong southern accent, he was dressed in his professor’s white gown and mortarboard, ‘jumping, cavorting, mugging, and waving his arms like a dervish’, just for the benefit of the few in the studio. In 1949, while the show was still high in the ratings, it was unexpectedly cancelled by the sponsors, and Kyser switched the concept to television, but it made little impact. By 1951 he had lost interest, and retired to North Carolina a wealthy man. He devoted the rest of his life to Christian Science, a subject in which he was an authorised practitioner.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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