"Wheel of Fortune"
She called herself a hillbilly singer, but with landmark 1950s hits like "Wheel of Fortune" and "Rock and Roll Waltz" Kay Starr, whose career commenced in the big band era of the 1930s and '40s, blurred the lines between country, jazz, blues, rock 'n' roll and pop.
Starr was 94 when she died Thursday (Nov. 3). She stayed active even into the into the 21st century, recording the '30s duet "Blue and Sentimental" with Tony Bennett for his 2001 duets album Playin’ With My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues, on which she was his only classic pop contemporary among other Bennett partners including Sheryl Crow, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder and Diana Krall.
"Kay Starr was one of the more striking vocalists to emerge during the years immediately preceding rock 'n' roll," says music archivist Gregg Geller. "She wore her influences, from country to pop to jazz, on her sleeve, and while she never quite synthesized them in one singular performance, she did achieve one of her greatest successes with 'Rock and Roll Waltz,' a No.1 song in 1956 that in its way signified the ascension of the new genre."
Music historian John Alexander recalls his long stint assembling multi-disc genre compilations at Reader's Digest Music.
"About four or five years ago Kay Starr endorsed the Reader's Digest 50th Anniversary Golden Jubilee Collection," says Alexander. "It was a big deal and we needed someone who had made a major impact on popular music, especially during the 1940s and '50s. Music publisher Stanley Mills, a friend of Kay's, said that she might be willing to endorse the project. She was nearly 90 at the time. I called her up and we spoke on a few occasions. She was always gracious and willing to share memories of her remarkable career. After the album was released, she took the time to write me a thank you note. She was absolutely charming."
Alexander further reflects on Starr's string of pop hits.
"What people may not realize is that she was a country girl from Oklahoma who also had hits on the country chart with Tennessee Ernie Ford, including their Top 5 cover of 'Ain't Nobody's Business But My Own,' and the No. 2 duet 'I'll Never Be Free.' From big band singer to 'The Rock and Roll Waltz,' from jazz to western swing, Kay Starr did it all."