Kay Starr, Pop Vocalist Who Found Country Success, Dead at 94

Scored Top 10 Country Hits With Tennessee Ernie Ford and "Bonaparte's Retreat"

Pop singer Kay Starr, who made successful forays into country music in the early 1950s, died Thursday (Nov. 3) at her home in Los Angeles. She was 94 and had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Starr was born Katherine Starks on July 21, 1922, in Dougherty, Oklahoma. Her family afterward lived in Dallas and then Memphis, Tennessee.

Gifted with a powerful yet intimate voice, she first attracted attention via a talent contest when she was 7. By the time she was 10, she had her own local radio show in Dallas. Her repertoire throughout these early stages of her career leaned heavily toward what was then called “hillbilly” music.

At 15, while living in Memphis, she began singing pop and jazz music with violinist Joe Venuti’s orchestra. She would go on sing, albeit it briefly, with such other high-profile bandleaders as Bob Crosby, Glenn Miller and Charlie Barnet.

In 1947, she signed as a soloist with Capitol Records in Los Angeles. Her first hit for the label came the following year when “You Were Only Foolin’ (While I Was Fallin’ in Love)” went Top 20 on the pop charts.

Her next single, “So Tired,” made it into the Top 10, and the novelty “Hoop De Doo” did even better, rising to No. 2 in 1949.

Turning back to her rural roots, Starr then recorded an uptempo version of the old fiddle tune, “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” to which country artist Pee Wee King had written lyrics. It peaked at No. 4 for her.

In 1950, she teamed up with fellow Capitol artist and future Country Music Hall of Fame member Tennessee Ernie Ford for a series of duet recordings. Two of these — “Ain’t Nobody’s Business but My Own” and “I’ll Never Be Free” — went to No. 5 and No. 2, respectively, on the country charts in late 1950.

Popwise, Starr enjoyed massive hits over the next few years, among them “Wheel of Fortune,” “Side by Side,” “Changing Partners” and “If You Love Me (Really Love Me).”

True to her eclectic approach, Starr even managed to snag a place in the looming rock scene in 1955 with her recording of “Rock and Roll Waltz,” a song about parents trying (with mixed success) to adapt to this new form of music. It went No. 1

Starr continued to record and tour into the 1990s, and in 2001 recorded a duet with Tony Bennett on his album Playin’ With My Friends: Bennett Sings the Blues.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.