by Robert Mailer Anderson, November 9, 2016
As unhip as it may sound — until you really listen to her voice and get past some of the cornier material and arrangements — I confess I was a huge Kay Starr fan. For a long stretch, I listened to her almost as much as Billie Holiday and Miles Davis. She was my favorite B-movie. Much the same way “Breaking Away” remains one of my favorite films, along with more obvious choices like “The Seventh Samurai” and “Citizen Kane.”
My father somehow became slightly obsessed with her (and Betty Carter, along with Nina Peebles “The Handwriting is on the Wall” album, a side note to his collection of country music vinyl purchased at the Value Giant on State Street in Ukiah), and began to bring some re-released albums into our house, along with rarer (but still cheap!) vintage records from the stores on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley (Leopold’s, Rasputin, Universal, Tower Records, etc.). I began to scour the “easy listening” section (and another confession, I love me some Keely Smith too…) for the often misfiled swingin’ jazz, torch singing, lilting, boppy, country crossover woman with the husky voice that could make you cry and then put some glide in your stride because her voice fuckin’ swung! She would often switch those gears mid-song. I’d haunt the aisles looking for rarities at The Record King and Record Factory in San Rafael — eaten up by The Wherehouse — Village Music in Mill Valley, Rainbow Records in Santa Rosa, Penguin records in the Castro, and a home away from home, Tower Records on Columbus in San Francisco. I found a couple of my favorite records on tape for 99¢. Although she had a successful career, she was clearly under-appreciated.
Starting my senior year in high school in Boonville in 1986, I’d put her on the boom box in my green, police-auction, AMC Hornet (I had crashed my ’56 Ford Fairlane with the Alpine stereo a year earlier, totaling the car and then selling the stereo to cover gambling debts…) as I sped around the curvy backwoods roads looking for the kegger or going over the hill to Ukiah (forget The Sound Company, by then the best selection of cassettes was actually at K-Mart!), rushing out to Redwood Valley or through the actual redwoods to the beach in Mendocino, forays to see my family in San Rafael and Berkeley, play hooky in San Francisco (I missed 81 partial or full days of school my senior year alone) and even on the bus headed to knock heads for football games… Who listens to Kay Starr to psyche themselves up for football? Ferdinand the bull?
Kay Starr was in the rotation as much as Elvis Costello’s “King of America” and Miles Davis’s “TuTu,” the “Something Wild” soundtrack, the Beastie Boys, some mixed blues tapes, and yep, Robert Cray’s “Strong Persuader,” and earlier holdovers like The Specials, The Clash, The Blasters, Los Lobos, Patsy Kline, Jimmy Cliff and Tom Waits. Clearly there was other music too, specific to late ’86 (from David and David to Fela to Mantronix and the Housemartins – who may be an inroad to the influence of Kay Starr, as in some ways the bouncy pop of “Get Up Off of Your Knees” or “Sheep” musically could have been in her repertoire? Their parents probably listen to her all the time...) And once, without any music playing at all in the car, my cousin Ben and I synchronistically broke the silence by singing out the same obscure Kay Starr tune at the same place in the song at the same time! Maybe that’s where the song would have been playing if the tape had been on, and we had heard it so many times on the way to Ukiah, that we were conditioned to come in for a chorus at that exact phrase at that exact hairpin curve? “Your castles may crumble that’s fate after all, life’s really funny that way…” I’d also hear Kay sing when my grandfather played the transistor radio in the morning when he made me breakfast before going to school, mostly “Wheel of Fortune” and “Fit As A Fiddle,” before I moved north to my father’s grouphome in Redwood Valley where it was difficult to pull a decent radio signal for the Giants or Warrior games and you had to listen to KUKI, if you wanted any sounds that weren’t half static. She’d show up in movie soundtracks too, “The Right Stuff,” “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” ”Let ’em Have It”…
As a board member of SFJAZZ, I wanted to honor her at our SFJAZZ Center...
Anyway, her passing is a sad one for me. Although her music brought me a lot of comfort and joy, during some long stretches of road and days where I was seriously feeling alone and lacking in romance or anyone who could corroborate how this is such a sad and beautiful world.
If you get a chance, just listen to her version of “Stormy Weather.”
Or please please please check out something I love in that underappreciated category, “I Really Don’t Want to Know” off her “We Three” album, just a guitar and a doo wop group helping to show off Kay’s magnificent voice – think Mills Brothers meet Patsy Cline or a stripped down rendition of Dinah Washington doing “What a Difference a Day Makes,” (or have you heard Dinah do “Cold, Cold Heart?”) and tell me how a displaced person couldn’t help but listen to that strong sexy voice until his bottle of Wild Turkey ran dry — with a heavy heart,
PS. My buddy, Charlie Musselwhite said Kay went to the same high school in Mississippi as he did, though years earlier…
PPS. For full autobiographical disclosure, Prince’s "Sign of the Times” pushed pretty much everything off my ghetto blaster for the last half of my senior year… another hard loss this year for the soundtrack of my life. At least Kay was 94.
PPPS. I had a crush on Myrna Loy at one point too.